The CESJDS Middle School is committed to offering an exceptional program where innovation meets tradition. This past summer our Middle School team took a serious look at our Health and Sex education curriculum. We believed it was time to find new and better ways to engage our students in an important conversation with considerable consequences. We compared old and new curricula, including the Our Whole Lives (OWL) curriculum, attended Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools (AIMS) conferences, conducted literature reviews, and pushed ourselves to understand Health and Sex education within the frameworks of neuroscience and adolescent brain development, human relationships, and communication. This new approach is supported by a recently published compilation on sex education research from Harvard Graduate School of Education. As one of the articles states, Giving students a foundation in relationship-building can enhance wellbeing...pave the way for healthy intimacy...prevent or counter gender stereotyping, and it could minimize instances of sexual harassment and assault in middle and high school.
As we overhauled our curriculum, we remained grounded in four traditional CESJDS values, Kedushah/Holiness and V’Ahavta L’Rei-a-kha/Love your neighbor, which includes the values of B’tzelem Elokim/Each individual is created in the image of God and Derekh Eretz/Ethical decency. While these values have long been part of Jewish tradition, we approached them with fresh eyes. For example, the concept of tzniut/modesty was previously taught as relating only to physical modesty. In the redesign, students examine tzniut/modesty as part of how we view one another and the ability to see all of our relationships within the context of b’tzelem elokim/each person created in the image of God.
More traditional Health and Sex education classes teach basic anatomy of the human body as it relates to sex, and occur in single-gender groups. When presenting the content and concepts in this format, there is no dialogue regarding human relationships and communication. In contrast, our students learn about health and sex education in their Rikuz groups, which are co-ed. Students practice saying uncomfortable words or phrases to one another as they discuss areas ranging from Body Image, Drugs (including Juuling and Vaping) and Alcohol, to Sex and STIs. They engage in exercises where they look at each other and use the vocabulary without euphemisms. Importantly, gender expression and sexual identity are woven through all of the spaces and places of the curriculum.
Focusing on building healthy relationships and communication skills means we talk about consent repeatedly. Though students learn about consent in their sex education class, they are already talking about it in 6th grade as they consider the concept of boundaries and personal space in their Toshba class while learning about values and the construction of a sukkah. We have begun using this new framework to discuss issues that might arise during recess or in the halls. As a result, students are learning both what it means to listen to others and how to understand the role of consent in all settings.
These classes and innovations are not limited to Middle School. They embody two of our goals stated in the CESJDS Portrait of a Graduate: 1) That our students are effective communicators, which includes the ability to listen deeply to others, and 2) that our students are “ethical, responsible, and compassionate global citizens”, which requires empathy and an attentiveness to human relationships. We are proud of our new approach to Health and Sex education as it is both innovative and steeped in Jewish tradition and we are excited to continue refining it.