Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Thoughts on Bill 44

As you've probably heard by now, the proposed Bill 44 is stirring up quite a bit of controversy, especially the section which would allow parents to remove their children from classes dealing with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation. On first blush, this might seem reasonable and, in fact, this does happen already. Parental rights are well protected under both the School Act and Alberta Education Policy. Issues are currently dealt on a case-by-case basis at the school level and it appears to me that there have been very few problems. Schools are accommodating parental wishes easily and with little fuss. Which begs the question, why do we need additional legislation if what we have is working?

The real problem with Bill 44 sits with the requirement for teachers to give advance notice to parents for any discussion of sexuality, sexual orientation or religion. As this bill falls under the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multicultural Act, many fear that the inadvertent failure, on the part of a teacher to give advance notice, could result in litigation and cases coming before the Human Rights Commission. Many have expressed concern about how this could create an untenable situation in classrooms, where the issues of religion, sexuality and sexual orientation often bleed into current events discussions, social studies, science, drama or literature classes. Teachers I've spoken to feel they "couldn't teach under Bill 44;" they would feel paralyzed by it. Good teachers see their job as more than just "curriculum-delivery", in fact they often say that the most important teaching happens outside the curriculum.

So, why are religion and sex such hot topics of conversation? Can't it simply be covered on one day, as per the curriculum outline? In my opinion, both sex and religion cut to the core of what it means to be human and that's why they thread through so many other topics. Here are some real life examples of situations, that a provincially-acknowledged "Excellent" teacher has told me around the dinner table, all of which have Bill 44 implications:

- Teaching the prescribed "contraceptives" class to a group of very quiet and attentive grade eight students on Monday and having a student follow up with questions on Wednesday about the female condom. (hey, this is not something I could absorb in one day, either!)

- Having one kid remark that a classroom activity was "so gay" and the teacher taking the time to identify the comment as inappropriate, talk about words, what they mean, how they can exclude and hurt, and how people who are homosexual often feel marginalized by the word "gay" being used to mean "stupid, lame, boring, dumb, or a waste of time". Having the kid say, "well, there's no one gay in this school so what does it matter?" Which leads to a discussion about 10% of the population being gay and assumptions on what gay looks like.....

- Teaching the grade 8 social studies curriculum!! The entire year is focused on world view and how different people throughout time saw themselves and their place in the world. In every case, their view of religion/god played a central part in how they behaved.

- Doing a project for the Social Studies curriculum, where kids have to make propaganda posters for Shogun Japan, in which many kids include "No Christians allowed" warnings. (This is accurate, as Christianity was banned at that time.)

- Students are in a play with has a group of girls huddled together around the monkey bar, whispering the chant: "girl talk, girl talk, girl talk, SEX!!, girl talk, girl talk, girl talk".

- An award-winning professional play called "Are we there Yet?" comes to the school. The open and frank discussion of sexuality encourages kids to bring forward their questions; the actors answer them candidly and without embarrassment. The atmosphere of openness continues after the play has moved on to the next school.

The examples go on and on. Sex, religion, religion, sex. As children grow, they struggle with both. What do I believe? What do others believe? Why is my body changing? What am I going to do with it? Urges, needs, hopes, beliefs and desires. Humanity is this flesh and this spirit. And to say that it can be cut aside, neatly "covered" in one or two perfectly contained classes and then never revisited is naive.

We want children to be critical thinkers, to be adaptable and creative. We want them to understand other people's perspectives and accept differences. How can we accomplish this if teachers are not free to seize those teachable moments and guide, inquire, correct and respond to important questions? We must trust that teachers are not out to inculcate. They are not there to "turn our kids into homosexuals" (!!). They are there to teach. I, for one, want to let them teach and I'm glad that our kids trust them enough to ask those important questions.

In my opinion, Bill 44 is flawed and needs to be amended. I encourage you to write to your MLA and express your point of view before it goes to third and final reading.

Some additional info, if you are a "details" person:

Under section 50 (1) of the School Act, schools have the right to prescribe religious and patriotic instruction and exercises.

Under subsection 50(2) provides a clear opt-out provision that is essentially identical to section 2(a) and (b) of Bill 44. It is as follows:

(2) Where a teacher or other person providing religious or patriotic instruction receives a written request signed by a parent of a student that the student be excluded from religious or patriotic instruction or exercises, or both, the teacher or other person shall permit the student

(a) to leave the classroom or place where the instruction or exercises are taking place for the duration of the instruction or exercises, or

(b) to remain in the classroom or place without taking part in the instruction or exercises.”

With respect to sexuality or sexual orientation, schools have long been guided by Alberta Education Policy 1.7.1 (Sensitive Issues) which for the 2008-2009 school year has been repealed and replaced by the Controversial Issues provisions of the Guide to Education. The Controversial Issues provision is as follows:

”Controversial issues are those topics that are publicly sensitive and upon which there is no consensus of values or beliefs. They include topics on which reasonable people may sincerely disagree. Opportunities to deal with these issues are an integral part of student learning in Alberta.

Studying controversial issues is important in preparing students to participate responsibly in a democratic and pluralistic society. Such study provides opportunities to develop the ability to think clearly, to reason logically, to open-mindedly and respectfully examine different points of view and to make sound judgments.

Teachers, students and others participating in studies or discussions of controversial issues need to exercise sensitivity to ensure that students and others are not ridiculed, embarrassed or intimidated for positions that they hold on controversial issues.

Controversial issues:

  • represent alternative points of view, subject to the condition that information presented is not restricted by any federal or provincial law
  • reflect the maturity, capabilities and educational needs of the students
  • meet the requirements of provincially prescribed and approved courses and programs of study and education programs
  • reflect the neighbourhood and community in which the school is located, as well as provincial, national and international contexts.

Controversial issues that have been anticipated by the teacher, and those that may arise incidentally during instruction, should be used by the teacher to promote critical inquiry and/or to teach thinking skills.

The school plays a supportive role to parents in the areas of values and moral development and shall handle parental decisions in regard to controversial issues with respect and sensitivity.”


Sarah said...

Great post Sue! I'm still asking questions about the female condom. :)

Thanks for sharing some great exmaples of why we need to fix this bill and protect teachers.

Chris LaBossiere said...

Excellent post and I suspect indicative of how many are feeling.