Updated: Jul 19
If you're a teacher of the biological sciences, at some point you will have to cover reproduction. It can get awkward in a hurry, especially if you are new to the profession, but it doesn't have to be a painful experience. Having taught this unit dozens of times over the years, I can share what has worked for me in the hopes of making this unit enjoyable for everyone. It may even come to be one of your favourites!
"...you've got a huge advantage for this topic in that most of your students are actually interested in it..."
Before we get into it, I should add a quick disclaimer. It's not your job to be the health (ie. 'sex-ed') teacher. Sure, you're an expert on biological reproduction, but that doesn't qualify you to give advice to children about their sexual health and well-being. Administrators sometimes need someone to cover this topic and as a biology teacher you are often at the top of their list, but don't agree to take on this role unless you are trained and comfortable to do so. You might have to put your foot down on this one, but I think it's in the best interests of everyone if you stick to the science. That brings me to point #1 on how best to teach reproduction to middle and high school students.
1. Stick to the science
Big surprise, right? It's way too easy for your own biases and opinions to sneak into a lesson, particularly if kids start asking questions (and they will), so always bring it back to biology. That means making sure students know the basics, first and foremost, but don't bore them with ridiculously detailed diagrams and clinical descriptions. Instead, see where your students are at and work on clearing up misconceptions. Many students will know a lot more than you think, but just as many will have wildly inaccurate notions about how sexual (and asexual) reproduction work. You should also insist on using proper biological terms for anatomical structures (expect giggling no matter what).
Thankfully you've got a huge advantage for this topic in that most of your students are actually interested in it - particularly the older ones. Don't make an exciting topic dull!
2. Don't let it get personal
As mentioned above, students are going to have questions. Curiosity is a positive trait and should be encouraged, of course, but don't answer any questions about yourself, and try not to give your opinion on anything. One way to make things easy for yourself is to have an anonymous question box or use a discussion app like Padlet. Students can contribute without embarrassment and you don't have to answer any questions you don't feel comfortable with. Extend the same courtesy to your students and don't single them out or make them share any personal stories.
3. Learn about other species
A lot of kids (and some teachers) find it difficult to talk about human reproduction and human anatomy. That's understandable, but your students should still learn about themselves and how their bodies work. Thankfully, the basics of sexual reproduction are mostly similar across a wide range of mammal species. You can do a compare-and-contrast exercise to explore things like courtship, puberty, sexual dimorphism, gametes, pregnancy, development, and birth in a bunch of different species or groups (including humans) which will be much more interesting and illuminating for students anyway. Jump back and forth between human and animal reproduction as necessary to prevent things from hitting too close to home.
Don't limit yourself to our closest relatives, however. Depending on the scope of your unit, it is well worth investigating reproduction in other groups, such as plants, insects, bacteria, fungi, and so on. Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of various reproductive strategies can really make the overall patterns and goals of reproduction clear to your students.
4. Keep it practical
My goal when teaching human reproduction is always to help students understand how their body works so that they can make good decisions now and in the future. As such, I teach only the bare minimum for anatomy and skim over fairly complicated processes such as meiosis and gamete production. Instead, we spend our time discussing things like puberty, pregnancy, birth control, and sexually transmitted infections. I try to make it as relevant as possible by looking at a lot of case studies. Remember, your goal should not be to scare anyone or pass judgment. You are just providing the knowledge students need to lead a healthy, well-informed life.
5. Let students teach each other
Why should you be the one to lead all these awkward discussions? Instead, put your students in charge of their own learning by assigning them projects or presentations on reproductive topics. These can be as broad or as specific as you like, but I find it works best when you keep the requirements somewhat focused. I typically have students work in small groups of 2-3 to prepare class presentations each year. These are always fun and well-received, but I do have some words of wisdom to prevent things from going off the rails.
First and foremost is to screen the presentations ahead of time. I can't stress that point enough. Do not allow students to present anything that you haven't looked over in detail. It's not worth the risk of letting something inappropriate through, but just as important is preventing any misinformation from being shared with the class. This doesn't have the be a lot of extra work for you. Just ask each group to share their slideshow and script with you a day ahead of time and you should be good to go.
It's also worth your time to communicate with parents and colleagues about your intentions so that there are no surprises or policy infringement issues down the line. I've seen quite a few students get into trouble for supposed 'inappropriate internet searches' when all they were trying to do was research for their presentations. Just send out a quick email at the start of the reproduction unit to let everyone know what's going on and what the expectations are.
6. Be sensitive
Not everyone is excited to learn about reproduction. Teenagers are still figuring themselves out and some of them don't want to hear about it from an adult who might not understand what they're going through. I'm especially sensitive to the female students in the class who might find it uncomfortable to talk about menstruation or pregnancy with their male teachers or classmates, and vice-versa. The same sensitivity extends to students with different cultural and religious backgrounds as well.
I find that older students are far more confident discussing reproduction than younger ones, which is why I save the bulk of these topics for grades 10-12. Sometimes I will segregate groups by gender if I feel like it will be more productive, but this isn't always a great idea as mixed-gender groups sometimes provide a more balanced perspective. Use your own discretion and knowledge of your students to decide. Occasionally you might have a student that is especially shy and unwilling to work with others for this unit. In that case, I would let them work alone or provide an alternative assessment. I don't normally allow this, but you never know what they might be dealing with and how traumatizing it could be for them.
Focus on the big picture instead of getting lost in the details
Use proper terminology and encourage your students to do the same
Meet your students where they are at
Correct misconceptions as they arise
Share strange and unusual facts to maintain interest
Provide a safe environment to ask and answer questions
Explore the reproductive strategies and anatomy of many species
Focus on relevant information that will help your students make smart decisions
Have students work in small groups to research and present to each other
Let the school community know what's going on
Be mindful of various sensitivities
Teaching reproduction can be a challenging but rewarding experience for you and your students. By following the above advice, you can help your students gain a deeper understanding of this fundamental life process and give them the tools they need to make wise choices in school and beyond.
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