Frequently Asked Questions about
Teen Talk Middle School
Inquiries from the PAUSD community
Read the open letter from Health Connected's Executive Director, Abi Karlin-Resnick, related to the recent community discussion around Teen Talk Middle School in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD).
To provide additional information and clarity related to our work in PAUSD we have addressed some of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) we've received from the PAUSD community related to the implementation of Teen Talk Middle School (TTMS) in 7th grade classrooms. We hope in addressing the inquiries below, families can gain a clearer understanding of the comprehensive requirements under the California Healthy Youth Act (AB 329), the impact it has on sex ed instruction in California public schools, and the content and nuances of TTMS. We must note how appreciative we are of all of those who have taken time to provide us their meaningful feedback on our program.
Note: All page numbers reference our 2017 TTMS edition, which may differ slightly from previous versions.
Is this a new organization and curriculum?
Health Connected was established as a community coalition of education professionals, health care providers, and social service providers in Redwood City in 1988 and later founded as a direct service nonprofit organization in 1995. Over the course of the last 22 years, we have served roughly 75,000 students in the South Bay and Peninsula.
Through that work in diverse classrooms and communities, we have organically and iteratively developed our Teen Talk Middle School and Teen Talk High School courses. Both were codified into published curricula in 2010 in response to requests from teachers and school districts interested in replicating Health Connected’s comprehensive approach to sexual health education in South San Mateo County. Since then, we have also added Puberty Talk and Teen Talk High School Refresher for pre-adolescents and emerging young adults, respectively, and soon, Teen Talk, Adapted for All Abilities, for students with special needs, to our series of social development and sexual health courses.
All of our courses have been developed and subsequently adapted in response to feedback from school personnel, medical professionals, parents, and students and informed by student responses on the pre and post-surveys we administer in all of our courses. In 2016, representatives from the Department of Education, Department of Public health and adolescent health experts from around the state reviewed 11 middle school and high school sexual health curricula for compliance with the California Healthy Youth Act (AB 329) requirements for sexual health adopted in 2016. We were quite pleased that Teen Talk Middle School and Teen Talk High School had the highest rate of compliance of the 11 reviewed and these were the only curricula that did not require any major modifications. We have already updated our curriculum to address the recommended minor modifications and, for maximum transparency, have posted a detailed explanation of how we integrated all of the recommended modifications on our website at http://www.health-connected.org/curriculum-review.
Where can I review the curriculum?
Typically, before instruction begins, the school district (the entity with which we partner) will have at least one copy available for public viewing by parents/guardians or others who are interested. Currently, we cannot make curricula available online in its entirety for proprietary reasons, however based on feedback from the PAUSD community we are exploring the development of a parent guide to accompany each of our curricula to make course content more accessible to parents. In the meantime, you are also welcome to make an appointment via phone or email to view any of our curricula at our Redwood City office or contact your child's school office.
Something of utmost importance is that Teen Talk Middle School, like other curricula (sex ed or otherwise) is scaffolded, meaning that lessons are built upon one another strategically and if taken out of context of the pages before it or after it, can lose their meaning. To that point, we encourage those who review the curricula to carefully read "objectives" outlined at the start of each session, in addition to notes to the instructor, which all help contextualize lesson goals, discussion questions, and how lessons are approached and delivered. Hopefully, keeping context in mind will help provide reviewers and parents with a more accurate reflection of how materials are presented when facilitated by Health Connected's staff who have experience and training in the sexual health field.
Do you emphasize the role of parents as important messengers to students about sexual health decision-making?
Parents and schools have a common goal for students – to keep them healthy and provide them the tools to grow into responsible, respectful individuals. Health Connected is a partner in the effort and, in fact, depends on parents and trusted adults to have ongoing thoughtful conversations with their students about all types of relationships - with friends, future partners, and adults in their lives. While we can partner with schools to ensure that students receive medically accurate information about health topics and opportunities to practice skills in a peer environment, we look to parents or trusted adults to have conversations with their students about their personal, family, community, and cultural values about health decision-making and to provide an ongoing support system for students as they experience gradually more complex social situations.
Starting on the very first session of all of Health Connected’s courses, we encourage students to talk to their parents about the topics that are covered in the course and to continue that conversation as they grow. To help in this, one of the first activities students are assigned for homework in all of our courses is a “parent interview” – a worksheet with a set of questions for students to ask a parent/trusted adult about sexual health related topics. The interview questions are available for download on our website here so that parents who choose to, can review the questions in advance to prepare their answers. In Teen Talk Middle School, this activity is intended to be a two-day homework assignment.
