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Questionable Sex Ed: What’s being taught in Manitoba’s schools

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-december-january-2014-15/questionable-sex-ed/

Promoting abstinence in sex education is what Candace Maxymowich, a Winnipeg public school board trustee candidate, did during her campaign, before she lost by a wide margin in October’s election. But her discussion on infusing the value of Christian-style abstinence into education begs the question: what are kids learning in sex ed in Winnipeg’s schools, and are they learning anything about same-sex and trans issues?

Among all of Winnipeg’s school divisions—some more progressive when it comes to sex ed than others—curriculum is mandated by the province. The physical education and health curriculum are the sections that apply to sex ed. The province’s website details a framework on how schools are to deal with “potentially sensitive content,” of which sex ed is a part.

Requiring a planning process that includes parental involvement, school divisions make independent decisions about sex ed, including content, how it is taught, how it’s graded and what resources are used to teach it. Not teaching it at all is an option, as the framework gives school divisions the power to decide how much depth and breadth to give the topic. There is also an opt-out for parents who’d like their children to learn the subject by another means if they disagree with what the school’s doing.

Winnipeg’s schools are many, and range from Dakota Collegiate, which is hosting an upcoming national gay-straight alliance conference in May, to others that have faced controversies over Bill 18 and over transgender students.

When it comes to sex education, what is being taught varies widely as well.

“It’s division-to-division on what kind of language they use,” says Roselle Paulsen, program director at Winnipeg’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC). She was consulted on the health curriculum when it was created and published in 2000. “There are different approaches to how people interpret the student learning outcomes. So if you see a word like ‘diversity,’ or those kinds of things, people are going to interpret them differently.”

Paulsen points to a couple of examples in the curriculum. The first, a learning outcome for Grade 7, tells teachers to “identify effects of social influences on sexuality and gender roles.” Topics like violence against women, media ads, gender equity and culture are generally covered under this topic, Paulsen says. But “Somebody who wants to take more latitude could say that when we talk about gender roles we could delve much more deeply into things like gender identity and social morays.”

It’s up to the interpretation of the school divisions. Another example is in grade five where the curriculum talks about celebrating all kinds of families—again open to interpretation. By Grade 9, sexual orientation is named explicitly. Since it’s included, Paulsen says there should be no reason for schools not to talk about same-sex issues within the context of sex ed, although some don’t. “The frustration with this sort of document, is on the one hand, sexuality education within the health curriculum is mandated. On the other hand, the department says, but each division in the province can determine, based on their own community needs, the depth and breadth of what they provide. That’s the problem.”

Vycki Atallah has also seen a wide variation between what is taught in sex ed. As co-ordinator of Klinic Community Health Centre’s Teen Talk program, she’s invited into schools to give sex ed talks when schools want more. “It can really look a lot different in different schools and communities. For some schools and communities, we’re really welcome, and come in, and some classes get multiple workshops from us; and other schools and school divisions simply don’t book us; don’t extend an invitation for us to come into their school.”

Teen Talk approaches sex ed in line with the provincial curriculum, but from an anti-oppressive standpoint, which includes education about healthy relationships, and the range of genders and sexuality. Their workshops make it clear that all types of couples are valued on an equal level and that body parts can belong to people of any gender, says Atallah.

She says Seven Oaks School Division and Winnipeg One are among the most progressive on these fronts she’s worked with.

Anastasia Chipelski, who works with service providers who talk to teens about sex in her capacity as health educator at Nine Circles Community Health Centre, says she doesn’t think the majority of teens are learning their sex education in schools anyway. The teens her clients are in contact with are way ahead of any adults who are teaching them about sex. “Who knows where the teens are learning it from?” she says. “They’re not learning it in schools.” One guess she has is they’re getting information from well-informed peers.

Perhaps one piece of the puzzle is that the curriculum schools are teaching needs updating, says Paulsen. “Everybody agrees that it [does],” she says. “Things have changed a lot.”

“We have a spectrum of how people identify and their attractions, and all of those kinds of things.
If we’re going to be inclusive and comprehensive and provide a safe space for all students, then it is time to be realistic and pragmatic, and let’s not pretend that this isn’t an issue.”

Published in OutWords Magazine, Dec 2014


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

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