Teaching about STDs through comic books

Baltimore Health Department program helps teens create graphic novel addressing sexually transmitted diseases and birth control

August 17, 2014|By Will FespermanThe Baltimore Sun

When eight high school students are commissioned to make a graphic novel about sexual health, don't be surprised if the result includes pet dragons, a troll with genital warts and a guy named Funk Master Flexin'.

These comedic touches appear in a booklet created during a six-week summer program for students at the Baltimore City Health Department that aims to raise awareness about sexual health and the department's relocated young adult center in Druid Hill.

Meeting twice a week beginning July 8, the students were asked to write, photograph, draw, scan and digitally edit three stories about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control, and assemble them in a booklet.

The project was the idea of Catherine Watson, director of adolescent and reproductive health at the Druid Family Health Center. She called graphic novels a new and exciting way for youth to teach their peers.

But Watson said her main goals were to attract students to the relocated Healthy Teens and Young Adults Center at the Health Department's center in Druid Hill and give them a sense of accomplishment.

The project will also make its participants more comfortable with using contraception and getting STD tests, said Brittany Bryan, a Health Department intern who helped facilitate the program.

"The fact that they're telling others to get tested means that, if they have to later in life, they will," she said.

Students began by talking about the social barriers to using contraception and getting tested for STDs, said Molly Farrugia, another program facilitator. The students agreed on what they thought were the three most common barriers: Teenagers think getting tested or using protection is uncool, they are embarrassed to do it, or they think they won't get an STD.

The students then crafted stories that addressed each of these barriers, and photographed themselves acting out the narratives.

Eight students participated "sporadically" in the project, said Farrugia, who was given only a few weeks to organize the program and recruit students. Farrugia said the Health Department hopes to repeat the program next summer and begin advertising it in city public schools much earlier in the year. Printed copies of the booklet will be distributed to each Health Department site, Farrugia said, and she hopes an online version also will be made available.

On Tuesday, Maya Zaeske, 14, a rising freshman at the Baltimore Youth Initiative High School, transformed the photographs into hand-drawn comic book frames, while Liam Kaplan, 14, used Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator to add color, text bubbles and digital effects.

At another table, Natalie Linden, 17, a rising senior at the Friends School of Baltimore, filled condoms with brightly colored Kool Aid, then arranged them to form the letters of the booklet's title.

The booklet will be called, "Flirting, Flexing, and Sexing: Tales of Teens and Other Things," Bryan said. The "flexing" is perhaps a reference to the booklet's ubiquitous Funk Master Flexin', a character who appears in each story under a different guise.

"All I'm sayin' is you could end up more funky than flexin'," a character tells him in one story. "No girl wants a guy with STDs."

Bryan said the students thought that line was "corny."

But Zaeske said people her age are more likely to pay attention to a comic book than a class. "People don't listen as much in sex ed," she said.

Rebecca Yenawine, another facilitator for the project, said teenagers know better than adults how to get the attention of their peers — and that most often, that involves humor.

"That's one of the things that always surprises me, the quirkiness, the humor of the message," said Yenawine who helped students use computer programs to manipulate the photographs and give them a comic book style.

She's worked on similar projects with Baltimore students through New Lens, the Baltimore youth arts nonprofit she started in 2006 at which she helps students produce short films with social-justice messages on topics ranging from employment to criminal justice.

The students working Tuesday afternoon had received different sexual health curricula at their schools. In Zaeske's case, "the closest we ever came to [sex ed] was talking about periods and saying that girls should cover up more," she said.

But when asked whether middle schools should teach more about sex, Zaeske shrugged. "We have the Internet now," she said.

An earlier version misidentified the gender of Maya Zaeske, who is a girl. The Sun regrets the error.

wfesperman@baltsun.com

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