Throughout the curriculum, parents/trusted adults are reinforced as number one resources for students to seek out should they have questions or encounter unsafe situations. For example, while students are legally entitled to access free and confidential health care for a variety of sensitive services, students are encouraged to speak with their parents about medical questions and decision-making. In another activity, My Super Future, focused on long-term planning, students are asked to identify and draw the trusted adult(s) they can talk to if they have questions.
Why do you keep referring to “trusted adults?” That might suggest that students should seek out other adults rather than parents.
We include the term “trusted adults” when discussing student communication with adults to ensure that ALL students can identify adult allies in their lives, even those students who don’t have an adult or biological parent in their home who they can speak with safely.
Is it age-appropriate to discuss the “three types of sex” with middle school students?
Under CA Education Code Section 51934, any middle school sexual health curriculum must explain all methods of transmission of sexually transmitted infections. Thus, we must provide information about the risks associated with vaginal, oral, and anal sex, all of which are associated with a higher risk of sexually transmitted infection.
In addition, per CA Education Code Section 51933, all sexual health curricula must be inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Last, but certainly not least, we define the term “abstinence” as “not having sex.” Having defined sex as oral, anal, and vaginal sex early on in the course, we have thus also expanded the definition of abstinence to include not engaging in all three of these behaviors to avoid both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Throughout the curriculum, the concept of “not having sex” is emphasized in a variety of ways: as a personal or family value that someone may have, as a choice someone can make at anytime in their life, and as a highly effective way to prevent pregnancy or sexually-transmitted infections.
How are same-sex sexual relationships represented in the TTMS curriculum?
Inclusivity of all sexual orientations and genders is a cornerstone of our curricula and our pedagogy. It is also mandated by the California Healthy Youth Act (AB 329); therefore, any sex ed curriculum that is in compliance with the CA Education Code, should affirmatively depict couples/ individuals of all sexual orientations and those of varied gender identities.
Does Teen Talk Middle School cover sexual violence?
Yes. Not only is this a requirement of the Education Code, it is also a critical element of helping students identify the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Two full sessions of the course are dedicated to healthy relationships and sexual safety. One session helps students identify indicators of healthy and unhealthy relationships. Another session defines sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and sex trafficking. In both of these activities, students are encouraged to consider how they could navigate unhealthy or unsafe situations, how they might help a friend who was in an unsafe or unhealthy relationship, and what resources (including parents/trusted adults) they can access for help in an unsafe or unhealthy relationship or situation.
There are rumors that some TTMS activities include illegal behaviors like underage drinking? Doesn’t this encourage this behavior?
In TTMS, we include a scenario-based additional activity entitled "Are They Really Ready?" to prepare students to respond to sexual situations or problems teens may face, and to explore different ways to problem solve and make decisions (this is stated in detail on page 222). This exercise is a preventive discussion for youth before potentially experiencing similar situations so they can better plan for future decisions.
Students work in groups of 2-4, to critically examine, based on what they’ve learned, if the young people in the “Are They Really Ready?” scenarios were ready or not to have sex and why. These scenarios are rooted in real-life situations that were shared with Health Connected by youth over our two decades of work on the Peninsula. This way, students put knowledge into practice in a safe and facilitated space before they encounter similar situations outside the classroom.
Later, we critically analyze scenarios together as a class, reinforcing that even if someone answered "yes" to all the questions on the worksheet (page 222), each person has the right to decide when they are ready for sexual activity of any kind. Sexual and bodily autonomy are critical themes that run throughout our curriculum.
These scenarios do include some risky behaviors (e.g. underage drinking; non-consensual sex; neglecting to discuss emotions, STIs, and birth control; etc.). However, we also know that some students will be faced with or have already been faced with similar situations. For example, according to kidsdata.org, a highly regarded aggregator of youth-related data, in 2013, nearly 15% of 7th graders in CA stated they had had a drink in the prior 30 days. We want to prepare students beforehand to deal with those situations when and if they ever arise. These scenarios function as a means of highlighting exactly why some of these behaviors are risky, unhealthy, and illegal, and how they can have extremely negative impacts on young people (or anyone).
