50 Years of Sex Education

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Photographer Al FennIn a class at the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale, Dr. David Bedney teaches the basics of human sexuality and reproductive systems to 6th-graders from Limestone Elementary School in Kankakee.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the penis is not a bone,” he says.

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Of course, kids will be kids, and sometimes sex education topics illicit occasional gasps and giggles. But Dr. Bedney says the key to teaching sex ed is establishing comfort and confidence.

“We can have fun, it’s all about having fun. Because when you have fun, they’re going to remember what you talked about. If we’re sitting there boring them, they’re not going to remember. They’re gonna say, ‘man, this is boring, why are we even learning this?’ says Dr. Bedney. “But if they’re having fun, they’re getting up, they’re laughing, they’re joking. And we can joke with them, but we’re joking about a serious topic. They come away and they’ll come away with information, with skills, with the ability to make decisions.”

Teaching students to make well-informed decisions about their bodies has been a cornerstone of the center since its inception. Originally named the Hinsdale Health Museum, the center was founded by Eugene and Virginia Kettering who were committed to teaching students about their bodies and what to expect as they matured.

“Children are risk-takers as they develop, it’s part of their independence, it’s part of their growth,” says Kathleen Burke, CEO of the Robert Crown Center. “If we don’t help them understand what those risks will do to their body, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior. So, if we don’t explain the information in a very concrete way, and we don’t give them something that they’re familiar with, they’re not going to remember.” Photographer Al Fenn

One of only three in the world and a teaching fixture at Robert Crown is the iconic, invisible woman known as Valeda. She recently celebrated her 53rd birthday.

Valeda is one of the center’s unforgettable teaching tools. Made in Germany, she has helped instructors teach generations of Chicago area children about the female body.

“I like having hands-on things,” says Molly Cann, a 6th-grader from Limestone Elementary. “I think that it’s easier for me to think about it more. And I think it’s great to have the examples, and I like it.”

Robert Crown is a 501c3, funded primarily by donations and grants, with a yearly operating budget of about $1.4 million. Students and chaperones pay a $5 admission fee to visit the center in Hinsdale, while teachers are free.

But shrinking budgets and shifts in classroom priorities mean that some schools are choosing to teach health education classes in school, rather than off-site. Something that Burke says pushed the center to initiate an outreach program a decade ago.

Robert Crown instructors like Jaclyn Gill now travel to teach general health classes, sex education classes and drug education and prevention classes in schools.

“The kids still get the same presentation they get at Robert Crown, but we don’t have as many of the bells and whistles, you could say,” says Gill.

Photographer Al FennWhile most of the instruction is geared toward children, Robert Crown also recently launched a new online resource just for parents.

“So, we’ve created what we call the PEP Program,” says Burke. “So, online, we have vignettes, which help parents see what it’s like to start a conversation with their children about sexuality.”

The online videos are aimed at helping parents effectively address issues with their children like puberty, sexuality, and even bullying.

“If you touch on a subject like that, they will say, ‘Oh, no I don’t want to talk to you. You don’t know anything about it,’” says Burke. “But, we all know that kids want to talk to their parents, that’s the number one in any survey that’s been done. Kids want information from their parents.”

The videos have come a long way from the old health class reels of the 50s and 60s, which today seem laughable.

Keeping up with the variety of sources that kids have to learn, accurately or not, about themselves and their bodies has increasingly become a challenge. Health education professionals are being forced to stay on top of pop culture and teen trends to maintain relevancy.

“We have staff members who are more in touch with the youth of today,” says Dr. Bedney. “And they keep us, even with the typical program, some of the dramas that come on, they keep us engaged in those things.”

Jaclyn Gill says part of what she does in the classroom is to pull back the curtain on reality shows and movies, like Juno, that deal with issues like sexuality and teen pregnancy -- but often in incomplete and unrealistic ways.

“They see all of this on TV, but they’re not getting the actual education,” says Gill. “They see what happens when a teenager is a mother, but they don’t learn how the reproductive system works or how this teenager got pregnant in the first place.”

Robert Crown estimates that more than 5 million students have learned from their science-based programs about healthy eating, puberty, human reproduction, and alcohol and drug abuse prevention, reaching more than 90,000 young people annually. And they say their hope is to continue well into the future.

What’s the most awkward conversation you’ve ever had about sex education? Post your comments below or sound off on our discussion board!

For more on the Robert Crown Center, please visit the links below.

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