Tag Archives: health education

Challenging Simplified Notions of Health Equity in the Middle Grades

Lindsay McQueen, a middle school science educator at Edmunds Middle School, in Burlington VT, originally presented “Challenging Simplified Notions About Health Equity in the Middle Grades” in January 2021. She presented it as part of the 2021 Middle Grades Conference at the University of Vermont.

Below please find a video recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback. Additionally, we present an annotated transcript of this presentation for your use.


Audio-only version


Annotated Transcript

All right. Good morning, everyone. Just to let you know a little bit about me, I am a health educator, middle school, 6th, 7th and 8th grade at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington, VT.

And what I hope to do today is share a little bit of the purpose and background behind my action research project: a health equity unit that I designed and used for the first time this year.

And in that I’m also going to then zoom in on one lesson in particular, just to give you a little bit more sense of that. Then we’ll pause there for some comments and questions. And after that, I’m going to share some initial observations about learning and a few of the projects that students created to give you a sense of what the outcome was.

Designing a health unit around equity

The purpose, really the grounding and the inspiration, was that I had already been dreaming about redesigning a unit in health class, and seeing the work actually that the sixth grade humanities team does at my school.

health equity


The humanities team in 7th and 8th grade was what I went into the Middle Grades Institute (MGI) with last summer. And having a real grounding with the equity literacy framework through Paul Gorski. Between those two, I decided that the purpose here was really to design a new unit that uses equity literacy as the foundation. And also as the umbrella of everything that we do through health class.

I specifically wanted to analyze the extent to which really intentional anti-biased lessons change students’ thinking about the causes of health disparities.

So: looking at health equity and health disparities. What I was hoping learners would take from this was being able to recognize inequities within the different dimensions of health that we look at.

Finally, the actionable part is to advocate for healthy individuals, families, and schools, which is part of the national health education standards. So bringing that in and grounding that all in the equity work.

the health equity rainbow

When I talk about simplified notions of health, I think a lot of what have done over the years in health education is really focused on that second, darker yellow band there around individual behaviors. Diet. Exercise. Addiction. Coping.

So much of traditional health education is around diet and exercise. And talking about prevention of prevention in terms of drugs and alcohol learning, stress management techniques and so on.

It’s always not really sat very well with me because I thought there’s more to this. But how do I get there with middle-schoolers? How do I go beyond thinking that health is all up to them managing their sleep cycles and managing their diet and so on?

And so I use that image of the rainbow as an intro to the unit talking about that band there of individual behaviors and factors. But then I also bring up this larger context of all the other socio-economic and political factors: living and working conditions, the services that go into our understanding of healthy individuals, and healthy communities, and a healthy nation.

This is also called the social determinants of health. And it’s been a hard thing to access with middle-schoolers.  A lot of the reading that I’ve done is even hard for adults to access. Like, it doesn’t even really roll off the tongue very easily.

So I was trying to think of a different way to approach this.

And then these inquiry questions were also what helped ground the unit:

To what extent is health determined by individual choices and behavior?

Factual: What is the difference between health equity and inequity/disparity?

Conceptual: Why do health disparities exist?

Actionable: What is important to teach our community about health and equity?

“Health for All: An Introductory Unit”

So the intro unit is called Health for All. And the overarching question is how much, or to what extent is health determined by individual choices and behaviors?

We started off getting a real understanding of what is the difference between health equity and inequity. I’m trying to get some solid definitions there for disparity, right?

And then this why question — which is often a challenge to do — why do health disparities exist? And taking a look at some of the different reasons, then ending the unit with an actionable piece.

So: what is it that’s important to learners and students to teach our community about health and equity? Making sure that that piece is built in as well.

Here’s the overview of the unit:

Brief overview of health equity unit

I mentioned the definitions, so getting a grounding in what these words even mean in terms of health. A lot of the 7th and 8th graders come into health class with some prior knowledge and learning through the 6th grade humanities program. And it’s a really great way to connect that to a different discipline now.

We watch this short video and really identify that health disparities are avoidable and unjust, and they are differences in health among groups of people.

Then we do a specific lesson called “Unfortunate or Unjust?”

Finally we choose a topic to investigate.

That’s the action piece: creating a public service announcement to inform our community and actually be able to do something to address this.

“Unfortunate or Unjust?”

Okay, so this lesson is inspired by, as I mentioned, the 6th grade team’s lesson called “Unfortunate or Unjust?” The purpose of this was to raise critical consciousness. It’s a series of 10 statements.

And what we do is stand up or sit down based on whether students think the statement is unfortunate or actually unjust. This is also meant to spark interest in what they then want to go and investigate.

Unfortunate or Unjust? 6th grade lesson plan

So here’s one that addresses talking about diet: “My school only serves the kind of fruit I don’t like, so I never eat fruit.”

For the most part, everyone stays seated. Everyone’s sitting in their chair. (This is obviously COVID adapted. Normally we would move around the room, but this is just stand up or sit down.)

We talk a little bit about the fruits that they don’t like, just trying to get some understanding there that that’s just unfortunate. Like, that’s not targeting any particular social identity group. But it might be someone doesn’t eat as much fruit as would be recommended because they don’t like it.

As opposed to the other statement.

“There are up to 10 times more e-cigarette ads or signs in my neighborhood than in other neighborhoods.”

This gives a chance for anyone who’s interested in exploring this topic more, around how big tobacco companies intentionally target youth in marginalized communities through marketing and advertising. Again, part of this is to raise critical consciousness and to also give learners a chance to see what are some different topics that they can then go and investigate.

Students are in many cases able to make the connection to why something is unfortunate.

They are able to identify the social identity group that is being marginalized.

