Teaching reproductive health to sixth graders in Phiry

I cannot think of an experience more surreal than being taught reproductive health by a 12 year old schoolchild.

Wait. Let me back up.

Erica Gadzik, our resident reproductive health educator and med student from the University of Washington, has been busy writing a reproductive health curriculum.  Earlier this week we taught it to the promotoras (community health workers) and today we took the show to a 6th grade class in the town of Phiry.  We are well known at the school due to the health campaigns we’ve held there, so on arrival we were greeted by running, jumping, and yelling children, all eager to show that they had remembered our names and that we liked to play futbol.  Our arms full of large anatomically detailed posters, we declined the futbol invitation, tempting as it was, and made our way to our classroom for the day.

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Jose shows his classmates the location of the fallopian tubes.

Beginning with introductions and icebreakers, our class of nine soon warmed up to the admittedly uncomfortable topic and students asked questions easily. We began with puberty: what it is, why we have it, and what we can expect to happen.  As a teaching tip, if your audience is a little shy you can tell an applicable story about your own life, thus both opening the discussion and demonstrating that it is fine to talk about these difficult subjects.  As soon as I shared about my embarrassing changes in voice and distinctly less embarrassing ability to grow a beard, the students’ comments could hardly be stopped.  After answering some remarkably perceptive questions, we moved on to discussing anatomy, menstruation, and pregnancy.  In an anonymous survey that we took before the start of the class, the most frequently asked questions concerned puberty and pregnancy, so we spent much of our time focusing on these topics. We explained how a pregnancy starts, how to prevent pregnancies so that you can choose when to accept the responsibility of having a child, how a mother’s body supports a fetus, and the impressive feat of giving birth.

A student affixes labels to a diagram.
Fiorella affixes labels to a diagram.

We then fielded another round of questions which were again insightful, thoughtful, and searching. How do twins happen? Why do some babies die in utero? How they breathe? Where do birth defects come from? As I answered questions, I reflected on the students’ amazing hunger for knowledge, and how happy I was that we are training our promotoras to provide this information to their communities.  At the end of the day, the students split into groups and practiced teaching subtopics to their classmates.  While at first students seemed embarrassed to be in the front of the class, they soon warmed to the idea and took control of the white board, drawing sperm, eggs, uterine lining, and the previously mysterious origins of twins.

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Students teach back the material they learned. This enables Stewart to check the accuracy of their understanding of it.

The day ended with a discussion of sexually transmitted diseases and a demonstration of how to use a condom.  While the boys have been taught this before, the girls had not and one of their questions at the start of class was “What is a condom?”

The students paid rapt attention to a video depicting the journey from egg and sperm to full fledged baby.
The students paid rapt attention to a video depicting the journey from egg and sperm to baby.

The topic of reproductive health intrigues both schoolchildren and promotoras, since knowledge of this subject is limited in their communities. We are pleased to be addressing this need through promotora training and in-school health education campaigns, and I look forward to more opportunities in the near future.  Stay tuned – we will be busy.

– Written by Stewart Decker

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