Musings on what a forced return to an old curriculum means for teachers

If you live in Ontario, you have probably heard by now that the provincial government announced a litany of education-related edicts yesterday. Among them was a warning to teachers: “We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games. And, make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act.”

Yesterday, I went on a Twitter spree, live-tweeting an analysis of the re-issued 2010 curriculum document for grades 1 to 8 (Notably, they haven’t replaced the document for grades 9-12). My tweet thread is here, if you want to wade through it, but I warn you, it’s pretty excessive. I’m going to try to break it down to a much more manageable piece of writing as a way to support teachers on the ground, afraid of what all this means.

PLEASE NOTE: I AM NOT A LEGAL SCHOLAR. I AM NOT GIVING ADVICE. I AM A POLICY WONK TURNED TEACHER WHO HAPPENS TO HAVE SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH THIS DOCUMENT. DO NOT RUN WITH ANYTHING I AM WRITING WITHOUT CHECKING WITH YOUR UNION OR A LAWYER. 

Okay! Let’s get started!

In the introduction to the 2010 Interim Edition, we read the following:

This document, an interim edition of the revised health and physical education curriculum policy document, replaces The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education, 1998. Beginning in September 2010, and until the release of the final revised edition of the document, all health and physical education programs for Grades 1 to 8 will be based on the expectations outlined in this document. In this interim edition, the expectations from the Growth and Development section of the 1998 curriculum document are included in the Healthy Living strand. 

The documents released yesterday?

This document replaces The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education, 2015. Beginning in September 2018 all health and physical education programs for Grades 1 to 8 will be developed from the expectations outlined in this document. This Interim Edition was originally issued in 2010, was last used in 2014, and is now being re-issued. It comprises curriculum content updated to 2010 for all strands and topics except the Growth and Development component of the Healthy Living strand, which is taken from the 1998 curriculum. 

For those of you who heard various ministers stating that we would be teaching the “curriculum available in 2014,” let’s be very clear that the Growth and Development content in 2014 was indeed written in 1998.

In the last 20 years, curriculum document developers have put a lot of work into making it easier for teachers to incorporate work habits and learning skills, and have developed useful and comprehensive lists of teacher prompts, suggested tasks, and possible student questions. This document is no different: it does into significant detail throughout the expectations for the courses. Except. As the Growth and Development section was pulled from the original 2010 document, only the overall and specific expectations for each grade are provided. Teachers get zero support from this document to actually teach its content when it comes to the topics related to their growth, development, and relationships (including friendships).

While teacher prompts and student questions are supposed to “help clarify the requirements and suggest the intended depth and level of complexity of the expectations, these are illustrations only, not requirements” (p. 17).  This is also stated on page 21 of the 2015 edition. The teacher prompts and student questions were the targets of the most vitriol in this edition, though none of us has ever been expected or required to follow the prompts and questions to the letter.

Page 30 of the document released yesterday contains very useful information for teachers:

Some topics within the Healthy Living strand can be challenging to teach because of their personal nature and their connection to family, religious, or cultural values. These topics include but are not limited to topics covered in the Growth and Development section of the 1998 curriculum, as well as topics such as mental health, body image, substance abuse, violence, harassment, child abuse, gender identity, sexual orientation, illness (including HIV/AIDS), and poverty. These topics must be addressed with sensitivity and care. It is important that both teachers and learners have a comfort level with these topics so that information can be discussed openly, honestly, and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

AS WELL AS. The document elementary teachers have been mandated to teach acknowledges that discussions of sexual orientation, gender identity, violence, harassment, and child abuse fall OUTSIDE of the “sex ed” topics.

Also? “These topics must be addressed with sensitivity and care.” Does this mean that if and when they are addressed, it must be done with sensitivity and care, or does it mean that they must be addressed, and with sensitivity and care?

Page 33 states that

[b]ecause of the sensitive nature of these topics, parents and guardians must be informed about the content of the curriculum and the time of delivery. Teachers and learners must develop a comfort level with these topics so that information can be discussed openly, honestly, and in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The ‘healthy sexuality’ expectations should be addressed only after teachers have developed a rapport with their students.

Parents/guardians receiving a letter on the first day of school stating the overall and specific content of the curriculum and that this content will be scaffolded from day one, taught in cross-curricular ways through language arts, social studies, science, and the arts, meets this requirement.