And so then we can go back to the rainbow graphic and say, “This is an example of racism. This is an example of sexism.” Being able to put that in the larger context of that graphic.

Then a lot of the language for middle schoolers too, is to say that health also just depends on where we work, where we live, and where we play. All of those larger society factors that can influence health beyond just our individual behaviors.

Environmental Health & Environmental Justice

One of the topics that that is offered in the investigation is around environmental health and environmental justice.

One of the questions that is unjust or one of the statements that I have in there is: “My community is next to a landfill. And this is the only place that I can live.”

And there was some really interesting conversation among students. It’s not necessarily at that point in time that we say this is definitely unjust, but it allows for the conversation to happen where some say, well, that’s just too bad, but someone has to. Not really understanding how communities are intentionally placed. Not understanding yet that where landfills are built or power stations is intentional.

And so some of that again is just sparking that raising that critical consciousness around what they’re thinking. Why sometimes some of the unjust statements would actually start off as kids thinking that they’re unfortunate.

But what are students interested in investigating?

What areas of health equity are students interested in investigating?


Now, this was a Google form of student interest on which area, which topic they were interested in investigating more. And it’s a lot. There’s a lot there. I was really trying to provide a lot of choice so that everyone felt like they had something that they could access and interact with.

And there were even some topics beyond this that learners came up with. Someone said they wanted to investigate equal pay and the income gap for gender inequities. So we just added those on based on what other interests came up.

From this, I learned a lot about what students were interested in finding out more about.

Clearly the environmental health piece that I had mentioned, and then mental health and the criminal justice system was something that students were very interested in investigating more.

So then what we did was we grounded that in a real understanding of why these health disparities exist.

After that, they had a chance to choose one of those topics and investigate that more and finally create an action piece. We know it’s important is to be able to take action so that students aren’t just left with what they’ve learned about all of these inequities, and a feeling of… now what do we do with it?

Three Examples of Public Service Announcements (PSAs)

Instead, at the end of the unit, what they had a chance to do was create a public service announcement.

These are just three examples from what they did.

Racism & Health Justice Slideshow

Environmental Justice Video PSA
Kindness Kits

“Kindness Kits” are what some seventh graders did to take action, which was of their own initiative.

They were investigating gender inequities and health, in terms of not having access to, or not being able to talk comfortably about, having menstrual pads available at school. So they decided to put together these kits that have pads in them. And they have a note to anyone who needs them. Students really just did this of their own initiative. They ran with it and decided that they want to make these available for anyone at our school to pick up for themselves or for someone else. That’s how they decided to take action in this case.

Sample Takeaways

This is again from a short Google form. Just some things that the students said that they thought was important from their projects.

  • “I would hope that it would help open a conversation about gender equity.”
  • “I hope that from my PSA, people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community will ask for help when needed and can talk to anyone and feel more comfortable around anyone.”
  • “It will help raise awareness to racism because it’s not talked about enough.”
  • “I think the main idea was to educate people on this issue [mental health and the criminal justice system] because it is not talked about enough.”

Helping to raise awareness and helping to open up the conversation that is sometimes uncomfortable and not talked about. That was that was a big piece for them. This is just a sample, but there was a common theme with all the responses to the Google form.

Next Steps

next steps in teaching health equity

So my next steps: I want to be more explicit in tapping into prior knowledge.

I did a lot of listening and observing from lesson to lesson, but I didn’t feel like at the end, I had a real, like, this is before thinking, and this is after thinking that the learners had for themselves.

And so the next time around, I would like to just be really explicit about this is what I used to think, and this is what I now think.

Then I need to be more intentional and explicit and develop my own current courage around talking about individual choice versus systemic oppression in terms of health outcomes. I felt nervous about doing that when we first came back to school in September because of the dual pandemics that we are experiencing.

I wanted to really recognize the tension of students identifying or self-identifying with these social identities. And then the health outcomes that we know exist and not feeling like this is a done deal for me.

So I’m always trying to balance that.

Being able to talk about things that are uncomfortable and also providing that hope, with an eye towards a more equitable future. And I’m certainly finding my co-conspirators at school help to, to have the courage and continue to develop the courage to do that.

Those are the things that I want to keep working on.


Lindsay McQueen’s Slides



The 2021 Middle Grades Conference was made possible by the Middle Grades Collaborative, a combined project of the University of Vermont, St. Michaels College, Castleton University, and Northern Vermont University.

#vted Reads: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads, we are here to talk books for educators, by educators and with educators. Today I’m with Meg Falby and we’ll be talking about two books by Laurie Halse Anderson: Speak, and Speak: The Graphic Novel. We’ll also be mentioning Shout, Laurie Halse Anderson’s memoir in verse.

Lovely listeners of #vted Reads, welcome to another episode.

It is currently the first half of April, 2020, a challenging and re-defining moment for all of us. One that’s unsettling us in ways good and bad — okay mostly bad — but. But.

As we all wrestle with the pandemic and how it’s moving around and through our lives, I’m struck by how much we are all turning to art. We are turning to books and painting and crafting and making and books and music and cooking (did I mention books?),and it’s really reaffirming for a lot of us the vital role art plays in our lives. The ways in which it carries us through dark times and helps pull us toward the light.

Which brings me to this episode.

On today’s episode, I’m joined by Vermont health educator Meg Falby, and we talk about Laurie Halse Anderson’s incomparable books, Speak and Shout. For those of you who are wondering, we talk in the episode about sexual assault and its aftermath. We’re not graphic, but we will talk about emotional impact as it’s portrayed in the books.

While we’re using these books as a platform to examine how educators can talk about consent — living breathing free and thriving consent — this topic might be challenging for some folks, especially the survivors.

