Well... This is an incredibly complicated situation: https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2016/05/13/toronto-school-offers-sanitized-sex-ed-amid-parent-concern.html
I want to start off by saying that, in theory, it is good to see that schools are accommodating requests to "tone down" the sex ed curriculum for those who are uncomfortable with it. Ontario prides itself on academic accommodation for various reasons, so it is not at all surprising to see this is happening with the sex ed curriculum.
But, this situation is still troublesome.
Firstly, the language of "sanitized sex-ed" is incredibly problematic. Sanitized implies that the current curriculum is "dirty" and needs to be "cleaned up," which is not the case.
Secondly, who are these accommodations for? Parents. Who are we teaching? Not parents! Many students are curious about the new sex ed curriculum and are eager to learn. Of course, we must respect religious views and personal outlooks, but our curriculum is not offensive - it teaches students information that has been empirically supported (the revised curriculum was developed by experts in the field, including psychologists, experienced teachers and sex educators). Not to mention, a lot of the controversial topics (e.g. gender identity and sexual orientation) is something that is embraced and celebrated in Canada. We have laws protecting folks who identify on any part of the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity, so it is fitting to talk about it with our students - who are not exempt from falling somewhere along the aforementioned spectrum.
Instead of hiding behind the wrath of enraged parents by developing a "sanitized" curriculum, this should be an indication that there is a powerful opportunity to educate parents themselves - not only about the truth of the curriculum, but also the content. Why are parents so afraid to have their child use the word penis and vagina, two anatomically-correct words? That's an important question to ask, and an important conversation to have. When we teach about "private parts" instead of penis, vagina, vulva, etc., students still know exactly what we're talking about (not to mention it is important for them to have the vocabulary to take ownership of their body and seek help if incidents of sexual abuse occur).
“If schools ‘accommodate’ at this early stage in the game, they are setting themselves up for real battles later on, and the only ones who are going to suffer are the kids.”
"I Don't Flush" is a campaign to help create awareness around items that should not be flushed down our toilets (and drains). There are many personal hygiene products that unintentionally (or intentionally!) get flushed down our toilets. Some common products related to sexual health that SHOULD NOT be flushed include:
- Sanitary pads
- Condoms and condom wrappers
- (While not listed on the website), dental dams should not get tossed into toilets!
Share this with your students to create a dialogue on environmentally friendly (well, friendlier) ways to dispose of these aforementioned items. There are also environmentally-conscious items women can use during their period, such as the The DivaCup.
I Don't Flush: http://idontflush.ca/personal-hygiene-products/
I attended a very interesting session today on making university spaces more welcoming and diverse. At the start of the panel discussion, the facilitator said (paraphrased):
We should always strive to create safe(r) spaces for our students - to provide opportunities to engage in discussions on challenging topics. But, sometimes, it isn't possible to create safe(r) spaces when we are talking about certain things, like homophobia, or racism, or sexism, or any other phobias and "isms" that exist. Sometimes we have to create BRAVE spaces. It's okay to not feel comfortable all the time, as long as the conversation is managed and bravery is respected and honoured.
Food for thought of the day.
There has been some push back with the Grade 6 Human Development and Sexual Health curriculum. It is assumed that the topic of "masturbation" is discussed explicitly and even encouraged. This is not the case. The curriculum expectation in Grade 6 reads:
"Describe how they can build confidence and lay a foundation for healthy relationships by acquiring a clearer understanding of the physical, social, and emotional changes that occur during adolescence (e.g., physical: voice changes, skin changes, body growth; social: changing social relationships, increasing influence of peers; emotional: increased intensity of feelings, new interest in relationships with boys or girls, confusion and questions about changes)"
However, there is mention of "masturbation" in the teacher prompt, which acts as a guide to help teachers discuss the mandatory curriculum expectation. The prompt reads:
“Things like wet dreams or vaginal lubrication are normal and happen as a result of physical changes with puberty. Exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating is something that many people do and find pleasurable. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.”
I have my own interpretation of this teacher prompt. Puberty is marked by a (difficult and sometimes uncomfortable) time of change. Body pains and aches may begin, and the body undergoes rapid and unexpected changes. A way in which to better understand one's own body is to physically examine what is changing and how it makes them feel. This prompt is by no means encouraging students to engage in sexual behaviour, but rather acknowledges that it is perfectly normal to do so.
We need to start normalizing sexual health as it is a hugely important part of development and identity.
