Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to Teach Sixth Grade Health with No Materials, No Curriculum, and No License

This year, I got stuck teaching a sixth grade health class. “But, wait, Miss Eyre,” you might ask, “aren’t you a secondary ELA teacher?” Why, yes, I am. How kind of you to remember. But I got stuck teaching a sixth grade health class. Why? Why not!

New York State is willing to tell your average unlicensed teacher very little about how to teach sixth grade health. You can look here to see exactly how much they tell you, which seems like a lot, but they don’t actually tell you which grade should do what. There isn’t a standardized exam; on one hand, thank God, but on the other hand, at least that gives you some direction.

Perhaps your school has textbooks or workbooks for health? Mine does not. Last year, two different teachers taught this sixth grade health class, both using a fifth grade textbook. Well, it was something, so I borrowed the textbook. I cobbled together a unit on drugs and alcohol, which seemed like an uncontroversial and straightforward way to start the year. Everyone agrees that sixth graders should not drink or do drugs.

Next, I assembled a unit on families and being a responsible family member. We even did a rather timely lesson about a family in which money was tight and the older brother in the family had to give up playing basketball to babysit the younger brother. That unit seemed played out after a month, though.

“Miss Eyre, I’m disappointed in you,” you might interject here. “Even if you are not licensed to teach this grade or this subject, shouldn’t you have mapped out SOME kind of curriculum over the summer?”

Why, yes, that would be the sensible approach to take. Except that I was informed three days before school started that I would be teaching this class. Oops!

In the absence of a textbook or a curriculum, I decided to visit the sixth grade homeroom teachers and ask them what they noticed in their students and what they thought might be helpful or appropriate. “Personal care,” one of them informed me promptly. “They smell.”

All right, I decided, I could teach that. I Googled some stuff, only to find that “personal care” for sixth graders is inextricably entwined with, well, puberty, and puberty is entwined with, well…you know. In my efforts to avoid controversy, I had run up against a brick wall. We have some…sensitive parents at my school, and without written permission to teach their darlings about genitals and so forth, I hesitated. I was told that I would, finally, get a curriculum in the spring, when a young man’s fancy turns to love and the DOE turns to…THE HIV CURRICULUM. [cue ominous music] At this point, the parents would sign permission slips for their little cupcakes to be in, or not be in, the classroom when the squishy bits get mentioned. But until then, I was on my own.

What, then, to do, while the sixth graders became ever more pungent? I thought quickly. I found an “anticipation guide” in the textbook that was G-rated. I excerpted a kid-friendly article online to make it also G-rated. And, because kids are quicker thinkers than we ever give them credit for, I devised a system for asking questions, which I debuted last week.

“Okay,” I said to the sixth graders, “here are some little slips of paper.” [Pass out slips of paper.] “When you complete the anticipation guide, you may find that you have some questions about this word, ‘puberty.’ You can write your question on this paper, and put your name on it. If I think your question is appropriate for class, I’ll answer it in front of the class, but I won’t use your name. If I think it isn’t, I’ll give your question back to you and ask you to talk about it with your family.”

So far it is working pretty well. I’ve already gotten asked “how a man and a woman come together and make a baby,” a question that is definitely more appropriate for “family” discussion. We’ve talked about why rubbing soap under your armpits is not an effective substitute for deodorant. We’ve talked about how to answer your parents when they ask why you are so moody. We’ve carefully defined “puberty,” “hormones,” and “acne.” We’ve talked about why boys start to “see girls differently” in fifth or sixth grade.

I think I’ve safely avoided controversy so far. Time will tell. And I know one thing about teaching sixth grade health, for sure: Avoid teaching it at all costs.