We want you, as always, to put your own health first and make an informed decision about listening to the episode. Whatever you decide, we’re proud of you for making it this far, and we hold a space for you to listen, or read, or paint or craft, or sing or …speak.

I’m Jeanie Phillips. I’m awfully glad you’re back for another episode of Vermont Ed Reads, the podcast by with and for Vermont educators.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me Meg, tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Meg: Thank you for having me, this is really exciting! I have been a teacher, this is my 18th year of teaching, a bit of a combination of what we call “family and consumer sciences”. It’s kind of a new age home ec, and my real focus has been on health education.

I started right out of UVM. I got my undergrad in family and consumer sciences education — believe it or not it exists — and I taught in both Barre Town School and Barre City School. Twelve years in and then a  job at U-32 High School opened up, which was really exciting for me because I hold this school in really high regard. And I’ve been here now for six years.

I teach 7th and 8th grade health. I also teach high school health, and that typically is grades 10 to 12. And I teach 8th grade living arts class: sewing, cooking, all that good stuff.

Jeanie: Oh that sounds like so much fun.

Meg: It’s such a fun class! Such a fun class.

Jeanie: I’m really excited to have you on the podcast! I follow you on twitter and I am a fan, but also I just think you’re going to bring a lot to this conversation about these books, so welcome. One of the things I like to ask us right away is: what are you reading? What’s on your bedside table? Because I’m always looking for the next best book to read?

Meg: Well, the number that I came up with was 17? But I think I’m now over 17. I’m one of those people —  at least in the last year — I’ve become “The Collector”. You know how there’s different types of readers? I’m The Collector and I am also a reader that has multiple books going on at one time.

Right now I’m reading this wonderful book called Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality. It’s by Bonnie Rough and she is an incredible writer. You know, to me it’s an adventure story. She and her husband head over to the Netherlands and they bring their children with them. And she talks about just the *vast* difference between the American health/sex ed class and layout versus the Dutch. And it’s riveting.

She’s an incredible writer and there’s so much to it that I go back. I keep going back and back, so the book has literally been on my bedside table for probably six months now. And she just has dropped this little seed of inspiration to do that someday: to take my family and just go to live in Amsterdam and go teach. Or do this amazing research of what it’s like. What we are doing in America, how I am doing as a health educator and what she did.

The other one that I’m reading was actually gifted to me; it was dropped in my mail box here by one of my colleagues at U-32. It’s called How to Break Up With Your Phone. And it hits home so hard that my own self-shame around my screen time usage? Makes me put it down. And then I have to process it and think about it, and come back to it like two weeks later.

Jeanie: These both sound like books I need to add to my to be read pile so thanks for that.

Meg: Of course!

Jeanie: They both sound fascinating and useful.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: Let’s dive in! We have books to talk about.

Meg: We sure do.

Jeanie: Books, plural. I just want our listeners to know that Speak, the original novel — which was published I think 20 years ago in 1999, so 21 years ago (I remember I read it when it came out) and then Speak: The Graphic Novel — which came out just a couple years ago — follow the same storyline. And really the same story told in different formats. They are both beautiful. They’re both really incredible reads.

The original Speak was groundbreaking in that it was one of the early books to talk about sexual assault by an acquaintance for young adults. So many kids have read it. Probably so many of our listeners or adult listeners have also read it. And I just wondered if you might introduce us to the main character in both: Melinda Sordino.

Meg: Sure, so Melinda is 14 and she is on the precipice of high school and a kind of classic 8th grade girl, the excitement of what high school is going to be like… And then she experiences the most traumatic event of her life thus far, in August. And I found myself just rooting so hard for her as a young woman navigating the world of high school.

It’s funny the word, I think, how I would describe her, right? I just thought she’s a *powerhouse* of a human, at age 14. And the journey that Laurie brings us on with her, I find myself rooting for her. But you felt it. You felt the rawness of everything that she was going through, through this insanely traumatizing event that so many people, so many of my students, so many of my friends, and family members have experienced themselves.

…I think of her too, as the classic high school kid: she’s got parents that are fighting, she’s got the annoying teachers that she’s like, “What are you doing with my time, folks? This is my sacred life, I don’t want to be here, you don’t want to be here,” etc etc.

One of her relationships that really hits home is her art teacher, and this relationship that she creates with Mr. Freeman. Where it’s a struggle because art can be a struggle — and should be a struggle —  but she finds that frustration, she kind of meets that frustration, with inspiration from him, and he grounds her in a really deep way. I see Melinda in so many of my students. It’s incredible and that is in one way such a sad, sad thing but it’s also so simultaneously invigorating to know that we as humans, we can get through trauma together. We can do this.

Jeanie: At the beginning of both of the books we know something has happened to Melinda.


Meg: Right.

Jeanie: Slowly the story emerges, through the course of each of the books. And I’ve been thinking about it in a new light, thinking about Melinda; at the very beginning of the book, she has no friends.

She has sort of one friend who’s new, and an ex-friend, right? But she’s really isolated because of the series of events, and sort of the negative publicity she’s gotten because of her actions and — we’re trying not to give spoilers, folks. But she’s feeling really alienated and recently there was an article in The Atlantic that really hit home for me about the importance of friendships in early adolescence.

Meg: Platonic love.

Jeanie: And just *why* they’re so critical to the well-being of young people, and I think as adults we can look and say, “Oh you’re going to be fine! Who needs friends? You’re fine!” but actually kids really need friends. So she’s had this traumatic experience, this traumatic physical experience, traumatic emotional experience and then its compounded by the trauma of feeling completely alienated and unseen in her school.

