It is difficult for me to write about the current changes to the Ontario Health curriculum with anything other than fury. Even as far removed as I am from it, as a teacher in British Columbia, my reaction to a reversion to a 1998 health curriculum is visceral; as an elementary teacher who teaches health, it fills me with rage. But rage is, pretty evidently, not a helpful direction in this particular situation, as there is already plenty of it.
The absurdness of throwing out a health curriculum that had been updated and implemented for three years should be obvious, but as it isn't, let's think about the context in which its predecessor, the 1998 Health curriculum, was created. The date is particularly weird to me, as someone who currently teaches grade seven; in 1998, I was in grade seven. This twenty years of separation should be horrifying on its own. In 1998, there was no social media. The internet was only just something that educators were beginning to grapple with. The legalization of same-sex marriage was seven years off. And nowhere in our sex education classes (what little of it there was) was there ever a mention of gender identity. To teach such a curriculum now would ignore vital elements of a student's sexual and social development.
Teachers are not the same as curriculums. While it is frustrating that the 1998 curriculum has held on as long as it has, teachers in Ontario are perfectly capable of supplementing it with current concerns and relevant social issues. Except that now, they aren't, following Doug Ford's announcement of punitive action for those who dare to teach anything other than the inadequate 1998 curriculum. This includes topics such as consent, gender identity, and cyber safety relating to sexuality for students below grade 9.
There are two problems with this logic. One is the content itself, and the other is the contention of the age to which it should be delivered. Let's consider the content first. The opposition to the new curriculum seems to be based on the belief that schools will be indoctrinating students with beliefs that are contrary to those of the parents, regarding consent and gender identity. The counter to this is simple; these lessons are not beliefs, they are facts.
When discussing these issues within my own health class, I do not tell my students what to believe. We discuss what is legal in Canada and the rights that are protected by Canadian law. These are not debatable, and consultation with parents should not remove these anymore than they should remove facts from the Social Studies or Science curriculum. Canada has laws protecting the rights of people of different sexual orientations and genders. Canada has laws around sexual consent. Parents are at liberty to disagree with these laws (because we have laws that protect belief, as well) but removing this information from their children's education could lead to serious harm later in life.
The other often-cited objection is that the matters of gender-identity and consent are not "age-appropriate," a phrase that mirrors the 1998 curriculum's expectation that "students will describe age-appropriate matters related to sexuality." Again, the counter to this is straightforward: "age-appropriate" in 2018 is not the same as "age-appropriate" in 1998. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn't, and pretending that children in elementary school are not exposed to a vast array of sexual content is wishful thinking. They are, and if their only education in sexual health is via the internet or their friends, it will set them up for a deeply confusing, frustrating, and potentially dangerous adulthood.
All of this is without even addressing the vastly positive results that I have witnessed in teaching an extended, comprehensive sexual health class. I have seen students come alive at the mere possibility that the feelings they have for the same-sex are considered okay. I have been privileged to watch students able to discuss their mental health anxieties in front of their peers, and realize, to their relief, that they are not alone. And I have seen male and female students express empathy and concern for the differing experiences of the opposite sex as they move through puberty. These students are 11, 12, and 13 years old, and these issues desperately matter to them.
What is age-appropriate for our students today, and for the students of Ontario, has to reflect their experiences and their context, which are radically different from mine, twenty years ago, in 1998. In their empathy and their curiosity about themselves and each other, these changes are often for the better.
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.