"The babies are coming!" Could that be a cry heard in a junior high? Sadly, it could be. Babies ARE having babies. U.S. teenagers have one of the highest pregnancy rates in the developed world -- twice as high as rates found in England, New Zealand, and Canada; three times as high as that in Sweden; and nine times as high as the Dutch rate. According to a Planned Parenthood Fact Sheet, more than 1 million U.S. teenagers -- one in nine women aged 15 to 19 -- become pregnant each year.
"Teen pregnancy is not a lower socioeconomic problem," said Kathy Seeger, a home economics teacher at Slidell (Louisiana) Junior High School. "Nice kids from every socioeconomic group who want to be part of the 'in crowd' get pregnant."
Last year, two young teens at Slidell Junior High got pregnant. "They were straight-A students, scholarship material," said Seeger. "They may still do all right, pull it all together, but it'll be harder now that they have to care for babies."
Many programs exist for building teen awareness of the difficulties of pregnancy and the responsibilities of parenthood, said Seeger. One of the best programs, Baby Think It Over (see a related Education World story), works well to discourage teen pregnancy, but it can be prohibitively expensive for schools -- especially junior-high or middle schools in cash-strapped communities -- to implement.
Unfortunately junior-high students get pregnant too. Many teachers such as Seeger -- who see the need for programs aimed at preventing teen pregnancy -- are experimenting with modified versions of programs that work. What Seeger has developed for her school costs about $5 per student to implement.
"When I first began [the program]," said Seeger, "I had my students make babies out of eggs." Seeger and others who have used egg babies learned that egg babies break, however. Eggs are great for emphasizing the care that babies require but, said Seeger, "I had all these students crying over the broken eggs."
Other problems associated with "egg babies" were revealed on recent postings to a message board populated by middle school teachers. "No eggs!" said one teacher. "The custodians will hate you forever!" Among the alternatives suggested on the list are potato babies or sock babies.
"Next, I tried having my students make the babies out of 5-pound bags of sugar, as the kids in the book Sixth Grade Sugar Babies do,"explained Seeger. "That was better, but I found I had to weigh the sugar babies regularly to make sure students were not siphoning the sugar out and replacing it with stuffing to make the babies lighter!"
Now Seeger gives students the option of using 5-pound bags of sugar, flour, rice, or corn meal. Students encase their sacks in two pairs of pantyhose to make it very hard for them to siphon anything out. They stuff the pantyhose with Styrofoam balls or fiberfill to create a head, and they clip, stuff, and sew the remaining material to create the babies' arms and legs. Different colored hose selected to match skin tones can provide "multicultural babies." Students create their babies' appearances. They add yarn hair or a bonnet; sew on eyes, noses, and mouths; and dress the babies in baby clothes. Students put plenty of effort into creating their babies, frequently choosing to dress them in baby clothes that were once theirs.
Seeger's program, an adaptation of the state's Human Development program, is about much more than babies. The program begins months before the babies are "born"!
The program begins in August, when students return to school, with discussions of teen pregnancy. (That is about nine months before the babies arrive.) Seeger talks with students about dating and summer romances. Students talk about how teens can become carried away and about the options they might consider in difficult romantic situations.
Then, in September, Seeger teaches about changes that might be happening to the body of a young woman who is one month pregnant. That discussion continues during each subsequent month. If a school dance is coming up, Seeger shows the class pictures of how a girl that many months pregnant might look and asks how comfortable she might be at a school dance, sports event, or pep rally.
Seeger also talks about the expense of having a baby, the hospital and doctor costs, maternity and baby clothes, diaper costs, and the cost of the baby furniture parents-to-be need. The discussion turns to the responsibilities of having a baby and how much time and effort it might take to earn the needed money for a baby's care at a minimum wage salary, which is usually the best salary available to students this age.
Two weeks before the babies are "due," Seeger introduces another activity. Students wear their book bags on the front instead of the back to simulate the feeling of being pregnant. They also see films showing kinds of childbirth, including natural childbirth and Cesarean-section. Then they draw slips of paper that tell the sex of their baby and the type of birth. One student might even draw twins. At this point, students have two weeks to create their babies. Nine months after the beginning of school, the babies are "born."
When the babies arrive, each "parent" must take the baby to school and everywhere else people ordinarily take babies. If a parent cannot keep the baby nearby, he or she must swap services or pay a sitter. Students may leave their babies with another person for a maximum of three hours. (To keep the students from playing with the babies during class, which some students tend to do when the babies first arrive, teachers sometimes set up a "playpen" area in a corner of the classroom.)
One week after the babies arrive, Seeger asks students to draw another slip of paper, one with a childhood disease written on it. Students research the disease they select and present their findings to the class. One student will draw SIDS and have to determine the cost of a baby funeral.
"Typically, on the first day students are very excited," explained Seeger. "They love to show off their babies, but by the third or fourth day, students have begun to see just how much responsibility babies are, and they are getting pretty tired of carting their babies around. Students who forget their babies in their lockers or leave them unattended at home might have to write a paper on child abuse and present the findings to the class."
Class discussions now include what life with a real baby might be like. The first day students have the babies, Seeger discusses a baby's first year. She covers the responsibilities of being a parent and has the students calculate the costs of diapers, bottles, baby food, and other needed supplies. The students also discuss the option of breast-feeding.
On the second day the babies are in the students' care, Seeger discusses a baby's second year, and so on. The students care for the "babies" for two weeks or until the babies are the equivalent of the age most of the students are.
"Egg baby" and "flour baby" simulation programs received almost unanimous praise from teachers on recent postings to the Middle-L listserv.
"Our kids had egg babies," said one teacher, who admitted being skeptical about the idea her students suggested at first. "They did a great job and had a powerful learning experience."
Teachers also commented about the wide variety of cross-curriculum extension activities that "egg babies" offer. In one school, students kept a diary of their thoughts and feelings related to their babies. Some students researched current news sources to write reports on child abuse. Others wrote their babies' biographies from birth to age six. In math class, students were challenged to plan a college fund for their babies.
Yes, some teachers felt the egg babies were a bit of a distraction, but many of those teachers set up playpens in their rooms so students could focus on their work. Some schools even offered baby-sitting services in the home economics classroom or in a school day-care center.
Another enthusiastic teacher commented about the need to impart to students the idea that they should postpone parenting until they are mature and ready to support and care for a child. "Any type of parenting project that accomplishes that goal is well worth the effort," she said.
"My students get a lot out of this program," concluded Seeger. "The program might not prevent all junior-high students from having babies, but if you can prevent just one birth, you've done a lot!"
Article by Glori Chaika
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