And so her reaction? Melinda says:

“It’s getting harder to talk. My throat is always sore, my lips raw like I have some kind of spastic laryngitis. I know I’m messed up. I want to confess everything, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to SOMEONE ELSE. There is a beast in my gut, scraping away at the inside of my ribs.”

And then on page 141 in the graphic novel it says:


That connects us very much to the title, Speak, because one thing that Melinda is not doing is talking, talking about it or talking much at all.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: You said you see Melinda in some of your students, and I just wondered if you have any thoughts about her silence.

Meg: It’s so powerful. I think the silence itself represents fear and shame and self-doubt and judgment. I think as a survivor, she maybe uses in her mind “victimization” — she’s been victimized. But really what we see is, she survived this and I think she uses her silence as power. Because without speaking, people don’t know her story; therefore people can’t turn and blame her. There’s so much shame and internal dialogue when one is physically, emotionally, mentally taken advantage of; especially by someone who she “thought” she certainly looked up to and just *adored* as an older person.

I find it so interesting throughout the book who she elected to speak to? And what she elected to say. And how she was very selective in those words. Yeah.

Jeanie: There is a lot going on.

Meg: There is.

Jeanie: She’s reliving her trauma daily in school: because of the way she reacted during the sexual assault, kids got in trouble.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie: People are heaping blame and shame and guilt on her. They ridicule her in school — and then she also has to encounter her rapist at school, on the regular. So in the graphic novel on pages 148 through 151, is one of the times she encounters him and none of the adults even recognize it! Do you want to share anything from those pages?

Meg: I’m going to read.

Heather has another modeling job so I told her I’d hang the posters I made for her. Heather said that people need to see me doing ‘normal’ things around the school so I don’t make them nervous.

And in the graphic novel the artist just shows Andy’s face and his breath on her neck and he says the words, fresh meat.

Speak Laurie Halse

On page 149, in large white lettering it just says, IT FOUND ME.

Like: he’s back. How did he find me? I thought this was just a figment of my imagination. It was a one-time event that I am burying so deep inside my soul, and now he’s here? He’s in the hallways of my school, a place where I’m supposed to be safe and supported and taken care of?

So powerful. Knowing too, that in a building of over 1,000 students — in any high school it could be Vermont, it could be in California — that there are students who have been victimized. There are students who are in fact, survivors. that this very thing happens every day: they’re sitting next to them in math class, they’re in their art class, they’re in their PE class, their locker is four doors down.

Jeanie: I think one of the reasons this book, the original, was so earth-shattering in the young adult literature world was because we still have this notion that a rapist is a dirty old man hiding in a dark alley.

And here in this book, the person who has committed this sexual assault, Andy, is a really popular senior in high school. Girls want to date him. He’s like the life of the party; teachers admire him. So Melinda feels really invisible in her experience, in her lived experience. And also in her whole self. Because she’s not popular; as her friend says, you’ve got to look normal. Nobody knows her story and she’s not popular, she’s an outcast, she dresses in baggy clothes, she’s trying to hide herself.

Meg: Bites her lips, her poor lips. Those raw lips. Grabbing on to anything so that she doesn’t have to speak.

Jeanie: Yes, and so I wondered about, in the work that you do, do you have any thoughts for educators about how they might spot trauma in their students? How do they even recognize, especially, a Melinda who’s trying so hard to fade into the background?

Meg: I’m going to back up a little bit.

Jeanie: Please do.

Meg: Just to say: I’ve been in this gig for 18 years, education. The rise and the fall of what’s trendy, what’s hot, has come and gone, and I think that I want to give a major shoutout to Vermont as a whole state.

But certainly my experience at U-32 — I’ve only been here for six years — but in the last five, I would say we’ve really honored the fact that a child is a whole child, that a student is whole and that doesn’t just mean math scores, and SPARS 360 scores, but that when these humans enter this building they’re coming from a home, they’re coming from a family, they’re coming from an online life, right? An online facade… and I really honor the work that we’ve been doing around social and emotional learning. For me it’s so validating and it’s so solidifying in the work that I do in the health education class because that’s what health education is.

Health education *is* social emotional learning, with some content thrown in, certainly. The fact that I live in a community and teach in a community where we’re honoring that and saying, “Algebra II scores are not going to increase until we talk to these kids about their mental health.” We are not going to have kids reaching for AP classes or we’re not going to have kids passing college prep classes if 17 hours a day out of 24 —  heck 21 hours out of 24 they are wrapped around a fully engaged in how many likes they just got on their Instagram post. Why that person left them on Read on snap chat.

They come into my space; and they come in and maybe I’m playing music and we’ll have like an RP circle prompt that’s kind of funny or I’ll rip a joke or something. That learning objective at the bottom of my board? Where it’s the “I Can” statement? They’re not buying into that. Even in my class. I’m not trying to make myself sound special but when that student is fully engulfed in relieving trauma or processing trauma or dealing with trauma from parents, whether its trauma that their parents have gone through… learning doesn’t happen.

So you have to say, listen learning objectives: I see you, I respect you, I know that this is my occupation and that’s why I’m getting paid, but until you say, we’re going to focus on who we are as humans first.

To get back to the question of how you connect with these students that are our Melindas and our Michaels and our everyone in between? You get to know your kids and that is for some of us easier just based on our personalities, but I think that even watching and working in a high school with physics teachers and art teachers. We’re really supported in the work we do at U-32 to create restorative circles where we start every class, I start every teacher advisory, I start every class. It doesn’t need to be formal.

Like yesterday, with my middle schoolers it was: what’s your favorite flavor ice-cream?

And then I try to write them down. To keep track of *them*, not their answers.

I did ice-cream on Wednesday, so on Thursday I’m going to ask them one of their insecurities — and they *always* have the right to pass. But it’s amazing.

