There’s no such thing as the talk anymore. And the awkward puberty book — that’s gone too.
“It has to be an ongoing conversation,” West Tisbury school nurse Kristine Cammorata said. “Whether people want to be having it or not.”
That’s the message behind a new sex education pilot program at the West Tisbury School. Starting this semester, sixth grade students have been participating in a new class that emphasizes normalizing the conversation about sexual health, empowerment and well-being. And the name of the program ushers in this new attitude: Get Real.
The class is taught by Ms. Cammorata, a former Oak Bluffs police officer and registered nurse with the Vineyard Nursing Association, and industrial arts teacher Laura Edelman, who has a master's degree in public health and is a certified health teacher.
In a recent interview with the Gazette, Ms. Edelman, Ms. Cammorata and principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt emphasized the need to open up healthy lines of communication between parents and students.
“The central lesson is, it’s perfectly normal, it teaches tolerance for differences,” Ms. Edelman said.
The weekly class includes a lesson, an in-class activity and a discussion on a range of topics from anatomy to bullying. Students were previously offered a one-time puberty class in fifth grade, followed by sexual health and education woven into a life skills curriculum covered in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Health education is required by state law.
“We’ve always thought it was an important thing to include in the curriculum,” Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said. “This looked like a good program to use to deliver that information. What I liked about it was the parent partnership. It was a selling piece for me.”
Each week students are sent home with assignments to complete with their parents. Participation is encouraged but not mandatory. The program gives “kids and parents tools to not feel weird” and takes “the taboo” out of the subject, Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said.
“It opens up that communication as they get older that is so important to have,” Ms. Cammorata said. “There’s no value teaching with this program. It’s just the facts.”
The semester began in February with a kickoff night for parents and faculty that focused on how to start the conversation with kids. The students were introduced to the program and a letter was sent to parents giving them the opportunity to opt out of the class. Everyone in both sixth grade classes chose to take part in the program.
“The curriculum provides age appropriate and medically accurate information so kids can talk in a way that’s not based on rumors or myths,” Ms. Edelman said.
It also aims to delay the onset of sexual activity.
“The kids are so bombarded with media images about sexuality and what it looks like and what they should be doing,” Ms. Edelman said. “It’s even more important to give them the tools to be able to decipher the messages on their own.”
To encourage questions, students have the opportunity to submit anonymous questions in a sealed box.
“Every week questions are being answered but in a way that’s comfortable,” Ms. Edelman said.
A recent section on male and female anatomy proved to be very quiet, Ms. Cammorata said, but participation is usually active and enthusiastic. “We set up classroom rights and responsibilities and what’s okay and not okay,” she said. “It’s largely about respect. We posted those again and reminded them before we got to the nitty gritty. It’s been so much fun.”
The program will be evaluated at the end of the school year, at which point the administration will decide whether or not to expand the program into the other grades.
For more information on Get Real, visit getrealeducation.org.