In my last post I talked about the Ontario government’s sudden and unexplained cancellation of the Indigenous education writing teams. This post will express similar dismay in the actions of this very new government, but this is in regard to the repeal of the 2015 Health and Physical Education curriculum.
I don’t know why this curriculum was a target. I honestly don’t. The consultation process was probably the most comprehensive of any modern-day curriculum, with over 4000 parents, over 2000 educators, and hundreds of students included. The Health curriculum update was long overdue. When it came out, I was pleased to see that it addressed current issues such as online behaviour, that it reflected current realities such as LGBTQ2S+ individuals and families, and of course that it dealt directly with the issue of consent. I don’t understand how anyone who had read the curriculum could think it was a bad thing.
But I think that is the key…anyone who has read the curriculum. I think there are a few individuals who have either not read the curriculum or have misinterpreted it and then have used very loud voices to spread misinformation. Some parents have come to me with the following misconceptions (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Teachers will be showing explicit images and (essentially) pornographic instructional videos.
- Teaching kids about being gay or transgender will make them want to try it.
- Children should not know the proper names of body parts or the functions of the reproductive system since that will make them more likely to become sexually active earlier.
Research has told us over and over again that a good Health curriculum actually protects children from being abused and empowers them to say no to any activities that make them feel uncomfortable. It makes them more critical when participating in relationships and more likely to stand up for themselves. (See this summary by Rebecca Ruiz, for example: https://mashable.com/2017/10/25/teach-sex-ed-prevent-sexual-harassment-and-assault/#CA9X0dFDzPqx)
I believe that reading the comments on news articles and seeing the backlash from educators, parents, and professional organizations (see the recent statement from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, for example: https://sogc.org/news-items/index.html?id=217) when the government undertakes the ‘new’ consultation process, 1) They will have a lineup of volunteers willing to participate, and 2) The results will likely be nearly the same. However, right now the Ontario government has decreed that we will be teaching the 1998 curriculum in the fall.
So what do we do now?
First, I want to make it clear to readers and to my staff that inclusivity is protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code (HRC). The HPE curriculum is not the only place we teach about our friends and family members who identify as LGBTQ2S+. My staff continues to receive professional development both internally and within the board so that inclusivity is interwoven into all aspects of our curriculum. We have an excellent Climate For Learning and Working team and a very active Equity and Inclusivity Department full of resource personnel willing to assist our staff in making our classrooms ‘mirrors and windows’ for our students. I have been an administrator in 4 schools and every single one of those schools has had students who identify as LGBTQ2S+, some as young as Kindergarten or Grade 1. When people say that kids are too young to learn about “this type of thing” I respectfully disagree that it is never too early to teach acceptance. We can’t wait to act until someone dies by suicide, or is bullied, or just doesn’t feel like they are ‘normal’. A very wise 10-year old said recently of The Day of Pink (to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying), “The fact we still have to have special days to talk about this stuff means that it’s not seen as normal yet and we have a long way to go.”
We will continue this OHRC-protected work. The removal of these items from the Health curriculum literally does nothing to stop us. Nothing. I want all my LGBTQ2S+ students and families to know unequivocally that they are safe at Sheridan Park. To abandon this work would be to put our children in danger.
The Peel Board has a document called Empowering Modern Learners (see http://www.peelschools.org/aboutus/21stCentury/Pages/default.aspx). Within that document are listed “Access to Technology”, “21st Century Competencies”, and “Learning Culture” as three of the six innovative elements. Teachers are increasingly using digital platforms and tools to facilitate learning. As a part of this process and these innovative elements, teachers explicitly teach and model digital citizenship and have frequent conversations about one’s digital footprint. They talk about the impact of online actions now and in the future. These discussions take place not just in Health class, but in Language, Math, Science, Social Studies, French, the Arts…all classes! Removing the topic from Health formally will not stop these conversations from happening. Whether it is explicitly stated or not within the curriculum documents, our staff know that it is critical to teach our students early and often. A good example of the power of this conversation comes from an experience at a previous school where two students came to me to report something that just didn’t seem right on one of their friend’s Facebook account (this was a few years ago when the kids were still using Facebook!). When we investigated further, we (together with the Peel Police) determined that their friend was the target of Internet luring, and was set to meet the person they thought was a 14-year old boy at a major shopping centre within a few days. The students who had reported it said they remembered what their teacher said about thinking critically about people who contact you online. That lesson might have saved that girl’s life.
So, we will continue the work of digital citizenship because to abandon it would be to put our children in danger.
That leaves consent. I would hope that the concept of consent is taught to children before they even enter school, but I know it is something we work with children to understand right from Kindergarten. In our daily conversations and interactions, we remind children that their bodies are their own and they have a right to speak up if they don’t like what someone is doing to them. I hear educators modelling what to say and facilitating discussions between students if something happens and one of the children is uncomfortable. These conversations happen at recess, during lunch, during class time, and other unstructured times. If this concept is removed from the Health curriculum, we will simply have to step up our conversations in other curricular areas. Positive relationships and the right to say no are an integral focus in our discussions of respect.
Again, we will continue our work in the area of consent because to abandon it would again put our children in danger.
The “sex” part of the curriculum is not very different from the 1998 to 2015 documents. It was and is a relatively small part of the document. I think there are big misconceptions about what is in the curriculum and how it is taught. I want the public to know that if we showed graphic sexual images or instructional videos, we would be disciplined immediately and probably fired. Heck, we get in trouble if we show a PG-13 movie without a warning to families! I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but I just want to make it abundantly clear that educators possess professional judgement and no one in their right mind would show these images in schools. They just wouldn’t.
So my messaging to staff will be to continue to do the work that will keep our kids safe. We are not ‘defying’ anyone by continuing to teach the concepts I have outlined above. It is critical as an equity-focused leader that I send a strong message that the work we are deeply engaged in will continue. With the unwavering and dynamic support of our board, we will continue to create educated and knowledgeable critical thinkers, positive digital citizens, and students who look at the world with an equity lens and who will create the conditions of inclusivity in their lives beyond our walls. I believe my colleagues in surrounding boards will make a similar commitment.