You start off with ice-cream ones, right. You start off with the nice and easy, mild-flavored salsa and then you can get yourself up to questions that really can uncover some of the things that these kids are going through.

Jeanie: So what I’m hearing from you, Meg, and I really want to check, is that: it’s not about spotting individual trauma, it’s about creating spaces that are trauma-informed. That take into account the lived experiences, the emotions, the whole child and all of our students. And that welcomes their whole selves in. It creates levels of support, sort of safety nets, structures through relationships.

Meg: That’s it, it’s all about relationships.

Jeanie: What’s interesting to me is that you sort of mentioned, without all of those relationships and emotional support kids aren’t going to learn. And throughout the graphic novel, Melinda’s report card shows up in various iterations. I’m on page 251,  and it says, “My report card. Student name: Melinda Sordino, Grade 9.

  • Social life: F
  • Lunch: D
  • Clothes: F
  • Spanish: D
  • Algebra: F
  • Social Studies: F
  • Biology: D+
  • English: D+
  • Gym: D+
  • Art: A.”

And there’s so much of what you’ve just said there; like, at the top of her list is really social life, lunch and clothes.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: I suspect that’s a lot for our adolescents. And then at the bottom, the one course she has an A in, the one thing is Art. And she has this relationship with her art teacher. She feels seen by him. She doesn’t tell him her story, he has no idea that she’s been sexually assaulted, but he engages her on who she is on the inside a little bit.

Meg: I think one of the connections with Mr. Freeman, her art teacher, is the fact that she sees him as a human. I think that they have created this safe relationship because she sees him as not just a teacher who comes in at eight in the morning and checks out at three. He’s creating his own art in front of the kids. He’s also ruining his own art in front of the kids, going through the whole process. And I think that’s huge.

I think when we as educators  — with boundaries, clear lines and boundaries, that we are still the teachers —  but when we as teachers can talk about being human, and what that looks like and feels like, before we get to our learning objectives? You’ve got them. You’ve got your audience. Because when they respect you and they know that you’re human, they see it in themselves and then the learning happens.

Its authentic learning. Because when you are authentic with your kids? They are like dogs. They know when we BS, they know when we’re trying to crank through a lesson really quick because we want to check off the box because we need to get the proficiency.

When you step back you say, “I want to do another circle, let’s do another circle, I want to actually get to that.” Or: “We’re not going to get to this today. We’re going to hold off until next class.”

Jeanie: Inviting the full humanity of ourselves and our students.

Meg: That’s it.

Jeanie: It occurs to me, too, that there are two things happening for Melinda in both the graphics novel and the original novel, two barriers that are getting in the way for her to talk about her assault with a friend, with her parents, or with a trusted adult. And I’m curious about you and your expertise around this. One, I’m wondering if a lack of quality sexual education, sex ed, is getting in the way of her even being able to have the language to talk about what happened to her.

And then I’m also really interested in when, if and how we talk about consent.

Meg: *Yes*.

Jeanie: In schools, with our own personal children or with the children we are entrusted with in our settings as educators. So I wondered if you want to speak to either or both of those.

Meg: Sure, I’ll speak to both of them. I’ll start with the first one: did you notice what class was missing on her report card?

Jeanie: Yes. There’s no health.

Meg: And I won’t get on my soapbox and I won’t be the squeaky wheel that I have been for 17+ years, but I think that having a space and a trained, certified professional — just like our English and our math teachers — is very important. To have health educators, from pre-K through graduation.

I am biased and I understand this. But I believe there’s no other space in a student’s day, where you’re just talking about life the whole time. You’re talking about real life scenarios. You’re using case studies, you’re talking about experiences that they’ve maybe previously already had or they will have. Because life in a body encompasses all of health education — it just does.

I say the word “pre-K”, but I’ll tell you as a parent, as a mom to a three-and-a-half-year-old and a six-year-old, the conversation around consent can never happen too early. Ever.

And I think and I try to reframe it as, I call it “everyday consent”: if I want a swig off of your water bottle, I’m not just gonna grab your water bottle. I’m going to say hey Jeanie, can I have a sip of your water? And Jeanie is going to say, Meg no, it’s cold season!

And I’m gonna respect your answer.

Just as if I wanted to copy your math homework and you say: no This concept — and I know someone before me has said these words but the term that I try to live by that I have taught my children and that I teach my students is:

Ask first, and respect the answer.

And you take that into everyday life, around this idea of consent that there’s two people or more people figuring out what works for you, and what doesn’t work for you. I think most of us — and I don’t want to bring gender that much into it — but I think a lot of young women (and women as a whole) are “yessing”. They’re saying yes when they truly don’t mean it. I don’t want to take on writing the front page of the newspaper. I have too much going on with my other classes but you know what, I’m going to say yes, because I don’t want to make too much work for other people. I’m going to say yes so that I don’t let anyone down.

Jeanie: Regular listeners of this podcast and people who know me will not be surprised that I’m going to bring up compliance culture. I’ve been thinking a lot about — and I am not guilt-free in this — I’ve been reflecting a lot on my years as an educator and as a parent, and thinking about the times where for convenience or efficiency, I just needed my son or my students or my to comply. I’ve been thinking about how the persuasion, the pushing for “please just do this it will be easier for all us” is actually teaching the opposite of consent.

And I’m wondering how often in schools we are un-teaching consent in the way that we force for lack of a better word, certain behaviors or decisions on our students. Because usually it’s about time.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie:We feel rushed. Like we have to do a bunch of things and we just don’t have time to get there on your own time. Or it’s about convenience and this notion that — I think I thought this as a new educator — that my classroom should look compliant.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: And so I’ve really just been thinking about the way compliance gets in the way of things. It gets in the way of self-direction but it also gets in the way of understanding that my body is my body and I get to consent or not.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: And that other peoples bodies are their bodies and they get toconsent or not.

