At a faculty meeting early in my teaching career, our principal announced a new puberty education program to meet state requirements. My colleagues snickered as she handed out the curriculum.
That same night I poured over the curriculum, anxious to take on this new challenge. But it soon became clear to me that the proposed curriculum did not fit my teaching style or my students’ needs. I wanted to make it better. I wanted to make it actually useful. I wanted to make it matter. How could I approach this same material in a way that would honor and engage my students?
The next morning I walked into my principal’s office before she had even hung up her coat.
“I thought I might be hearing from you this morning,” she said with a knowing smile.
“I can’t teach this. May I try creating something else?”
After a slight sigh, she listened to my concerns and agreed to let me try. She gave me two weeks to write my own curriculum. If she did not approve my version, I would be required to teach the original without complaint.
Every day I taught a full course load, and each night I stayed up until 2am researching and writing my new material. I was having a blast.
Computers had not yet made their debut, so I relied on books, articles, and already published curricula. I had a lot to learn. Other than what I had experienced personally, I knew very little about puberty.
As I researched, I gleaned a lot of factual information, but found very little guidance on how to approach actually teaching the material. No existing curriculum went beyond the boys-in-one-room-girls-in-the-other-show-THE-MOVIE-hand-out-deodorant-or-tampon experience. I was disappointed. How could this be?
Here was one of the most relevant, embarrassing, fascinating topics covered in fifth grade and we were still showing “the movie”?
I was feeling discouraged by all these dead ends when I stumbled upon a book called What is Happening to My Body? Book for Girls: A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Daughters in the “Parenting Teens” section of a local bookstore. As I read through it, I knew I had found the resource I needed to create my own compelling curriculum.
I read the book three times. Written for girls seeking real information, the authors shared the real-life experiences of girls going through puberty. The basic principle of their approach was revolutionary: Present facts and emotions with openness and honesty. What a concept!
The authors, Lynda Madaras, and her daughter, Area, presented straightforward and sometimes humorous, but always respectful, explanations of the variety of changes a girl may experience as she goes through puberty. They made the information accessible through simple illustrations and explanations, meanwhile giving girls permission to giggle as they learned. Perfect! In the eyes of a fifth grader, this is pretty silly, gross, crazy stuff! Why pretend that it isn’t?
This was the approach I wanted to take with my students — put it out there, let them giggle, squirm, fidget, and then giggle some more. And then, teach.
I was certain this was the right approach for my students. I knew they were ready to learn about puberty in this transparent and truthful manner, but what about my principal, my colleagues, and the school board? What about the parents? In my curriculum I used terms like penis, vagina, and breasts without apology. I planned to include basic illustrations of reproductive body parts — drawings of the genitals, breasts and unclothed bodies. I knew that my students needed this type of clear information presented in a straightforward way, but I was worried that what I’d created was too much for the system and that it wouldn’t be accepted.
Two days before the deadline, I presented my principal with the new curriculum. (As I stammered a few nervous words, she told me she would read it and give me an answer soon.) Now all I could do was wait.
It was a long four days until I was called to the principal’s office after school.
Convinced that my approach was going to be just too much, I made a mental note to sign out the movie projector for “the movie” and place the order for the students’ “personal hygiene packs”. “Oh well,” I thought, “it was worth a try.” At least I had learned a lot.
“You know this isn’t going to be easy, right?” my principal admitted as I sat down across from her desk. That was the last thing I thought I’d hear! She offered a few minor suggestions and reassured me she would back me up if needed. We talked about the steps I needed to take to get parental approval. I had permission to teach Body Basics to my students!
“Wait, we’re going to learn about puberty with the boys?” gasped the girls.
“Why do we have to learn about…you know…girl stuff?” shuddered the boys.
I just smiled.
The first day of Body Basics, it took the class quite a while to settle down. When they were finally ready, I passed out a book to each student. Everyone sat wide-eyed, staring at the closed book on their desks with the words “Body Basics” printed on the front cover, relieved that the instructions were to not open it.
I walked up to the blackboard and in big white letters I silently wrote the word BREASTS.
The class fell apart. The girls shrieked, the boys turned red with laughter and fell out of their chairs. I just stood there, smiling and observing them. Slowly but surely, the group regained some composure. Eventually, much to the relief of the girls, I erased the board and wrote PENIS in equally large letters. Now the boys were mortified. I waited patiently until there was only mild squirming and an occasional giggle. Then I collected their books and explained that this was the end of class for the day. It was time to get ready to go home.
They were floored. “That was it?” one girl exclaimed. “Wait, I wanna see the next word!”
“That is all for today,” I replied. They thought I had lost my mind. Teaching had never been this fun.
The next day, the kids took their seats quickly and silently, still eyeing the closed book suspiciously.
Up went the words VAGINA, TESTICLES, PUBIC HAIR, PERIOD, SPERM, one after another for the next three days. Each day, the class erupted. Each day, I collected the books and concluded class when the class became calm. By the time I got back around to BREASTS and PENIS a few days later, there were just a few mild snickers.
They were ready.
As I worked my way through the Body Basics lessons plans, boys and girls alike were captivated by the information. Word problems in math calculated the production of sperm. Their spelling and vocabulary tests consisted of reproductive system language. In writing, they documented their personal journeys from the ovary, through the uterine tube, to the uterus. They interviewed their parents about their own experiences with puberty. Most importantly, they asked everyone a lot of questions.
Maintaining the right to giggle, students adjusted to learning about both boy’s and girl’s bodies, with boys and girls present. As the unit drew to a close, some students were relieved, but most didn’t want it to end.
A few years later, I left teaching to focus on my growing family. I missed teaching but my priorities were at home.
One day I received a call from a dear friend saying she wanted her next daughter to experience Body Basics. Her first daughter had gone through the school program and she wanted her younger daughter to have the same opportunity.
“What if I get few moms with girls together and you could teach classes in our homes?” she suggested.
Since 1998, Body Basics and Beyond has grown into an independent program offering current puberty and adolescence education, guidance, and support for youth and their families. We offer classes, workshops, and retreats for girls grades five through eight, classes for boys in 6th/7th grades and in 8th/9th grades, and room for our gender non-conforming students wherever they feel comfortable. Body Basics is now a fixture for all preteens, teens, and their parents within my community.
It has been my life’s work to help youth in my community grow up with confidence and a deep understanding of their body and the changes it will go through. I love working with young people and seeing the difference I make in both their lives and the lives of their parents.
When youth understand how their bodies and minds work and why, they are empowered to become people who lead from this place of wholeness and confidence. I invite you to join me in raising the next generation of adolescence to know that they are resilient, connected and valued.
I look forward to sharing this information with you and your family. Let’s get started.
To read more about Karen, find her story here.