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Sex, God and the public school

Last week the superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools put a halt to the teaching of sexual education classes by The Pregnancy Care Center, a Christian-based counseling service. At the center of this controversy is a teenager and her mother who objected to the one-sided approach this organization was taking in its presentation of contraception, family structures and lifestyle related topics. A complaint filed by the student and her mother with the Alberta Human Rights Commission alleges that the Pregnancy Care Center’s teachings were rife with inaccuracies and were steeped in religious ideology.

This controversy does not stem from the fact that the Pregnancy Care Center’s approach to sex education is founded on Christian values. No faith-based religion is silent on the subject of sex. In fact, most holy books contain many chapters on sexual regulations – most of them are negative. (Thou shalt not do this and thou must never do that!) Therefore it is not surprising that when the topic of sex is raised that the framework of religion is present.

Problems arise, however, when the information being disseminated is inaccurate and unbalanced. Gone are the days when the adult at the front of the class is the authority on any subject – especially on youth culture topics like sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll! With Google, young people have a panel of experts at their fingertips. Within seconds students have the latest research, from a variety of sources, to support or refute any argument.

Sex education is the easiest high school class to teach because of the remarkable absence of student resistance. It is one of the few classes that teens look forward to with unbridled excitement. Students are always alert and ever engaged. They never complain that the topic is irrelevant or outdated! Sex is mysterious, fascinating, and powerful. At the same time it is also controversial, distracting and potentially dangerous.

It is easy to teach about sex because teenagers are naturally curious. Most young people are smart and hunger for knowledge. Taught properly, students will believe that they are the first people on the planet to discover sex. One of the most effective ways to approach this exciting topic is to write clinical terms for body parts (breasts, penis, etc.) on blank posters and stick them up around the classroom. Students are then invited to write their favourite euphemisms for each body part on the posters. In minutes your classroom with be transformed into an urban sexual thesaurus. Having the students participate at the onset of the class, in a tactile way, provides them with an outlet for their imaginations. This cuts down on the giggle factor and allows the teacher to address some of the less salacious elements of sex education.

Undoubtedly it is interesting to have qualified guest speakers from a variety of backgrounds come into the classroom to address the students. However, a good teacher will have earned the respect of his or her students before attempting this type of conversation and will have a greater impact than any expert from outside of the school.

Having students do the research and then present their findings to their classmates is the most successful way to teach life related topics. In doing this, students become responsible for their own learning. The adage, “you can’t teach what you don’t know” becomes apparent in their presentations. This allows the teacher to doff the mantle of “expert” and play the role of coach. Coaches hand out assignments, guide research, ask questions, provide support and bring clarity when necessary. This way young people are being taught by their peers. Perhaps more importantly, students learn to be discerning researchers, to collaborate, to consolidate, and to present their findings in an articulate and entertaining manner – all skills required in our ever-changing world.

The danger of controversy in the areas of sex education and religious education (or what the Edmonton Public schools intriguingly call CALM – career and life management) is that a decision gets made to toss the baby out with the bathwater -no pun intended! More critical than any core subject that can be taught in our schools are the courses that explore foundational values and moral choices that will determine the course of a child’s life. It behooves all educators everywhere to find creative ways to spark meaningful discussions on all life-related subjects in the context of our schools that are ABC: authentic, balanced, and clear. Regardless of the code that you live by – religious or not, all educators have access to current information and should present it in an unbiased way, permitting their students to make informed choices.

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