Meg: Even as early as two days on the planet.

Jeanie: Yes.

Meg: Talking to our students and modeling us as well, it’s really important that body sovereignty is taught as soon as they are out of the womb. There’s been a lot of press on this, this idea of respecting the fact that little Mera doesn’t need to go give grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunty a hug, if she doesn’t want to. And as the parent of this toddler, preschooler, I need to ensure that they know that she has body sovereignty.

I’ll tell you: just last night, my six-and-a-half-year-old son when I asked him?  I snuggled, and we read. I sang some songs, I tucked him in, and then I asked him, can I give you a kiss? And he said no thanks

And then my heart broke and I cried on the inside, and I gave him a hug, instead. He said, “Hugs and handholds, that’s it. That’s all I want now.” And I’ve gotta talk the talk and walk the walk. It’s got to happen.

Jeanie: I wondered, Meg, if you would share with us any resources or ideas you have about teaching consent? Especially to middle schoolers. And I’m really thinking grade say 4 to 12.

Meg: Absolutely. I was lucky enough, I can’t tell you how many years ago, I was asked to be part of what they’re calling the Vermont Consent campaign.

I wasn’t one of the creators but I was an educator and I was asked to look over this curriculum that could be used. It’s literally called the Vermont Consent Campaign. And one of the pieces that I’ve used, I think, with my 5th and 6th graders,  but piggy-backing on a puberty lesson, once you’ve gone through the basics of hygiene and body growth development, and  kind of checked that box — I would always move into just healthy relationships. Friendships, parent relationships, ‘‘dating relationships’’. One of the definitions on the handout that I’ve given to my students for years now, is that their definition of consent means, quote:

“At the time of the act there are words and physical actions indicating that everyone freely agrees and really wants to do the same thing.”

Checking for consent is a process, that each person needs to keep doing. I’ll bring it back to the water bottle example. If you say no on Monday, I might on Tuesday say, Jeanie how about that water now, I’m still really thirsty! In which I’m going to assume Jeanie is going to say, Meg, it’s time for you to get a water bottle, do you want me to show you where I got mine?

And teaching the fact that, yes people can change their minds at any time. Let’s say you did say yes on Wednesday; it doesn’t mean on Thursday I get to take a swig of your water bottle without asking.

Jeanie: If I handed you my water bottle right now, Meg, (I don’t know where it is but) if I handed it to you and then as you were putting it to your lips I say, “Wait a minute! Didn’t you tell me you have a cold?” and I took it back…

Meg: Yes! Is that consensual? Of course it’s not. Because, as humans, whether you’re a one-year-old or a 112-year-old, you have the human right to change your mind at any time. And one of the things that the Vermont Consent Campaign does so beautifully is they basically lay out these five components, and they say that before you engage in any type of sexual activity, you have to have your partner’s consent.

The five pieces are:

Number one: Sexual consent can only be freely given — keyword *freely* given if there’s a sufficient balance of power in the relationship.

And that brings in the age of consent. We talk about that, we dissect the age of consent is 16, however, in the state of Vermont there is, I call it the high school clause (I could be making that up) but if both partners are between the ages of 15 and 18, they can legally consent any type of sexual activity.

The second piece is that both people–

and wherever I teach this I ask my students to envision a middle school relationship or even like a freshman relationship, okay?

Sexual consent can only be freely given if both people are aware of the consequences of sexual activity, both positive and negative, and they know what will happen next.

Meaning there’s been decisions around protection, there’s been decisions around birth control if someone has a uterus. There’s been a conversation about what type of touch is okay. Both people understand what it means for them to be in a relationship together. And gosh isn’t that really hard to think about a 14-year-old having these conversations!

And what is the difference between a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old mentally, emotionally–

Jeanie: Developmentally.

Meg: Developmentally, yes.

The third piece is: it’s safe to say no.

Consent can only be freely given if it’s safe to say no. If, in the back of anyone’s head there’s that little voice that creeps in and says: gah, but they’re going to post this, they’re going to post something on a group chat about my body or they’re going to tease me or they are going to put pressure on me, everyone is doing it, I told you I loved you — with ANY of those, it still has to be safe to say no.

Number 4: If you say yes, you can change your mind at any time.

You could be intimate. You could sexually be very, very intimate with a person and if your internal working, your gut feeling is that, this isn’t right it has to stop. And your partner has to honor that. Nobody wants to be with another human that doesn’t want them to be there! I’d like to think that. I want to have great faith in humanity.

Jeanie: I’m the mother of a son. And I’m a feminist. And I have spent a lot of time in my now 20 years of motherhood, thinking about the kind of son I want to raise and my values. We’ve talked also in the past, (he’s all grown now, he probably would be modified to hear me talk about this) but enthusiastic consent.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: The importance of enthusiastic consent. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about — a friend drew this to my attention — is the Ted Talk about the gendered way in which we talk about sex with our children.

Meg: Sure.


Jeanie: There’s a tendency to talk to boys about sex in a way that it’s “Pf course, you’re going to want to do this, it’s going to be fun”. But then we talk to girls about it as if it’s not going to be fun.

And so I think that ignores both various kinds of masculinity and femininity, and also so the fact that girls already are given a message that its probably not going to be fun, or that you shouldn’t have fun. Or that you’re a slut if you have fun.

Meg: It’s going to hurt, you’re going to get pregnant, and you’re going to get chlamydia.

