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Stock photo by Kylli Kittus on Unsplash
First in a series examining the state of sexual health education in public schools
A couple of generations ago, it was controversial for elementary and high school teachers to talk to students about “the birds and the bees.” Only a handful of British Columbia school districts dared to offer locally developed programs. Even as recent as the early 1980s, many school boards were banning or limiting sex education because trustees still considered it the sole perorgative of parents.
Times have changed, and so has the public’s mood.
There’s a general acceptance today that sexual health education needs to be part of our public schools’ core curriculum. It’s being driven in large part by the ever-increasing student exposure to online and social media dangers through technology, as well as disconcerting trends toward increased sexual violence among teenagers.
A University of Calgary study published last week found that one in four teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have received sexually explicit texts or videos, one in seven have sent them and one in eight have forwarded ‘sexts’ on to other teens without consent. And, the study involving 42,000 participants determined that sexting is linked to teenage anxiety, depression and substance use.
Also last week, the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada released its first revision since 2008 of the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education. The major change found in the new guidelines is the addition of technology, LGBTQ12S+ and ‘consent’ as foundational education pillars, issues that weren’t on the radar of previous generations of students and parents.
But these are the issues that have motivated and mobilized a growing number of Comox Valley public school parents to press School District 71, and the provincial Ministry of Education, for a more robust and relevant curriculum for sexual health education.
In fact, Comox Valley parents are leading British Columbia in this direction. They have recently received unanimous support from parents across the province’s school districts, and their efforts have earned the ear of BC Parliamentary Secretary for Gender Equality Mitzi Dean and BC Education Minister Rob Fleming.
Courtenay Lawyer Shannon Aldinger is one of the parents who has been advocating for better sexual health education (SHE) in Comox Valley schools. She represents the Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary Parents Advisory Council at the District Parents Advisory Council (DPAC), and chairs that group’s select committee on sexual health education.
Last month, Aldinger presented a resolution to the BC Conference of Parent Advisory Councils annual general meeting that urged the Ministry of Education to expand the BC sexual health curriculum to Grades 11 and 12 — it currently ends at Grade 10 — and to include the concept of consent as well as modern tech issues, such as the risks associated with sexting and online pornography.
The resolution was passed unanimously by the 205 parent delegates to the AGM, representing 42 of the province’s 60 school districts, including seven Comox Valley schools represented at the AGM. Four other SD71 schools supported the resolution but were not eligible to vote.
It was a landmark moment for expanding sexual health education in BC.
The vote of support from 70 percent of all BC school districts not only pushes sexual health education toward a richer and more relevant curriculum, it also shines a positive light on almost two years of advocacy work by Comox Valley parents for better sexual health education in SD71.
“The clear message from the conference is that parents across BC, including PACs across our district, including all three of our secondary school PACS, support these requests,” Aldinger told Decafnation.
Passage of the resolution denotes a major victory for sexual health education improvements at the BC level, which parent advocates hope will trickle down to individual districts.
Two weeks ago, Aldinger made a similar presentation for expanded sexual health education in the BC curriculum to the province’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services during its 2020 budget consultations, and won support from Parliamentary Secretary Mitzi Dean.
“To be in an age where we can have somebody like you who can come and talk about such an area that is really quite taboo and to come and present such a well-researched and comprehensive proposal, I really welcome it. And you have my commitment to taking this forward,” Dean said after Aldinger’s presentation.
Since 2010, School District 71 has relied on an outside consultant, Dr. Claire Vanston of Nanaimo, to design and implement its sexual health education program. But in mid-2017, Vanston announced she would no longer provide this service beyond the 2019 school year.
In partial response to Vanston’s impending departure, and also to address parent requests for an expanded program, School District 71 commissioned former superintendent Clyde Woolman in December of 2017 to report on the state of sexual health education in Comox Valley schools.
In his report dated Jan. 16, 2018, Woolman discusses a wide variety of issues. Among them is whether teachers at the time were actually teaching sexual health.
