How to teach *about* the sex ed curriculum without actually teaching the sex ed curriculum

I planned and delivered a lesson with my Grade 11 and 12 university-level students this month that I’m going to share with you in a minute. Before I dive into that, though, an announcement for those who have not yet heard:

The Ontario Ministry of Education has opened up their online consultation period for issues related to curriculum development, cellphone use in the classroom, and parents’ rights.  Consultation closes December 15, 2018, so get on it and have your voice heard! (There is also a plan to release a survey soon, though no further details are available.)

Okay! Now to the lesson!

As I mostly teach high school English courses, my need to know the ins and outs of other curriculum documents, especially those for elementary grades, is minimal. That said, I think it makes for a much richer series of conversations in a language arts classroom to pull in information students are learning/have learned in other spaces and classrooms and in their real-life worlds.

I teach grades 11 and 12 this year, which means that my youngest students had one year of access to the 2015 Health and Physical Education curriculum: Grade 8. I decided to see what would happen if I gave all of them the opportunity to read actual curriculum documents as well as news coverage and critique pieces. This is more or less what I did, and how it went:

Document Analysis Task:
Ontario’s HPE Curriculum Debate

Step 1: The first activity I started the semester with was the “Where I’m From” poem. Using resources developed by Facing History and Ourselves, students explored ideas of identity and the concept of being “from” places, people, and cultures. They drew their own identity charts, and then created charts for characters in pieces they read together. They then wrote poems of their own experiences of “from.”

Resources used:
Identity Charts and Readings on Identity
“Where I’m From” Poem Questionnaire

Step 2: Next, I addressed bias and perspective with them. This was done conversation-style, pulled in examples of bias from all ends of the political spectrum, and addressed how bias is a two-way conversation incorporating both the source and the audience. During this process, I had the unforeseen opportunity to address Canada’s hate speech laws (after finding evidence of same left behind in my class — it’s fine, hasn’t happened since, and was dealt with respectfully on all fronts) in this process as well. Understanding both our right to have a perspective and our responsibility to others in expressing it were the combined focus of this lesson.

Step 3: I printed off copies of the Grade 11 and 12 English  curriculum expectations and explained how to read them for “important” information. Students were given one of the four strands (Reading and Literature Studies, Writing, Oral Communication, and Media Studies), a handful of highlighters and Post-Its, and encouraged to read their piece to determine what they felt was most important, and why. They learned that recent curriculum documents are published with ample examples on how to collect data, as well as teacher prompts to encourage discussion. They also learned that the expectations are flexible and designed that way to reflect the interests and levels of the students sitting in a particular classroom at a particular time.

(Their biggest take-away from the Reading and Lit Studies strand may be that no one is provincially obligated to study Shakespeare, but that’s a different conversation.)

Resources used: 
The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12: English, 2007 (Revised)

Step 4: I set up a gallery walk using several documents associated with Ontario’s Health and Physical Education curriculum. I posted them around the classroom, in chronological order, asked students to wander through each of them and complete an analysis of the artifact which spoke most loudly to them. I told them that we weren’t looking to see whether we agreed or disagreed, whether we had the skills to debate the issue ourselves. The goal for this task was specifically to understand the perspective of the document creator, and the context in which it was created.

Resources used: 
1998 Healthy Living expectations for Grades 3, 6, and 8 (to cover primary, junior, and intermediate grades)
“Please! Don’t Confuse Me” ad created by the Institute for Canadian Values, published by the National Post
“Please! Don’t Insult Me” counter-poster created by Chase Joynt
Articles on the 2010 short-lived revision from the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, CP24, and the Toronto Sun (there is still a fantastic selection of articles and opinion pieces from that time which cover the political gamut)
Emma Waverman’s 2014 “The sex education crisis in Ontario,” published in Today’s Parent
2015 Healthy Living expectations for Grades 3, 6, and 8
Ontario Ministry of Education Parent Resource Guide
Ontario Ministry of Education Parent Guide to Human Development and Sexual Health
Articles from spring and summer 2018 announcing the repeal of the 2015 Human Development expectations (from a variety of sources)
Photoshopped parody ads created by Sabitha Furiosa
Facing History’s Document Analysis Form

During the course of the final activity, students asked for clarification on certain issues, and many expressed shock  and surprise that the literal text of the 2015 expectations didn’t meet the hype they’d heard and seen reflected in much of the media coverage. While my stated purpose was clear in that I wasn’t expecting them to develop or change their opinions on the content they were consuming, they wanted an opportunity to ask questions related to public health, to sexting, to how and when we talk about sexual orientation and gender, and the feedback they gave me after this task was universally positive. They didn’t know what they didn’t know, and having a range of perspectives thrown in with the actual teaching documents helped them come to their own understanding of the issue and its context.

I’m not saying that every student feels the same way I do about each of the topics covered by this curriculum. Of course they don’t, and I don’t want them to. I simply wanted them to have an opportunity to see, in relative real time, that what they THINK they know about something, about anything, is influenced by those with access to media distribution.

If this is useful to you, please use the heck out of it. If you want to change things up, go for it! Some students may need more scaffolding than others in the initial stages, like analyzing a document together as a class, or providing an example of a completed document analysis sheet to help them understand what they’re meant to do.

If you do end up trying this out, I’d love to hear how it goes!

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