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This startup is redesigning sex education for the Instagram era

Lessonbee’s scenario-based lessons are formatted as text messages between friends, making it part of a new class of tools that try to make health class more applicable for kids today.

This startup is redesigning sex education for the Instagram era
[Image: courtesy of LessonBee]

“At your age, you’re going to have a lot of urges. You’re gonna want to take off your clothes and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you will get chlamydia—and die.”

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This line is famously delivered by the fictional Coach Carr, a gym teacher who teaches health class in the classic 2004 movie Mean Girls. That his scenes are small make them no less iconic of the high school health-class experience. Health class traditionally lacks in its breadth. Schools, wary of the phone calls they will inevitably get for delving too deeply into the mechanisms of orgasm, tend to teach abstinence above all else. There is no discussion of queer sex or queer health. It’s not much better on the nutrition side. Teens and psychologists alike complain that too much focus is put on calorie counting as a way of understanding healthy eating rather than a more complex curriculum on what constitutes a balanced diet.

In contrast to these outdated modes of sex and nutrition education, Lessonbee is health class for the Instagram age. Founded by Reva McPollom in 2016, Lessonbee offers online classes that take broad topics like depression, bullying, sex, anorexia, gender-identity, and nutrition and breaks them down into illustrative stories often told over texts between friends—so often the place teens already go for information. It’s part of a new class of sex-ed and health tools, like Planned Parenthood’s chatbot Roo, that are trying to reach kids where they are. As the burden of teaching this material falls to parents amid the pandemic, online curriculum like this may feel like a lifesaver. McPollom reports that she has seen an uptick in downloads.

[Animation: courtesy of Lessonbee]
Lessonbee uses a diverse cast of characters to teach kids a situation-based health curriculum with real world scenarios that they are actually likely to encounter. Teachers will appreciate that Lessonbee’s 250-odd lessons do the heavy lifting of explaining sensitive material, though they are meant to augment an in-person health class. Lessonbee offers age-appropriate material for kids in kindergarten, who learn more about hygiene, safety, and keeping private parts private, through 12th grade, where lessons focus more on pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. A gender identity class is included for the 5th through 10th grade levels.

In February, Lessonbee became an official supplemental resource for Chicago Public Schools, the country’s third largest school district with more than 600 schools and over 361,000 children. However, any teachers or parents can sign up for Lessonbee’s web application for free online. Each lesson is priced differently, but they are all under $10 if not free.

Reva McPollom [Photo: courtesy of Lessonbee]
McPollom thinks that health class should be more than teaching a set curriculum. It should also teach kids social and emotional skills.

“We give you the opportunity to practice and build skills and in particular to reflect. If you’re going to build skills, you need the opportunity for practice, you need the opportunity for discussion,” says McPollom. “Simply having an opportunity to have discussion around these topics with teachers and students and understand their lived experience—that promotes empathy.”

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In a lesson about reproductive health, a girl named Eva goes through a familiar scenario: She hooked up with her boyfriend and weeks later didn’t get her period. As she explains to her friends over text, they didn’t have sex, but they were naked and he came on her. Could she be pregnant? The caper begins. The friends, like all friends, give bad advice, but they are always corrected by a well-read friend with all the right answers. This friend uses fictional Instagram accounts, WebMD links, and blog posts to give details on what is essentially reproductive health 101. They go into detail about physical anatomy with diagrams and explain functionally how male and female reproductive organs work. The lesson intersperses these text message chains with multiple choices quiz questions that reinforce the lesson and keep it lighthearted. One question reads, “What is the main purpose of the male reproductive system?” One of the answers cheekily states: “To make people worry about getting pregnant lol.”

After these mini lessons within the lesson, the friends get back to the big question at hand: Is Eva pregnant? First, she takes a pregnancy test and finds she’s not pregnant, but this doesn’t really answer all her questions. Why isn’t she getting her period? The answer is that not every woman, particularly adolescent girls, gets her period regularly. The lesson ultimately steers Eva to talk to her school nurse for more information.

The lesson both provides kids with the rudimentary teachings of an ordinary health class and gives them a guidebook for how to navigate the world. In the end, the lesson positions the school nurse as an ally for students (a position supported by the National Association for School Nurses), which is probably not emphasized enough in education. However, the lesson also presumes that students are not being home schooled and that there is a school nurse to go to.

[Animation: courtesy of Lessonbee]
Still, the lesson plans are far more relevant to today’s teens that the average class. A lesson about HIV, for example, not only teaches kids about the virus and how it’s contracted, but it also shows the ways that humans are fallible and what to do when we fail. As in the other lesson-episodes, a reliable all-knowing friend does most of the talking, this time over the course of a normal conversation. A friend has contracted HIV and not everyone knows what that is. The sage friend explains the virus, treatments, and how to prevent it, including taking a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—which the friend advises one should do if the person knows they are going to be in a risky situation.

The lesson also acknowledges that kids make mistakes. The kid who contracted HIV did so while suffering through the breakup blues. In this saddened state he had unprotected sex with a man and contracted HIV. The lesson displays him telling his former partner about his status. The former partner is understanding and asks for information about where she can get tested too.

Importantly, the lesson shows compassion. The kids in these episodes care for each other and share information from vetted information sources like Planned Parenthood, the CDC, and Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. Along with promoting tolerance among friends, Lessonbee teaches kids to know where to look when they have questions.

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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