According to Woolman, when the district hired Vanston as its outside sexual health educator, most teachers regarded her as the primary program delivery vehicle, and assumed they did not have to teach the material themselves. Woolman’s report says Vanston also believed teachers held that perception.
It’s a misconception that School District 71 Superintendent Dean Lindquist acknowledges.
“We’d relied on an expert to the point where we weren’t teaching it,” Lindquist told Decafnation. “We wouldn’t do that in math or the sciences. I then realized we had no capacity (to teach sexual health education). I had assumed teachers were teaching the curriculum and Dr. Claire was functioning as a resource.”
So the district shifted gears. During the current 2019 school year Vanston did not teach the material to students directly. Instead, she focused on coaching teachers to teach the SHE curriculum, and then reviewed their progress.
She has also provided the district with lesson plans and other resources. Her contract with the district ended this month.
“We have been building capacity in the last year,” Lindquist said. “We have amazing teachers in this district and I have faith they will do it (teach sexual health) well, and already are. It would blow your socks off what our teachers are doing.”
Aldinger agrees. She says Comox Valley teachers have received good training and support this past year and are doing a good job with the new material.
“We (the district PAC sexual health committee) hope that the district will continue to support the teachers with additional training opportunities and resources each year,” she said.
The DPAC committee also hopes the district will bring in external speakers for presentations that teachers may not be comfortable teaching, such as the interplay between sexuality and technology, including the risks associated with sexting and adolescent use of online pornography.
Confidence about teaching sexual health — a topic that requires sensitivity and up-to-date language usage — varies among teachers.
Woolman reported that Comox Valley classroom teachers have had no specific training in sexual health education, and most would feel uncomfortable “and even vulnerable” discussing sexual issues.
“While it may be that a few Physical Health Education teachers may feel reasonably competent and comfortable teaching the health material … the vast majority of PHE teachers will not,” Woolman said in last year’s report.
At the time of the Woolman report, the school district only funded sexual health education for grades 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 10, and sometimes for only 60 minutes per year. And, in previous years, grade 1 students received no sexual health education.
In response, individual school Parent Advisory Councils had been doing their own fundraising to pay for additional sexual health education time or to cover the topic in the other grades.
But in this last year, according to Vanston, roughly 90 percent to 95 percent of SD71 students now receive sexual health classes every year from kindergarten through grade 10.
“The increase in students receiving sexual health education in our district is a significant improvement from past years,” Aldinger said.
Next: Has SD71 made sexual health education a priority?
Sexual health is a key component of overall health, well-being, and quality of life. It is a major determining factor in the well-being of individuals, partners, families, and communities. Furthermore, the sexual health of people in Canada has important social and economic implications for the country. Therefore, the development and implementation of comprehensive sexual health education aimed at enhancing sexual health and well-being and preventing outcomes that negatively impact sexual health should be a public policy priority.
The goal of comprehensive sexual health education is for all people to gain the skills and knowledge required to maintain healthy bodies, healthy relationships, a healthy body image and to know what to do in unsafe situations.
Quality sexual health education has a direct impact on preventing negative outcomes, and promoting positive ones.
Sexting involves creating, sending, receiving or sharing sexual messages, images and/or videos using the Internet and/or electronic devices. Commonly these types of messages are intended only for the recipient; however, the sender has little control over these messages becoming public. It is illegal to produce, possess or distribute naked or sexually explicit pictures and/or videos of young people under 18 years of age.
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By Brent Reid
While teaching journalism and information technology for several years in a networked computer environment with Internet and email access at every workstation, I learned a lot about how to use powerful, but potentially distracting, electronic devices to increase students’ learning and productivity. Please note, though, that I last taught a high school class in 2000 and since then digital technology, and the opportunities and dangers it presents, have evolved greatly.
Many educators now believe that thousands of hours of screen time have altered the cognitive functioning and attention spans of today’s students significantly, necessitating new approaches if we are to educate humanity’s first connected generation successfully.
