You may have heard about the revisions to the Physical Health and Education curriculum in Ontario over which there was -- and still is -- considerable controversy. Ontario teachers had been using a curriculum from 1998 until the revisions came out in 2010. Although they were posted on the provincial website, they never saw the light of day primarily because of pushback from fundamentalist groups.
However, in 2015, after ongoing consultations with teachers, health professionals, parents and other interested parties, the curriculum, which included sexual health and personal safety, was finally ready for implementation.
Or was it?
Guidelines are only as good as the lesson plans that give them life in the classroom. And lesson plans must be approved by the local school board.
Recently, an article appeared in the Toronto Star in which I was quoted regarding the way terms for genitals would be discussed in grade one. The headline referred to "sanitized" sex-ed (as if teaching dictionary words for genitals needed cleaning up). The curriculum guideline requires the teacher to "identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology."
So that's what they are teaching, right?
After months of discussion, the school cited in the article ended up offering parents "religious accommodation," allowing their children to opt out of a dictionary word class to attend a euphemism class. The following day I was asked to do five interviews of which I did three (in both official languages). I very publicly said that the school had unwittingly emboldened parents to challenge the curriculum at every level from grade one to grade 12.
It is the children who will pay. Starting in grade one they will lack the basic building blocks of language, the basis of future sexual health education.
Some educators argue that at least these kids will get something. They point out -- and rightly so -- that because there is no real oversight/monitoring over how -- or even whether -- sexual health information is taught, there are likely thousands of school children throughout the province who continue to have little or no sexual health information in the classroom because their teacher just skips that part of the curriculum. I do not agree, but I do commiserate with the principal who over many months tirelessly attempted to change parents' minds.
To teach or not to teach menstruation
The second misstep came from school boards relying on the official lesson plans put out by OPHEA . Puberty is now to be taught across the province starting in grade four rather than waiting for grade five. And a good thing, too, especially given the drop in age of menarche.
But OPHEA has taken menstruation out of the grade four curriculum despite the guideline that stipulates secondary sexual characteristics are to be taught:
"Describe the physical changes that occur in males and females at puberty (e.g., growth of body hair, breast development, changes in voice and body size, production of body odour, skin changes) and the emotional and social impacts that may result from these changes."
The curriculum provides examples, but in no way prohibits teaching the physical change most likely to frighten girls unless they are aware of its approach. Unfortunately, OPHEA interpreted the examples as limitations.
Teachers (and sexual health promoters who often assist teachers with the curriculum) were put in a bind. They were not to teach menstruation; they were not to answer questions about menstruation. A colleague pointed out recently, "There are no age inappropriate questions"; and of course, teachers learn how to answer questions in age appropriate ways.
On the other hand, the OPHEA package contains the following gem:
"People with vaginas should wash their external genital area (vulva) regularly with warm water... Douching (using soaps or water in the inner vagina [sic] is not recommended because it may upset the pH balance of the vagina." (Grade 4 Understanding Changes at Puberty Personal Hygiene.)
So don't teach about menstruation, but introduce the fact that some women douche and it's not a good idea.When contacted by e-mail, an Education Officer in the Ministry of Education noted that
"while the Ministry of Education is responsible for developing curriculum policy, implementation of policy is the responsibility of school boards; and that the curriculum includes 'detailed lists of examples that teachers may (but do not have to) use in the planning instructions for students...'"
One sexual health promoter I spoke to said, "You can't go in and not do your job." So either staff are considered "guests" and dance around the facts; or they do their job. Because, if they can't do their job, what's the point of going into the classroom?
Parents say they want to be the first sexual health educators of their own children, but many shirk this responsibility because of embarrassment or lack of information. That is the reason such a high percentage of Canadian parents support sexual health education in the schools.
"Studies conducted in different parts of Canada have consistently found that over 85 per cent of parents agreed with the statement 'Sexual health education should be provided in the schools.'"
Many grade one children will finish the school year with no dictionary words for their genitals; and some grade four girls will start bleeding from a place in their body for which they either have no name, a family name or, if they are lucky, a dictionary word. Like many of our mothers -- and perhaps many of us as well -- they will think they are hurt or dying.
That is a very big misstep indeed.
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In Grade 1, students should be able to identify body parts, including genitalia like the penis, testicles, vagina, vulva, and use correct terminology.
By Grade 2, students will outline the basic stages of human development, including an infant, child, adolescent, adult, older adult, for example, and related bodily changes. They will also identify factors that are important for healthy growth.
In Grade 3, students will be able to describe how visible differences (like facial features, body size and shape, physical aids or different physical abilities. for example) and invisible differences (like learning abilities, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, for example), make each person unique. Students will also learn ways of showing respect for differences in others.
In Grade 4, students will describe the physical changes that happen during puberty for males and females — the growth of body hair, breast development, changes in voice and body size, production of body odour, and skin changes, for example. They will also learn about the potential emotional and social impact of these changes.
In Grade 5, students will identify the parts of the reproductive system, and describe how the human body changes during puberty. They will expand their vocabulary with words like cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, endometrium, and clitoris, as well as scrotum, urethra, testicles, prostate gland, seminal vesicles, and vas deferens.
Students in the sixth grade will assess the effects of stereotypes — including homophobia and assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations, sexual orientation, gender expression, race, ethnicity or culture, mental health, and abilities, among others. They will also propose appropriate ways of responding to and changing some of these stereotypes.
In Grade 7, students will touch on consent and the importance of having a shared understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity, for example. They will go over genital contact, vaginal or anal intercourse and oral sex (including choosing to abstain from these activities). They will also go over reasons for not engaging in sexual activity and the concept of how consent can be communicated in a relationship. Grade 7 students will also touch on the understanding of physical, emotional, social, and psychological factors that need to be considered when making decisions related to sexual health, including STIs, pregnancy, desire, pleasure, gender identity among others. Students will also delve into areas of cyber-bullying, harassment and behaviours like sexting.
In Grade 8, students learn about all six genders including male, female, two-spirited, transgender, transsexual and intersex. They also cover topics of sexual orientation (heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual). When it comes to sex, students will learn about contraception and condom use for pregnancy, STI prevention, consent, and what it means to be in a healthy sexual relationship. For further development, Grade 8 students will also touch on the benefits or attractions of being in a relationship, along with drawbacks and risks like breaking up.
In Grade 9, students will be able to describe how to prevent unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS. A further understanding of gender identities and issues around stigma, culture, religion, media, stereotypes, homophobia, self-image, and others.
Students should be able to describe factors that influence sexual decision making, including personal values, having limits, peer and family expectations, and myths and norms related to sexual activity or safe sex. Students will demonstrate an understanding of how to use decision-making and communication skills effectively to support choices related to sexual health. Discussions on misconceptions about sexuality in our culture, as well as what it means to be in a exclusive relationship.
Understanding a variety of mental illnesses and addictions including: eating disorders; major depression; anxiety disorders; psychotic disorders, and tobacco, alcohol, drug, gambling, gaming, or Internet addictions. Students in Grade 11 will cover proactive health measures like breast and testicular examinations, Pap tests, regular medical check-ups, stress management techniques, among others.
In addition to cyber-bulling, students in Grade 12 will also cover stalking, sexual assault, abuse within a family, extortion, and workplace harassment, for example. Further discussion on healthy relationships, developing healthy sexual relationships with others, and looking at relationships and stereotypes in the media.
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