Best Practice Strategy for Teaching Sex Ed Series!
I am going to be posting different best practice strategies for teaching sex ed over the next few weeks.
Best practice strategy 1: Teacher comfort level
When teachers have more content knowledge about a given topic, in this case sex ed, the more comfortable you will be with the content. Let's use math as an example. If you don't know much about trigonometry, you will feel very nervous if you need to teach it, and as a result your teaching will not be as effective compared to a teacher who knows trigonometry and feels comfortable sharing it. The same applies to sex ed.
When teacher comfort level increases, students notice the shift - the class will be more relaxed and open to conversation. You will be less nervous and more prepared to enter topics you may have originally knew little about (and no one likes to feel under prepared!)
Set a goal for yourself to look up a different sexual health resource every week and build a repertoire of resources you can use to support your own sex ed learning, and in turn help your students!
Two of my personal favourite online resources are Planned Parenthood ("Learn" tab - https://www.plannedparenthood.org/) and SexualityandU (http://www.sexualityandu.ca/). Click on a different topic every week and learn something different about human development and sexual health!
Next best practice strategy will be posted this week.
At the start of each of my workshops, I begin by asking a question: "what does sexual health education mean to you?" Almost consistently, the first couple answers are "puberty" and "STIs" (sexually transmitted infections). These answers are not wrong; in fact, they're very essential components of holistic sexual health education, but these are just two pieces of a much larger puzzle.
There is a push for student-centred learning and critical thinking across North American schools and beyond. As the new school year approaches, I challenge teachers to re-evaluate their pedagogical approaches across all curricular areas, but especially in sexual health education.
Ontario has a new Health and Physical Education curriculum that lends itself to student-centred learning and critical thinking. Historically, sexual health education was very biological- (e.g. reproductive system) and risk-focused (e.g. STIs and unplanned pregnancy). Ontario, as well as other provinces across Canada, have realized that there is more to understanding sexuality and sexual health beyond the biological and risk scopes. But, how do teachers approach the new curriculum when they have spent decades developing lessons based on curricula that don’t go beyond much further than menstrual cycles, puberty, and chlamydia?
Before you implement the new curriculum, ask yourself: What is the purpose of me teaching this? What do I want my students to learn? The core of Health education, overall, is learning to live a healthy life and developing the skills and insight as to how to go about living healthily. Personally, I'm not very concerned with specific details like identifying the exact symptoms for each STI; we are not here to teach students how to be medical doctors and diagnose maladies. We are here to teach them strategies and skills to make healthy and informed choices – instead of memorizing a list of symptoms for STIs, teach students to recognize "if my body doesn't feel right, I have to decide how I am going to handle the situation in a healthy way. Contact my doctor, tell an adult I trust and with which feel comfortable discussing these matters, and be proactive about my health. Also, I need to be responsible enough to take care of my sexual health by regularly getting tested to be proactive about my health since STIs may be asymptomatic” (as per specific expectation C2.3, Grade 11).
We need to help students feel agency, to help them realize that they have the power to make choices. However, teachers have the responsibility to make sure that students are getting the information, resources and tools they need to exercise their agency in a responsible and healthy way.
I was fortunate enough to do a guest lecture for an additional qualification course for Ontario Health and Physical Education teachers, ranging from the primary to the secondary division, last week. One of the workshop participants asked me a really important question:
"Should we be asking parents/guardians for permission to have their child take part in my sexual health unit - whether it is through an email or a permission form?"
Every school has different policies and routines when it comes to preparing both students and their families for the sexual health unit. Regardless, I think it is important to look at this question from a different perspective.
I understand that teachers want to make sure that parents are well informed about what their child is learning in school, especially when it comes to subjects as sensitive as sexual health education. But let me frame this predicament in a different way: would you, as a teacher, send a permission form home before starting a new Math unit? Or a new Language unit? Would you email parents and guardians to ask for permission to teach the ecosystem in Science?
Some may argue that comparing Math, Language or Science to Health (or Human Development and Sexual Health specifically) is like comparing apples to oranges, but I beg to differ. The Ministry of Education spends a lot of resources to develop the most relevant and current curricula for students in Ontario. A lot of time, effort and thought was put into developing the Human Development and Sexual Health strand. As teachers, we have an obligation to follow the curricula.Therefore, we do not have to ask for permission to teach the content we have been provided by the Ministry.