A contemporary smartphone provides its owner with more computing power and data storage than all those banks of computers and their lab-coated operators we saw on TV when NASA first put astronauts on the moon. Combined with continually improving connectivity, that handful of technology enables a skilled user to connect with spectacular amounts of knowledge, and offers audio recording, photographic, and video capabilities that enable users to broadcast what they learn widely, quickly, and creatively.
Surely it’s time to explore and define the role that such a powerful tool could play in secondary education.
With power comes risk, though, and a smartphone can place a young person in the crosshairs of bullies, identity thieves, petty fraudsters and, in some communities, recruiters for evil causes. Will we leave it to chance for students to gain the ability to use their phones ethically and safely, or will we help them learn to act responsibly and avoid threats? For openers it seems essential to me that students and staff work together in the establishment of policies for the proper use of personally-owned smartphones—and notebooks, iPads, and laptops—in the classroom and around the school.
Others on this forum can address the advisability of cellphone use in middle school and elementary grades. I’ll refer only to the level at which I taught, Grades 10 through 12, where I think smartphones — if integrated purposefully with clear policies for their use — could broaden and accelerate learning, and better prepare students for post-secondary studies and careers in which the smartphone is an essential tool.
I’m mindful, though, of how budgets and staffing levels in BC’s schools have been cut since 2000, and how an ever-increasing number of tasks—some of them trivial— now make demands on teachers’ time and energy.
The majority of the computers in many high schools are concentrated in a few rooms, sometimes reserved for specific courses or purposes. Students bringing digital devices from home to tap into the school’s wi-fi or wired network would enable any classroom to become a temporary computer lab.
This doesn’t mean that schools should cut their technology budgets; on the contrary, they should increase their investment in the hardware, software, and networking systems that are standard in technology companies, mainstream businesses, government, and higher education so that students will arrive at their post-secondary institution or their first job with relevant, marketable knowledge and skills.
Help in planning is available from the growing community of educators online who have embarked on BYOD projects. (The acronym is the same as the one on party invitations except that “D” stands for “device”). Here’s a typical article that summarizes the pros and cons of BYOD and contains links to articles covering other aspects of getting started.
A quick online search can provide a wealth of information to help a teacher determine where and how to begin. It could well be sensible to start BYOD education on a small scale, perhaps with one short-term project with one class, and evaluate the results carefully before expanding the initiative.
If I was still teaching and had a timetable and student load that permitted enough space and time to restructure courses to create optimal challenges and opportunities, I would base the integration of smartphones into my secondary classes on the answers to these questions:
The networked computers in my classroom back in the 1990’s were tremendously empowering for students, as many of them indicated at the time or have told me over the years since they graduated. I’m delighted that they become more skilled, knowledgeable, productive, and clear about their career goals sooner through the opportunity to use industry-grade software, hardware, and connectivity to take on meaningful, real-world challenges under time pressure and for a large audience.
Similarly, allowing focused, inventive, and ethical use of smartphones in appropriate classes for upper-grade students today could accelerate their technical savvy, ability to learn, career goal setting, and eventual success in the job market.
Brent Reid is a former teacher in School District 71 whose students published the award-winning Breezeway newspaper for 22 years. He lives in the Comox Valley.
Parents and educators face a new challenge in today’s schools: the pervasiveness of smartphones, tablets and other digital devices. Are they disruptive to student learning or an enhancement? Do they increase student safety or provide a new weapon for bullies?
The debate is heating up because a growing number of children have access to digital devices and take them to school. According to a 2014 study of Canadian students, more than 25 percent of Grade 4 students have their own cell phones. That number increases to almost 90 percent when the students reach high school.
Schools have responded with policies that range from outright bans on digital devices on school property to unrestricted access in classrooms. And parents have taken conflicting stands on all sides of the issue.
The Saanich School District started an ongoing controversy recently when it announced that starting in September cellphones and iPods would not be allowed on district school property. Schools across Canada and the U.S. have introduced similar bans and touched off community debates.
