Health teacher Rachel Erb’s second hour freshman class works together to answer a review question. “We teach things at a level the freshmen will understand,” Erb said. Photo by Emma Peake.
In a world that is constantly evolving it can be hard for everyone to keep up, especially in school curriculum. However, for most classes it is extremely important that the teacher and content keeps up with the student’s needs both mentally and emotionally. Health class is required for all East freshmen and while this class is sometimes overlooked as an uncomfortable rite of passage, it is actually a very necessary course that if done right can provide students with invaluable skills that will help them later on down the road.
As a journalism staff who took health class two, three, or four years ago the staff as a whole wondered how health is addressing relationships, the increase in mental health issues, and the growing LGBTQ community of today. As of 2018 one out of five teens aged 13-18 had a diagnosable mental health disorder, so while the statistics have fallen in an unfortunate direction, health classes have the opportunity to combat this mental health crisis head-on. Kinetic Wellness Department Chair Laura Nussle realizes the pivotal role her classes can have in student’s lives and she and her colleagues do not take their jobs lightly, acting as first responders if a student is going through a difficult time.
Freshman health has units with focuses including eating disorders and body image, mental/emotional health, stress/anger management, and coping with grief, along with other extensive units on physical and sexual health. Upon further investigation, it was pleasantly surprising to see the many changes that the health curriculum has undergone in just the past year. Health teacher Rachel Erb has a passion for teaching health and during this past summer she worked with her fellow health teachers to rewrite the curriculum entirely. Erb said that her and Ashly Cosmano, another health teacher, are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other and trying to make their classes interesting and engaging. Erb also mentioned that she has to keep in mind the stage of life the freshmen are in when preparing her lessons, making sure to make her teaching is age appropriate.
In observing the freshman health classes one would notice that the students’ knowledge of their current lesson far surpassed what one may expect. In teams they reviewed for their test by playing “sperm races,” a class review game that helped the students to remember the stages of the fertilization of an egg. Student’s hands shot up to answer Erb’s questions and they seemed genuinely excited to play the game together.
The innovative and interactive games engage the students while teaching them at the same time, which created a major improvement to the health class environment. Rather than having an atmosphere of awkwardness and a class left silent the students felt comfortable enough to talk about taboo topics like sexual health and reproduction, topics that need to be talked about. Students may feel like these lessons are irrelevant to them at this stage in their life, but they have no idea what challenges or obstacles they will face later in life. Erb’s motto is “The real test is when you walk out the door,” which is more true than students realize.
With fun games and serious discussions the freshmen are being prepared for life beyond high school, but they also learn lessons that they can apply to their lives now. Students learn traditional lessons about nutrition and exercise, but these units have been revamped with new health models such as the six dimensions of health rather than the old “health triangle.”
Students are also being pushed outside of their comfort zones as they dive deep into the “relationships” unit. Mutual ground, a shelter for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, visits the students and teaches them about healthy and unhealthy relationships through scenarios. Students also complete a dating activity in which they create a hypothetical Tinder profile not for themselves, but for the type of person they would want to date. Erb has seen this activity help students to really think about what they want in a future partner, rather than thinking about how they want to display themselves. Students also write love letters to themselves, learning to develop respect for themselves and boost their self-image.
“You can’t have a healthy relationship without knowing what you love about yourself and without knowing what you want in somebody else,” Erb said.
Our health classes seem to be diligently working to help students gain the tools they need to form healthy relationships and make smart choices, but with 1.3 million high school students identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, this meant the curriculum needed to change to lend itself to include those students too.
To make sure all her students feel as comfortable as possible Erb discusses the differences between gender, biological sex, and how you present yourself when covering the reproduction unit. She refers to anatomy as “biological” so as to not make students identifying with another gender feel out of place, and she always tells the students that she is there to talk after class if they ever have more questions. The Kinetic Wellness Department takes notice of what’s going on in the world and recognizes that textbooks just cannot keep up with the ever-changing generations of young people.
The changes taking place in the school’s health classes have taken what was already a great program and made it even better, but as with everything, there is always a possibility to go deeper. At the age of 14, freshmen are still new teenagers which leaves them in a complicated spot. There is so much to be learned in the world of health, with Advanced Health classes covering topics like contraceptives, mental health, and gender-identity in greater detail, but freshmen are not quite at the place in their lives where teachers feel they are ready for the “greater details.”
If health classes were pushed back to sophomore year perhaps students would be more ready to handle deeper topics, but health teachers worry that by then it may be too late. Erb stated that she would love for health classes to be taken sophomore year but she knows that starting off high school with health education helps to lower teen pregnancy and prepare freshmen for what lies ahead.
Trying to be sensitive to all students who have different identities and different lives makes health class a challenging course to teach, but our teachers are doing their best to cover all the important topics while still adhering to the state curriculum and keeping lessons age appropriate.
A new health class curriculum may seem like a small step in a world filled with seemingly unending problems, but those who are looking will truly see the passion our Kinetic Wellness department has to help us students have the best shot at making it through our lives unscathed by the world. With a fresh set of tools under their belts, East’s freshmen are becoming more equipped to face high school and the world, and are hopefully left with a less myopic perspective of those around them. It is encouraging to see curriculum taking a step in the right direction, away from scripted preaching and towards practical lessons that will actually help students in the real world.
While this editorial represents the opinion of the staff as a whole, it was written by Emma Peake. Emma Peake is the editorial writer for Oswego East High School’s news magazine the Howl.