In September, the YMCA Academy will implement Ontario’s new Health and Physical Education curriculum — a document aligned with the foundation of inclusiveness, health, and respect that our school has fostered since we opened our doors.
The new curriculum moves beyond simply teaching students about abstinence, safe sex, reproduction, and sexually transmitted infections, to discuss how social, mental, and emotional health connects to sexual identity, behaviour, and expression. It is, on multiple levels, a forward-thinking document — unbound by heterosexuality or the male/female binaries of identity and expression, and designed (as stated in its preface) to help students “be critically literate in order to synthesize information, make informed decisions, communicate effectively, and thrive in an ever-changing global community.”
Here are four reasons why The YMCA Academy supports this new curriculum.
1. It’s about everyone’s health and safety
The new curriculum is designed to promote a healthier and safer Ontario for all young people. One critical element of this effort, as described in the Grade 9 curriculum, is developing “a strong understanding of the concept of consent and sexual limits.” This does not mean teaching kids to say “yes” to sex; what it means is helping students learn how to communicate their needs and feelings, and — perhaps more importantly — how to understand and respond to the needs and feelings of others. At The YMCA Academy, for example, consent is clearly defined for our students, then expanded upon by analysing recent events such as the Steubenville rape case. The argument can be made that events like this could be avoided if those involved, and particularly the perpetrators, experienced a thorough, holistic approach to consent.
Making decisions about health and sexuality requires a tremendous amount of knowledge. Sometimes, young people remain ill-informed — and then they start experimenting with their sexuality or making choices about their health before they are ready. They often aren’t sure of their limits, or of how to protect themselves, which is why there is a vital need for teachers to provide key information while promoting, according to the Grade 10 curriculum, “an understanding of how to use decision-making and communication skills effectively to support choices related to responsible and healthy sexuality.”
2. Gender and sexuality concepts need to be knowledgeably unpacked for youth
Learning about, as the Grade 9 curriculum outlines, the factors “that can influence a person’s understanding of their gender identity…and sexual orientation” is a complex task, with the worthiest of goals: to foster empathy and build self-awareness in an ever-changing world. For example, many people are unfamiliar with the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation, or are understandably new to all of the identities and expressions identified by the acronym LGBTQ2S — particularly those that defy male/female and straight/gay binaries. Requiring teachers to understand and effectively explain these concepts will help young people develop understandings of sexuality, identity, and expression in line with The Ontario Human Rights Code and related policies.
The new curriculum also mandates instruction about “sources of support for all students.” This inclusive concept acknowledges that excluding the LGBTQ2S community from sexual education (as did the previous curriculum) puts students at risk of harassment, violence, sexually transmitted infections, exclusion, mental distress, social anguish, and emotional pain. The trope of the closeted, gay youth who fears judgment, shame, or rejection stems from the reality that having honest and open discussions about identity and expression can seem confusing, risky, and complicated. A teacher taking the role of impartial mediator creates an open and safe environment that includes all students in a classroom. The new curriculum empowers teachers to give students the vocabulary, the tools, the skills, and the respect to frame questions that may have very powerful implications to their identity and well-being.
3. Sexism and discrimination are real, and have scary implications
A major goal of this curriculum is to fight bigotry in all of its forms at the educational level. Many youth — across all gender identities and sexual orientations — face shame, discrimination, violence, harassment, hate, bullying, pressure, and fear. Women are the victims of subtle but ever-present discrimination, judgement, pressure, threat, and subjugation, while males face social pressure to live up to what it means to be a “real man.” Some stereotypes are well meaning, like assuming females are more nurturing than males, but such sentiments are damaging both to girls who don’t want to adhere to a prescribed version of being motherly, and mutually to boys who do want to be caring.
Furthermore, Canada is still not a safe place for all youth. One out of every two trans people has attempted to end their lives, a disproportionately large segment of the LGBTQ2S community lives in poverty, one in five LGBTQ2S students reports being physically harassed or assaulted, and ten percent of straight youth report being victims of bullying (though the actual number, including unreported cases, is no doubt much higher). This is a haunting testament to how unsafe and non-accepting our community can be. The new curriculum offers tools and vocabulary to teach students how to build a better world for all people, beginning with education and understanding.
4. Young people need an inclusive and informed foundation for social learning
Young people learn about their social world by experimenting. They flirt with peers, try out new vocabulary and concepts, test boundaries, take risks, emulate role models, and explore adult themes and ideas. Peer-based learning is inevitable, and schools have a unique opportunity and responsibility to create the healthy foundations for the ideas, opinions, and values being traded and developed during these unstructured interactions. Their peers are a small sampling of the people with whom these youth will be interacting for the rest of their lives, so it only makes sense that they should have an in-class opportunity to, as the Grade 9 curriculum states, “demonstrate an understanding of the skills and strategies needed to build healthy social relationships…and intimate relationships.”
In peer-based learning situations, ignorance left unchallenged is an enemy of diversity, as that which is deemed different is at risk of being marginalized. The youngest generation is more diverse in every respect than any previous generation, so it is vital that students are given a framework of respect, caring, and understanding, so that youth interactions can begin to develop a tone of inclusion, rather than marginalization.
The YMCA Academy, like most schools, understands its responsibility to the community it serves. The school’s goal has always been to help young people connect, feel empowered, and understand their place in the world. The school values inclusiveness and full participation, and strives to create a safe space enriched by a strong and interconnected learning community.
The new Health and Physical Education curriculum aligns perfectly with this philosophy. Health and sexuality education in Ontario has never been about how to have sex, or teaching sexual skills. It’s about teaching acceptance, and making safe and healthy choices. This curriculum, like similar documents from other Canadian provinces and around the world, is well-designed to further this understanding. It is, in short, a big step forward for Ontario schools.
By: YMCA Academy teachers and staff