On the flip side, other educators have encouraged the use of digital devices as learning tools, unfettered in some cases, and that has also railed parents. When Huband Park Elementary School in School District 71 allowed unsupervised technology time during rainy days, some parents protested.
Many educators have embraced the potential of digital devices to complement the learning experience, just as they once accepted calculators, computers and other technological advancements.
But one thing is clear: digital devices are here to stay and how educators deal with their presence can either enhance or detract from the learning experience.
The policies in place at Comox Valley schools mirror the variety of responses across North America.
Some schools require that phones stay in lockers and can only be used before and after school and during lunch breaks. Other schools take a directly opposite approach, allowing phones in classrooms but banning them before and after school hours and during lunch breaks.
It’s no wonder some parents are confused and rumors light up social media.
School District 71 requires that all students and staff who take personal digital devices to school must sign a Responsible Use Agreement, and renew it annually. The document is similar to policies at most large businesses that provide computer equipment and access to the Internet. You can read it here.
But the district does not dictate to individual schools or teachers how or when students can use phones and other digital devices.
SD 71 Superintendent Dean Lindquist says this question is “Ultimately … left up to the schools/teachers to decide how best to integrate personal devices into their teaching.” He responded via email to a question about district technology policies.
The district has a stringent vetting process for apps and access to web sites, blocking access to specific sites and certain general types of web sites.
“Beyond the Responsible Use Agreement, school building administrators and classroom teachers regulate if and when a device can be used in the school or classroom,” Lindquist said in his email response.
A quick check of the handbooks of several district schools shows that educators are handling the issue quite differently.
Students at G.P. Vanier must leave their digital devices turned off and in their lockers during school hours, unless they have teacher permission to do otherwise. Their handbook includes this section:
“I have the right to a learning environment free from distractions such as, iPods, mp3 players, cameras, cell phones, game boys or other personal electronic devices.
“I have the responsibility to keep my personal electronic devices at home or, if I bring them to school, off and secured in my locker during school hours. The only exception to this is when I have teacher permission during the class period.
“Electronic devices can be distracting to student learning. Therefore I will ensure that my electronic device is turned off and out of sight during class time unless I have been given permission to use it for educational purposes. I may use them during non-class time (before school, recess, lunch, after school, etc.) unless directed otherwise by a staff member.”
“You are permitted personal phones, but they must be turned off during class time. If you receive calls or messages during class time you could lose the privilege of carrying your phone during the school day. Other electronic devices such as IPods are permitted, but may not be used during class time without permission from the subject teacher. Non-compliance could lead to the requirement that the device remain at home”
Cumberland Community School takes a more lenient approach. From their handbook:
“During class time, it is up to the teacher’s discretion if/when personal electronics are being used for educational purposes. We encourage teachers to have students’ access personal electronics to supplement their learning. However, students are not to text, call, message or email for non-educational purposes during class time. When a student is in breach of this they will have their phone sent to the office. For a first offence it will be returned at the end of the school day after meeting with a principal and reviewing the policy. For a second offence it will be returned to a parent when they come to pick it up and the policy will be reviewed with the parent. For a third offense it will be returned to the parent when they come to pick it up and the student will no longer be permitted personal electronics at school.”
And Huband Park Elementary School goes a step further in encouraging the use of digital devices. From their handbook:
“The school recognizes and encourages students to bring their own devices to school.
“Students are allowed to bring cell phones and electronics to school if they are used appropriately and when teachers have directed students to use them. Personal devices brought from home will not have areas blocked. These areas are not to be used by the students on school property, areas such: as Face Book, texting, video camera or camera, games that have shooting, gruesome or graphic images. There will be times when students will be asked to use the camera and video camera for certain projects but this needs to be supervised by the teacher.
“Students wanting to use their devices to communicate with friends and family during the school day must be approved by a staff member. Students will be asked to store personal devices brought from home safely on their person or in their backpacks and coats. The School will not be responsible for lost, stolen or damaged
“We encourage physical activity and social skills at break times: before school, recess and at lunch time. Therefore, students will be asked to put these devices away at these times.
