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sex education

Brooke Millman teaches human development and sexual health at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont. The box at right holds students’ anonymous questions.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

At the start of her sexual education classes, Tara Fry sometimes tossed large stuffed toys designed to represent various microbes for sexually transmitted infections.

"The student who 'catches' chlamydia will be asked what she or he knows about it," explains Ms. Fry, an instructor at Banbury Crossroads School in Calgary, a JK-to-12 school where students ranging in academic abilities from average to gifted learn at their own pace. "We have a number of these giant microbes for venereal diseases, so we'll throw syphilis and see who catches it, and then we talk about it."

Ms. Fry's playful, lighthearted approach to sex education is among many examples of how Canada's private schools are teaching their students about the birds and the bees. In virtually any setting, the subject of sex can elicit a wide range of reactions – from discomfort to mockery. It's no different in a classroom, where talk of reproductive body parts and functions is sometimes met with embarrassed giggles or awkward silence.

Even parents of students can feel uneasy about the idea of discussing sex in the classroom, as Ontario saw recently when some parents objected to the province's updated health and physical education sex ed curriculum, the sexual education portion of which now includes gender identity concepts, masturbation, contraception, and anal and oral sex. These and other topics are introduced to students based on the grades they are in.

"I think a lot of times we make assumptions about how much kids know at various ages because they have so much more access to information and are bombarded with images of sexuality," says Katrina Samson, head of school at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont. "When it's done well, sexual health education is a hugely important part of overall health education."

Similarly, at St. John's-Kilmarnock School in Breslau, Ont., which chooses to teach about sex and sexual health, says Jeff Aitken, head of the International Baccalaureate school. "This is about human growth and development, which I consider to be an important part of an IB program or any education," he says.

How schools approach sex education is an important factor that influences how students – and sometimes even their parents – react to the subject, says Nancy Tippin, who teaches health and physical education to elementary students at St. John's-Kilmarnock.

Her own approach uses stories to convey concepts. For example, in one class she read And Tango Makes Three, a children's book about two male penguins who want to adopt an orphaned chick. "It's a relatable story that talks about a different family dynamic," says Ms. Tippin. "It's a very engaging way to get children to understand a particular concept."

Laying down ground rules is important, adds Ms. Tippin. She makes sure students know they can pass on a question they don't feel comfortable answering. "And I remind them that they're not to share personal stories or ask personal questions of me or of other students."

She also tells her students giggling is okay, but laughing at someone who may fumble or saying something awkward in sexual health class is not.

At Banbury Crossroads, Ms. Fry says she would "get all the giggles out" by asking students to brainstorm and shout out every term they can think to describe reproductive organs, sexual intercourse and other facets of sex. "It's no holds barred," says Ms. Fry. "By the time we're done, they're not embarrassed any more."

Sometimes, a little song helped ease any residual embarrassment. "I do have a sexual education song: Bye Bye Miss American Pie, with the lyrics rewritten by a friend to introduce sex education," says Ms. Fry. "When they see me up there embarrassing myself singing this song – and I do admit I'm tone-deaf – it sets the tone for a lighthearted discussion."

Brooke Millman, who teaches human development and sexual health at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., encourages her students to use the question box by handing out blank sheets to everyone at the end of each class.

"I hand out papers to all students regardless of whether or not they have a question, and if they put in a blank sheet that's okay," says Ms. Millman, who is also Appleby College's curriculum chair of health and physical education. "The next day we go through the question box and kids realize that, like them, other kids have questions as well, and that opens doors to even more questions."

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