Page 45 discusses “same-sex classes” for some topics, but how does that work for students whose genders don’t match what’s on their records? The concept of “both genders” is rampant through the 2010 document (as it is through the 2015, to be clear — the last government dropped the ball for transgender, genderqueer, Two-Spirit, and non-binary students just as much, and we need to not hold that document up as perfect), which marginalizes students by not allowing them to be seen in what they’re learning.

As teachers, we are tasked with the work of universal design, a concept which basically means we design what happens in the classroom so that everyone in the class has equitable access. Including the language of “all” versus “both” genders may be the only place a young person hears themselves being represented. And, it doesn’t hurt those students who identify with the gender they were assigned at or before birth.

Tip: Welcome to [classroom]! I’m [name], and I’m so happy we’re going to be spending the year together. I use the pronouns [insert your pronouns]. When I talk about you in the third person, I am going to refer to you as ‘they’ or ‘them’ as my default unless and until you tell me you use more specific pronouns. This is because I don’t know you yet, and I would rather stay general until I do!

You can do this with students as young as kindergarten all the way through grad school. It is a way of making the classroom more accessible, and supports students who don’t need this affirmation in developing compassion and understanding that their way of being in the world isn’t the same for everyone.

Page 47: “[Teachers] should also ensure that all students — students of all cultures, abilities, genders, and sexual orientations — feel included and recognized in all activities and discussions.”

You can’t create an environment of inclusion and recognition without explicitly providing the language to do so. ALL STUDENTS. All of them.

Page 51 explores special education considerations for teaching physical and health education:

Some students with intellectual and physical disabilities may be at greater risk of exploitation and abuse. These students may also have had fewer formal and informal opportunities to participate in sexual health education. Teachers need to ensure that these students’ privacy and dignity are protected, and that the resources used are appropriate to their physical, intellectual, and emotional development. Different kinds of accommodations and approaches will be required for different students, but it is important to ensure that all students have access to information and support regarding their sexual health.

Some students with special education needs may have difficulty with abstract thinking, including thinking about consequences of their behaviour, and may have trouble understanding boundaries between private and public with respect to behaviour or their own bodies. When teaching students with special education needs about sexual health, it is important to teach the information in a variety of ways to provide ample opportunity for information to be repeated and for skills such as refusal skills to be practised and reinforced. Examples need to be concrete. Students need to be taught about their right to refuse and about ways of showing affection appropriately. 

This is actually pretty good stuff. FOR ALL STUDENTS, regardless of identification. Also, given how long it can take for an elementary student to be recognized as needing special education supports, restricting this to a page I’m betting most of us will never read does all of our students a great disservice.

Page 56, under healthy relationships:

In health education, the study of healthy relationships, particularly with respect to bullying/harassment and violence prevention, should include a focus on sexist, racist, and homophobic behaviour. Examination of types of harassment, including weight-based teasing or teasing based on appearance or ability, should also be addressed. In creating an inclusive and respectful learning environment, teachers should be able to examine their own biases and seek out support for presenting material with which they are not comfortable. 

Transhatred is not explicitly mentioned here. However, as the roots of transhatred are in misogyny/sexism and homohatred, and this is not an exhaustive list, AND gender is a protected class in Ontario, make a mental note to add it to the list.

Also, this makes clear and undeniable connections between harassment, violence, and gender and sexual orientation. Sexual harassment is something we can talk about. Violence targeting queer and/or trans people is something we can talk about. Sexual assault is something we can talk about. It says so, right here.

And OF COURSE those conversations are going to look different in grade 2 than they are in grade 8.

Page 57, with regard to equity and inclusive education:

In an inclusive education system, all students see themselves reflected in the curriculum, their physical surroundings, and the broader environment, so that they can feel engaged in and empowered by their learning experiences. 

The implementation of antidiscrimination principles in education influences all aspects of school life. It promotes a school climate that encourages all students to work to high levels of achievement, affirms the worth of all students, and helps students strengthen their sense of identity and develop a positive self-image. It encourages staff and students alike to value and show respect for diversity in the school and the broader society. Antidiscrimination education promotes fairness, healthy relationships, and active, responsible citizenship.

An anti-discriminatory classroom is one which names our differences and celebrates them.

****

And so ends my analysis of the introductory sections of the 2018 re-issue of Ontario’s 1998/2010 Health and Physical Education curriculum. It’s not as bleak as the government would have us believe, but we need to work together, and support each other in the labour.

If I have some time over the next few days, I’ll start going through the primary, junior, and intermediate expectations with commentary and tips. If you have any you’d like to add, I’d love to amplify them for you! The more prepared we are going into September, the better.

 

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