“Are They Really Ready?” is listed as an "Additional activity" in TTMS. It is used at the discretion of the health educator (often in conjunction with your child's teacher) based on several factors, including but not limited to, the developmental maturity of the classroom served and the needs and values of the community as a whole. Recognizing that this activity in particular seems to be a source of concern for some parents, we will not be including the "Are They Really Ready?" activity in our teaching with PAUSD 7th graders at Jordan Middle School, nor the "Am I Really Ready?" discussion activity. Based on parent and community feedback--which we greatly value in informing our instruction--this decision is in closer alignment with the cultural needs and values of the community, while remaining in compliance with the California Healthy Youth Act.
When will with CA Department of Education provide an approved curriculum for sexual health education for all students in the state?
The CA Department of Education recognizes that every community is different and thus has intentionally not endorsed or promoted one specific curriculum for this instruction. In 2016, representatives from the Department of Education, Department of Public health and adolescent health experts from around the state reviewed 11 middle school and high school sexual health curricula for compliance with the California Healthy Youth Act (AB 329) requirements for sexual health adopted in 2016. They did this to provide detailed feedback to curriculum developers, like us, so that we could ensure we were meeting all requirements in our instruction and teacher training, and also to provide several options to school districts, based on local community needs.
We are extremely proud of the fact that our middle school and high school curricula had the highest rate of compliance of the 11 reviewed and these were the only curricula that did not require any major modifications. We have already updated our curriculum to address the recommended minor modifications and, for maximum transparency, have posted a detailed explanation of how we integrated all of the recommended modifications on our website at http://www.health-connected.org/curriculum-review.
This is very controversial information. There must be very high rates of parents opting out of this instruction.
The California Healthy Youth Act was designed to provide structure and guidance to school districts on human development and sexual health instruction that is consistent with best practices and research in public health. But the law also recognizes the important role parents and trusted adults play in guiding young people through adolescence and the fact that the very presence of this instruction may not be in line with an individual family’s values about these topics. The option to opt-out is incredibly important in providing flexibility to parents to determine if the required content is inconsistent with their values or is not appropriate for their student. While we have found opt-out rates to be extremely low (1%, on average), we are very supportive of families and students who choose to opt-out of the instruction.
While each individual family must make the determination about whether the instruction is consistent with their values, it’s important to know that Teen Talk Middle School has been designed based on our work in classrooms with several thousand kids over the last 22 years. It is compliant with the CA Education Code requirements and aligned with the CA Health Content Standards for Growth, Development, and Sexual Health. We have also aligned all of our courses with the National Sexuality Education Standards, a set of K-12 content guidelines for human growth and social development based on a significant body of research on best practices in the field. We use all of these sources, along with current research in adolescent health, to determine what content to include in each of our courses and how to present that information to different age groups.
The version I reviewed of TTMS says the curriculum is designed for 14-18 year olds; this is too old for middle schoolers.
Health Connected self-publishes all of its instructional materials which allows us maximum flexibility in responding to students' and schools' needs and parent feedback. However, recently it came to our attention that our TTMS 2016 edition, and an early version of the 2017 edition, erroneously states in the Preface that the curriculum is designed for 14-18 year olds. This is incorrect and was an error on our part. Teen Talk Middle School is developed for middle schoolers in 7th and 8th grades who are typically between 12 and 14 years old. As soon as this error was identified, we corrected it for future printings of the 2017 edition of TTMS. We apologize for any confusion.
If my child is not ready or if I feel this material is too mature, what can I do?
Parents may opt their students out of all or part of the instruction, under the Education Code, and we support that personal decision. However, there are challenges with parents opting out of specific topics simply because, as with any sexual health curriculum, the content builds on previous topics as the curriculum progresses and students may ask questions about topics previously covered, which can create more confusion for students who are opted out of specific topics.
Our opt-out rate is incredibly low – 0.74% for the 7,000 students we have taught so far this year. But we are fully supportive of parents who don’t feel the instruction is appropriate for their child for whatever reason – their family or cultural values, student readiness, family trauma, or any number of other reasons. There are resources on our website (http://www.health-connected.org/resources-for-parents) in case parents want to opt out for any reason, but still want to have some resources for how to talk to their kids about these topics.
If you are a parent and choose to have your child participate in our program (s), please know this:
All of our courses have been developed based on 20+ years of work in Peninsula and South Bay schools, combined with legal requirements for sexual health education and state standards, as well as best practices in the adolescent sexual health field.
That combination is what has made us one of the best sexual health curriculum series, not only in California, but in the entire country.
Our post-test data consistently shows that after participating in our courses, students are more knowledgeable about sexual health topics, are more comfortable with talking with a parent or trusted adult, and are more comfortable speaking up for others who are being made fun of than they were before the instruction.