Having said that, there is absolutely nothing wrong sharing ahead of time what your unit will look like. Many experienced and expert teachers I have spoken with tend to do the same thing every year - about two weeks prior to commencing the sexual health unit, they will send an email home outlining the topics that will be covered over the course of the unit, and at the end encourage parents/guardians to email back with any questions or comments they may have. Also, suggest parents/guardians to bring up these topics at home ahead of time to start the conversation about sexual health before it happens in the classroom. That way students, the teacher, and parents/guardians are all on the same page, and hopefully students will be coming to class more prepared ahead of time and ready to learn.
One of the biggest controversies about sexual health education (SHE) at the K-12 level is just that - the fact that it is taught in school. Some claim it's inappropriate - this is not the sort of subject that should be taught in schools. Others think it's up to parents to teach their children SHE. The list goes on.
I'm going to focus on the two aforementioned arguments against SHE at the K-12 level (even though there are plenty of others). Firstly, I personally think that offering SHE at school is one of the most relevant places to offer it. When you go through teachers college or any formal training to become a teacher, we often discuss the concept of the "Whole Student". As teachers, we have the moral obligation to ensure that every aspect of our students is nurtured and supported - this includes their physical, mental, psychological, emotional, social and academic well-being. Sexuality impacts each aspect of students' identity. Physically: one word - puberty. Mentally/psychologically/emotionally: it is very normal for children, as early as pre-school age, to have questions about their sexuality. Kids are curious and develop at different stages, and sexual development has (positive and negative) influences on one's mental, psychological, and emotional states. Socially: A student who identifies as trans, for example, may be faced with transphobia and as a result, would likely experience challenging social conflicts with their peers. Academically: Continuing from the previous example, if the same student is bullied during their transition, their academics will likely suffer because of their emotional distress (related to my previous point) from having a challenging social life, which is a very important part of childhood/adolescence (though it is important to note that there are many other factors that contribute to emotional distress during transitioning). My point here is that sexuality is part of an enormous, complex web that we call Identity, and we cannot selectively choose to ignore one part of our students' identity when it has such a powerful impact on other aspects of their identity and life in general - both inside and outside the classroom.
With regards to parents teaching SHE, Planned Parenthood Toronto - in partnership with other organizations - conducted the Toronto Teen Survey in 2010 (see link/document attached below). This was one of their findings:
That's right, youth (participants were 13-18 years old) were least likely to ask their parents (28%) about sex-related questions. They were more most likely to ask their siblings, call an information line or speak to a semi-professional (55%), followed by friends (53%), professionals (such as doctors and nurses, 43%), and the media (33%). This is not to say that parents should not have any conversations about sexual health with their kids - in fact, SHE is much more effective if parents continue the conversation at home with their kids. Many of the SHE teachers I know often send an email home before their SHE unit outlining the topics they will be covering and encourage families to talk about those subjects before, during and after the unit.
In Ontario, SHE is part of Health and Physical Education. The purpose of Health Education is to help students make healthy choices. It's about giving youth the autonomy and agency to make their own educated and well-informed decisions. We cannot stop development, we cannot ignore questions and hope they go away. Teachers have a responsibility to fulfill, to make sure that their students are healthy in every part of their lives. Sexual health included.
Recently, I was spending time with my six year old cousin who is full of adventure, thought, and imagination. She introduced me to a game that involves moving a toy car around a game board. Of course you need people in a car to drive it, so you can choose a character to be the driver and another character to be the passenger. She told me to choose two characters - one for the driver's seat, and one for the passenger. I took a female character and placed her in the driver's seat, and then I placed a male character in the passenger seat. It wasn't a conscious choice - in fact, I didn't know the characters had sexes until my cousin told me so. But my cousin was quite confused by my placement of the people in the car.
"The boy should drive, not the girl," my cousin said as she promptly switched the two characters in the car.
"Why can't the girl drive?" I asked.
"Because boys are better drivers than girls."
I paused for a moment to try and gather my thoughts - how do I explain gender roles to a six year old? I was also a bit shocked to see gender role stereotypes so prominent at such a young age.
I thought this was an excellent learning opportunity. I first took a humourous approach - I told her that I was a much better driver than most of my guy friends. She was intrigued. I then asked her if she thinks her mom is a good driver, and she said yes. She finally started to realize that girls are good drivers too!
I think that you can approach any topic related to gender, gender roles, sexuality and so on in an age-appropriate way. As long as the conversation is relevant and meaningful, you can make powerful, positive educational experiences that hopefully makes a difference in peoples' lives.