Jeanie: Right. That its dangerous for you and that it might not be fun — I think also muddies is the water for experiences of like, “Was I raped? I had never expected it to be fun…” That internal gut feeling that you’re talking about of like, this doesn’t feel right — I think we often give the girls a message that it’s not supposed to feel right.

Meg: Yes.

Jeanie: I think it’s a really important concept to think about, the nuanced ways in which we gender sexual experiences and talk about it differently. Not even “we”, but the media. The stories that are told, widespread about who gets to have fun, who doesn’t, I think muddy the waters for consent just like our lack of understanding, the bits and parts.

Meg: That’s it.

Jeanie: And the whole picture of sex ed.

Meg: To come to full circle of this role of alcohol.

Jeanie:Yes please.

Meg: Talk about muddying the water! And in fact that fifth piece? The 5th component that the Vermont Consent Campaign identifies is:

The only way sexual consent can be freely given is if both parties — all parties — are not under the influence of anything.

If someone is drunk, if someone is high, if someone has popped some pills? That prefrontal cortext of decision-making, it’s not kicked in, right? In particular with alcohol. And so with Melinda chugging down those three beers of which she admitted to hating the taste, but she knew I’m sure, right after that first one went down, she felt the effect of “Wow, this is a little freeing, I feel kind of good!”

Jeanie: Less awkward.

Meg: “I’m not awkward in my skin!” There’s a question for the high school component of the Youth Risk Behavior survey that asks students what percentage of them had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs during their last sexual experience and I’m going to have to go on and get the exact number, but it’s there.

Jeanie: It’s staggering!

Meg: I wouldn’t say staggering,  but it’s a really good place to jumpstart a conversation with students. One of my students said to me years ago, the words “liquid courage”.

And I said tell me more about that without using personal stories.

And he said, “Well, I think we are all just really awkward, Meg, and I think that anything that we can do to just kind of loosen up, and also” —  this is pretty poignant — “anything that we can do to help support the bad decisions that we make later in the night, we’ll take it.”

So this crazy concept of hookup culture and of this one night thing of: “I’m going to get wasted and I’m going to hook up with that rando who is in my Chem Lab, but I’m going to go to that crutch of alcohol and say I was so wasted, when the gossip mill starts. ‘Did you hook up with…?’ I don’t even remember, I was so wasted!”

It’s what some of these students are turning to as an excuse. For Melinda, I think she was using that liquid as a way to just feel “normal” or like, okay for a minute.

Jeanie: Like she fit in.

Meg: Like she fit in. I think the bigger conversation we have to have with our youths is alcohol! And the American culture and what is has done and how it’s just like bread and butter. You go to a party, you eat food and you drink, any adult party, take the ad lessons out of the picture, look at our adult culture and think about how hard it is. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this but how incredibly challenging it is, even as a level-headed adult to say the words “no thank you” even after someone has offered you a glass of wine at a dinner party.

“Oh you’re not drinking? Oh what’s wrong, are you pregnant?”

Like, I’m well adjusted, I’m a health teacher. No thanks, I’m not interested and I’m practicing inter-personal communication, I’m practicing setting boundaries. But what if I was 14-year-old Melinda? Would it be as easy? Of course it wouldn’t! But we don’t accept no; as a culture we hate being turned down.

Jeanie: I think this leads to our next question related to the book. There’s expectations of who we are — I was a nerdy high school kid who didn’t drink in high school and so I had to live with labels like “prude” (and I imagine that probablyisn’tthe word kids use nowadays.)

Meg: Oh they use that word.

Jeanie: You get labeled when you say no thank you.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie: And probably as an adult too: “killjoy”.

Meg: Killjoy, buzz kill.

Jeanie: Now, we talked about Andy Evans, our rapist in the book, he projects one kind of masculinity sort of a dominant kind, the kind we think a lot about.

Meg: Certainly.

Jeanie: But David Patracas offers this much different version of masculinity, and it’s quite this contrast. I know that you run a group for boys to talk about masculinity, and I just wanted to invite you to talk more about that. Because I want us to really think about both masculinity and femininity as a continuum and not even as mutually exclusive but as many ways you can be in the world. So I want to invite your expertise.

Meg: Yes! It’s in its first year, this group is called Nuts and Bolts ( I’m going to give a shoutout to my loving partner and husband for coming up with that creative name!) It originally came from Teen Health Week. And on Sexual Health Day — Teen Health Week is five days long, each day dedicated to different realm of health — one of my colleagues said Hi Meg,  why don’t we offer spaces like just-for-gals, just-for-guys and I think we had “non-binary-pals”. Just to ensure that we are  honor space with an adult where you can just talk about freely what’s going on in the world of being a girl, or in the case of Nuts and Bolts, being a boy and what masculinity means.

It was an incredible response. We had about 25 or 30 boys sign up for the offering.

So, total Peggy Orenstein fangirl. And through reading a lot of Peggy’s work through this Health Week I started to think: we are losing the boys. I’m losing the boys, we need to get the boys. And we need to make a space that we can talk about it all. This group meets twice a month, it’s the first and third Friday of the month, it’s a 45 minutes band of time, I went into it with great detail and I reached out to some of my amazing twitter folks that are out in Chicago and California that are doing the same very work just to not to reinvent the wheel her, but when the rubber actually met the road and I started advertising it to say, hey it’s a callback with Meg. Meg, our female-identified health teacher is going to run a masculinity group!

I reached out to my male teaching partner and reached out to some of my male colleagues. I and said, hi! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I can facilitate a group — and I will ultimately be the fly on the wall — but  a group of young men can create a Q&A session with males in the building to talk about what it’s like to be a man. And to talk about women and what masculinity means to them.

Jeanie: I love this so much. How is it going?

