A How To: Relating and Personalizing your Teaching Examples

Things overheard in the hallway:

I once had a professor compare a biological system process to that of a toilet, and I thought, ‘this needs to be taught correctly.

This is reflective of many professors that I have had: “this subject matter is important and needs to be taken seriously.”  Agreed, agreed, but taking it seriously doesn’t mean taking the fun out of it!

Making relevant comparisons and examples in teaching can be extremely helpful for students to conceptualize topics.  More than just a helpful and fun bonus in a lesson, making these relevant and real-life connections can be the difference between a student understanding the concept or wasting time just hearing (read: in one ear and out the other) a lecture (Newman & Newman, 1975).

Of course, we as aspiring sex educators can comprehend the importance of our subject matter, but some could make the same argument for algebra and history too.  It is important to make lessons relevant and personal, so that the students are engaged and the information sticks. Following are at least two ways to accomplish this.


The importance of framing a lesson to your population is paramount.  I am reminded of a teacher who did a condom line up activity in her after school program with several young black male participants. Though they actively participated in the activity, during the processing portion, one of the boys responded, “Let’s be real Ms., this is what white people do, not us.”

Recent studies have brought light to the emerging disconnect between students’ knowledge and actions; despite knowledge of potential risks of unprotected sexual activity, many youth (and adults) still participate in these potentially harmful behaviors. But why?  Similar to the experience of the students in the excerpt above, many students learn the skills and knowledge about how and when to use a condom. The skills are taught and probably even learned, but the students do not feel that the information is relevant to them.  The withstanding message that individual student in the quote above had previously subscribed to was one that said that white people are the ones who use condoms, not black youth. Thus, the lens through which he received the lesson was one that told him that learning when and how to use a condom wasn’t relevant to him. He has now learned something that doesn’t matter and that he will never use.

What should a teacher do in this situation?  Give up and tell him he is right?  Attempt to reconstruct his entire belief system about sexual practices of white versus black people? Or reframe the information to challenge his belief yet still fit into his worldview? According to Piaget, the latter would be an example of assimilation – “interpreting new experiences in terms of an existing scheme” (Newman & Newman, 2012). In order to do so, the teacher would need to determine what it is about using condoms that the student doesn’t relate to, and frame from there!


According to the 2010 US Census, approximately 36.3% of the population currently belongs to a racial or ethnic minority group, and the number is growing.  Whether the learners are a minority due to race, religion, orientation, ability, etc., much of the sex education curriculum is created by and for the white heterosexual population, creating a vast gap of perceived relevance for the learners.  As teachers, it is our job to ensure that we address these current gaps in our curriculums, to be inclusive and relevant for all students.

Ways to be relevant:

  • Know your classroom demographics
  • Learn about the cultural perspectives of sex and sexuality within these demographics
  • Use inclusive language
  • Remember “cultural generalizations are necessary statements of likelihood and potential, not of certainty” (Storti, 1999, pg.3).


Making a lesson personal for the individuals will build off the relevance of it.  Though the two can go hand in hand, it is often difficult to identify sources of personal examples, so I set out to find some ways and share.


Depending on the age you are teaching, some references may make more sense than others. Using fun websites like CrazyFads or What Happened In My Birth Year, teachers can gathers ideas about where to find movies clips, character references, and important events in history, to help exemplify lessons.  So, if you’re working with a group of 70 year old women on body confidence, reminding them of how sexy they felt in a brand new poodle skirt, http://www.crazyfads.com/50s.htm  might trigger some good feelings, giggles, and fun conversation! 


Though it might not be a source to site when submitting peer-reviewed journals, Urban Dictionary is a helpful resource when trying to figure out “the slang these days.”  Which, by the way, is actually what younger students use – not the clinical terms.  So now, when a student in your healthy relationships course tells you that she’s being call a “thought” by her partner, you will have the resource to find out that she actually said “thot” which is an acronym for “that hoe over there,” and you won’t commit an ultimate faux pas and try to reassure her that her partner was merely “thinking of her.”


Being aware of the current social media trends is a huge advantage, especially when working with the younger populations.  Another quickly-changing category, phone or tablet applications, or “apps,” are used for various purposes.  Being aware which ones your population utilizes most is as simple as checking out the news.  Forbes gives you the up-to-date list of which apps the teens are using.


Popular through the ages, but the trends tend change.  Between streaming the latest mp3 album onto your smartphone, to DVR-ing shows, Netflixing series, or the standard trip to the theatre, pop culture continues to be a major part of people’s everyday lives.  So, what better way to make a personal connection to a lesson topic!  Google “most popular movies/shows of (insert year here)” and http://www.imdb.com/ will show a list of what was being watched and when.  Both Billboard  and Top40Charts will provide you with a list of the most popular songs by year.  And the Top40Charts even breaks it down by country for you!  ABCnews also has a whole list of sex-education specific videos to use.  If your lesson plan for the current college kids calls for dissecting relationship messages in music, you know that they may have been listening to Usher’s Confessions Pt.II during the summer of 2004  and use his lyrics to make them reminisce and think.


And there are plenty more sites and resources out there! Feel free to add-to in the comments!

By using examples that are relevant and personal to your students, you are setting them up for LEARNING.  A great deal of time in the traditional classroom is spent gathering information (taking notes) rather than processing the information and assimilating it (Newman & Newman 1975).  Comprehension involves processing and assimilation and by making connections to students’ already existing constructs and reference point s- be it old music or current TV characters – they are able to assimilate the information, allowing for meaningful learning.



Newman, B. M., & Newman, P. R. (1975). Development through life: a psychosocial approach. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press.

Storti, C. (1999). Figuring foreigners out a practical guide. Yarmouth, Me.: Intercultural Press.

5 responses to “A How To: Relating and Personalizing your Teaching Examples

  1. I work with college students and just interacting with them on a daily basis helps me keep me current, especially if I ask them what they mean by something that is unknown to me. Similar to the “year you were born” site mentioned above, the annual Mindset List released by Beloit College every August serves as an important reminder of the big picture. I love that it was created by faculty members so they can avoid ‘hardening of the references’! https://www.beloit.edu/mindset/

  2. when working with populations of ages that you are not familiar with, it can cause some intimidation. I also would suggest getting advice for people in your life that may be within your audience’s age range. I was add that one should be aware of the current tech lingo of their audience. I will definitely use the what happened in my birth year website, that’s a great resource. Another suggestion for adolescents would be to use lessons out Bill Taverner’s Sex in the digital Age curriculum.

  3. I loved your specific examples and the resources you shared. The condom example was super helpful and I think one that many, many sexuality educators find themselves in.

    Also, I’d never heard of Crazyfads or What Happened in My Birth Year, but I definitely see myself using them. I’ve never been into pop culture at all, and it’s good to know I can have relevant pop culture references without staying immersed in it.

  4. This was a great read. I agree with what you said about age and how some references might not make sense to children. Thank you for providing information pertaining to ‘What happened in my birth year?’. I tried it out with my birth year and was impressed. This site is a great way for teachers and students to connect, especially if the students are from a different generation than the teacher.

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