“Teachers will have the authority to take these devices away from the students if they do not follow these rules. The device will be returned at a later date.”
Some parents and educators argue that phones in schools provide another level of safety for students. In the event of a crisis, such as a shooting or an earthquake, students can contact parents, ambulance services or law enforcement.
There will always be some students who break the rules and, with access to phones during classroom instruction, they can create distractions for other students. But phones can also provide access to learning opportunities that didn’t exist in the pre-digital environment.
Is it better than a student takes a smartphone picture of something a teacher has put on the blackboard, or to go through the process of writing it down?
There are no easy answers to this debate, but there’s no denying that smartphone and tablet technology has changed the dynamic in classrooms.
Recess has returned to the playgrounds of School District 71’s elementary schools as of February. That’s good news for children and teachers.
But why the school district eliminated recess at the start of this school year and the reasons for reinstating it now aren’t such good news: it’s political and, most egregiously, has nothing to do with children and the benefits they reap from the power of play.
The blame starts with B.C. Liberal Party leader Christy Clark who has seriously underfunded British Columbia public schools for more than a decade and robbed our children of world-class educational opportunities.
But the blame doesn’t end there.
To close a $3 million funding gap for the 2016-17 school year, local Comox Valley school trustees rejected a proposal by some parents to close underused and low-enrollment schools.
They chose instead to institute a 4.6-day school week, which ends at 12:01 p.m. every Friday for all Comox Valley schools. That saved the district about $1.8 million, and resulted in the firing of more than 15 teaching support staff because teacher preparation time was rolled into Friday afternoons. Spring break was cut in half.
But the shortened school week created a number of new problems.
Some students stopped going to school on Friday mornings because in many cases no substantial instruction occurs during the shortened versions of a full day’s classes. This squeeze on time led one district secondary teacher to apologize to his students before they took a province-wide exam for being unable to teach the full curriculum.
The district also eliminated recess, which they called a “gift” for elementary students and teachers to which they weren’t legally entitled. They reclassified recess as instructional time.
The loss of recess may seem inconsequential, but its importance for energetic young children goes beyond the need to stretch and move after hours of sitting still. Kids learn many of life’s important lessons on the playground.
There is a sophistication to the world of play that may be lost on many of us. Play gives educators, and parents, a chance to peek into the sometimes hidden world of children. When you want to see what children are really interested in, watch what they do when they have nothing to do.
For children, play is always purposeful. It is up to us as adults to unearth the special significance of the playful act. It may be a role that the child is trying on for the future.
There’s a possibility that taking away the joy that children get from recess will demotivate them and cause them to do less well in other areas. The amount of material children have to accomplish these days is overwhelming, so teachers have to move fast. With that kind of intensity in the classroom, kids and teachers need a break.
Recess should be considered an important part of the elementary curriculum, just as math and science. When children play, they’re thinking, solving problems, investigating and learning language skills. It’s the only part of the day when they can do whatever they want, so they learn how to cooperate, socialize and work out conflicts.
Fortunately, the Comox District Teachers’ Association had a tool to push back and they used it. The elimination of recess violated the contract language for elementary school teachers. In order to live up to its collective agreement with teachers, the school district reinstated recess, but continues to classify it as instructional time.
This sets the stage for a possible new contract issue, because the B.C. School Act clearly specifies that recess (and the time for lunch and between classes) cannot be considered instructional time.
School trustees and teachers both want to do the right thing. But this is the type of confusion and tension caused by the chronic underfunding of public schools.
So recess was reinstated. But not because it’s good for children or indirectly improves learning back in the classroom. Young Comox Valley school children can only rediscover the power of play thanks to a contractual technicality.
We should worry about the future of a society where kids are not encouraged to run and play. Where the power of play is devalued. Where there is no unstructured time to fuel imagination, encourage creativity and strength social development.
When you take away recess, you take away a complex learning environment that contributes to healthy childhood development.