Meg: It’s fluid, like one week I could have eight kids and the next week I could have 20. It’s always this open invitation to say, it works in your schedule, with your call back schedule come in, if you’re not feeling the vibe within the first five minutes then you’re always free to leave.I t’s just that kind of: you’re in control of whether or not you want to be here or not.

And one of the first times we got two really amazing colleagues here at U-32: JB Hilferty and Nick Holquist  JB teaches middle school and social studies and Nick is an English teacher at the high school level, and they created these questions.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

I prepped them to say:

“If you had free reign and were able to ask a group of U-32 teachers, coaches, and staff members anything about masculinity and about being a man, what would you ask them?”

I created this Google Doc, and I sent it to the boys. I wouldn’t say that they *all* wrote back, (they certainly didn’t) but it was really interesting to see what types of boys took the lead. And we had questions like:

  • What were some of the stereotypes that you grew up with about being a man?
  • How has life changed, from being an elementary school boy to a high school young man?

And in this case both of our first interviewees, JB and Nick, talked about being a dad. They talked about getting married and how things changed and shifted for them as they started to put on different hats.

It was so powerful to just watch the boys. They were so engaged, you could hear a pin drop. But the fact thatit’s such a wide range of boys, you’ve got boys that are acting, you have boys that are doing hip-hop classes, you have boys that are playing football, you have boys that identify as gay.

Jeanie: This is bringing me such joy.

Meg: It’s really awesome! It’s really awesome. Let’s take a space to talk about what healthy masculinity can look like.

Jeanie: Yes, you are a wealth of expertise and resources and I know you’ve got a ton of listeners that Meg has provide this huge list of things were going to put in the transcript, so you can follow up and think about how this impacts your work with students, whether you are a health educator or not or whether it’s about your relationship with your own children.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: One last questionI want to ask you before we touch on Shout, which we haven’t discussed at all yet.

Meg: Sure.

Jeanie: How would you use Speak, either the graphic novel or the regular novel, in the classroom?  How might you use it?

Meg: The beauty of it is that it is used in our 9th grade English classes. Students have a choice. And the way that I was involved in this is that the English teachers invited me in. It was one of the first times I had worked collaboratively, kind outside of my health silo, if you will. We didn’t really dig into the book a lot. They asked me to come in and really unpack consent. Because at least in this school, most high school students are in their sophomore year when they take health, sophomore or junior year, and so having the opportunity to go in and talk to a group of freshman about Melinda’s story and Melinda’s rape and the lack there, of consent. And like I had said the life components that we must have and the age of consent — it was just really powerful.

Jeanie: Yes.

Meg: And I think it’s really great for our students to see that there’s so much overlap with so many of our subjects, like I’m in my English class and I’m reading this book , that’s Meg, she’s the health teacher. And I brought it up separately in myown high school class, when we go through the basics of healthy relationships and covering consent: how many of you in 9th grade in your humanity class read Speak? It’s the majority of our students, even if they’ve taken their own time to read it now with the graphic novel, which is so incredible.

Jeanie: I love the graphic novel and I was reluctant because I love the original. Back when I read it it was new. And when I read the graphic novel I was shocked at how it hit me with the same force and power, even though I knew the story.

I think one of the reasons I want to pull in Shout, which we haven’t talked about yet, which is Laurie Halse Anderson’s memoir, written in verse (a book I just adored with all my heart) is that it just came out. What’s important is that Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Speak without ever talking about herself. It took her 20 years to come out and say, actually that book was about my personal lived experience.

It’s a testament to the shame we carry when we are survivors of sexual assault. The way that it’s not always but for many people hard to talk about. We grapple with it for years and years and years.

When the time was right, Laurie was ready to share this and to share her own personal experience through verse. And I think that’s really powerful for kids to see somebody come out the other side and be willing to talk about it, to speak up, to shout about it from this platform.

But also there’s a lot in here about healing. What it looks like to heal from sexual assault. Because Speak is really about the pain of sexual assault.

And in Shout, we really get to see Laurie Halse Anderson share how she got through it in the long run. And I thought I just share one poem from this just gorgeous book, this one is on page 24 and its called “chum”.  I think it’s related to many of the conversations we’ve had.

Speak Laurie Halse Anderson

This really resonated for me.

I think Laurie Halse Anderson and I are not the same age, but I am closer to her age than probably you are. And sort of the culture that I grew up with was: boys will be boys. When I was in middle school I lived really rurally, and I felt very afraid of the young men in my community, in my rural community.

And I went from a free, whirlwind girl who went out on her bike or hiking in the woods with such great freedom in my body to being a little bit afraid and avoiding things that I used to do, because I might run into the neighborhood boys who might ridicule me, who might make me feel threatened. I don’t know if there are pockets of that culture that still exist, but that poem brought back all of those feelings, all of those emotions — those remembrances of staying in the shallow end — back for me and in such a real way. And if I were to use this in the classroom I would be tempted if not to read all of Shout with students, then to at least isolate some poems to compliment speak.

Meg: You’re inspiring me and I will.

Jeanie: You’re inspiring me! We’re having a little mutual appreciation party going on here, and we’re running out of time. I could talk to you for days.

Meg: I agree.

Jeanie: I wish I could! You all should see Meg’s classroom, with the most tremendous ,wonderful picture of Lizzo.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with us, Meg, before we wrap up?

Meg: I just want to thank you. This has been one experience! Thanks for doing this work, thank for finding me on twitter, thanks for the twitterverse.

Jeanie: You’re hard to miss on twitter! Thank you for all you’re doing with students, for all the ways you’re making me think, and for all the resources you’ve shared. It’s been such a delight, I’m so excited about this episode! Thank you Meg!

Meg: It’s been my pleasure, thank you.