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Sex(uality) Education within ESL Curricula

“In countries all over the world, children who do not speak the societal language face many difficulties in schools” (Valdes, 2001, p. 10). These difficulties extend to all aspects of the curriculum, and are increasingly difficult in content areas such as sexuality education, where the topic is politically contentious and teachers are uncomfortable delivering the content, even in their native language.

The debate over the content and delivery of sexuality education poses a clear problem for educators in the United States. This pressure to develop and implement a certain approach has made educators across the United States apprehensive about what they can and cannot teach or even address with students. Additionally, their own political, social, and religious beliefs continue to impact their willingness and confidence in presenting this material. Furthermore, the level at which educators are prepared to have these conversations is not universally adequate either. This tension is in large part due to the lack of continuity of curricula across the U.S.

Many similar debates exist over the delivery of bilingual education. Many of the same changing perspectives on the parts of politicians, administrators, and educators have impacted the ideology and practice of bilingual education over the years (Andersson & Boyer, 1970; Crawford, 2004; Lyons, 1990; McCarty, 2004; Miguel, 2004; Ovando, 2003; Wiley, 2002). “The challenges of educating students who do not speak a societal language are enormous. In the United States, it is not just a question of teaching English; rather, it is a question of providing large numbers of students with access to the curriculum at the same time that they are learning English” (Valdes, 2001, p. 14). These challenges mean that newly arrived immigrant Latino students entering American schools at the secondary level face significant challenges as they navigate the educational system (Chamot, 1992; Davis & McDaid, 1992; Lucas, 1992).

These overlapping debates make the study of the content and delivery of sexuality education of bilingual students of particular importance. In essence, sexuality education is made up of “social spaces where cultures meet, class, and grapple with each other” (Pratt, 1999, p. 584). As such, this has “brought to the forefront pedagogic questions about how to address important but potentially contentious issues of social identity and inequity and what exactly a teacher’s role, and goal, ought to be in such endeavors (Pennycook, 2001, as cited in Nelson, 2009).

According to Ward and Taylor (1992), sexuality education as it is currently taught does not meet the needs of large percentages of children in the United States. In particular, students of color are not represented and given a voice in the design, content, and delivery of sexuality education. When viewed as socially constructed, sexuality education can be seen as being created and delivered within a larger social and political context, which includes inequalities based on race, class, and gender. Furthermore, “various cultures interpret, define, and regulate sexuality differently, and cultural group members socialize their children to cultural norms, taboos, and expectations regarding sexual behavior” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p. 183).

This lack of representation for cultural and ethnic minority groups represents an even greater problem when one considers the increased rates of pregnancy among Hispanic adolescents especially, which is 1.7 times greater than that for whites.  Many of these adolescent girls also represent English Language Learners or bilingual students as well, but “sexuality education is seldom introduced in bilingual education classrooms, and children with limited English language proficiency” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p.187).  Additionally, the topic may be of far less significance for students attempting to adjust to a curriculum and school culture that does not support their language, culture, values, and beliefs. When access to sexuality education is provided, “language differences and the necessity of adjusting to the linguistic concepts in a new culture may affect comprehension of sexuality education course content” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p. 187).

Much like many other aspects of education, sexuality education curricula are inaccessible to a majority of bilingual students, and teachers are doubly unprepared to present difficult curricula in a language and culture they are equally uncomfortable working with on a daily basis (Pick, Givaudan & Brown, 2000). This poses a significant problem for bilingual and ESL students, who statistically possess higher rates of teen pregnancy, STD contraction, and lack of contraceptive use. These concerns lie in sharp contrast to the assertion that “the development of sexual identity and the skills necessary to navigate healthy sexual relationships should begin early and continue through adulthood”(Pick, Givaudan & Brown, 2000, p. 98).

In much the same way that sexuality education rarely addresses the needs of a diverse student population, language education research rarely represents linguistically or sexually diverse student groups (Nelson, 2005). In both cases, the needs of mainstream student populations are effectively addressed, but those of diverse student populations are not met in a substantial way. Furthermore, “although identity research in language education draws on critical social theory, postcolonial theory, gender studies, and, increasingly, critical race studies, for the most part, queer studies remain oddly overlooked”(Nelson, 2006, p.2). For the most part, the queer education work that has been done has focused on a monolingual subject group, and “is only beginning to give serious attention to how issues of sexual diversity interface with issues of cultural and linguistic diversity, especially transnationally”(Nelson, 2006, p.3). Thus, the fates of sexuality education and bilingual education are uniquely intertwined as efforts for reform move forward.

The positionality of teachers of English as a second or foreign language play a significant role in the means by which sexuality education is presented and provided as well. As Duff and Uchida (1997) assert, issues of sociocultural identity and representation are very important in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classrooms. These same issues are equally important in ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms.

These aspects of sociocultural identity and representation intersect individually with the teaching of English as a second language and sexuality education and are exponentially increased when discussing aspects of sexuality education within an ESL context. Teachers must be prepared to navigate the social and political contexts of the material they are delivering, and must understand the broader implications of what and how they delivery information in the classroom. Additionally, teachers must understand their own positionality with regard to these issues before they can navigate them on a broader scale.

Academic, moral, and political issues such as sexuality and bilingual education can be approached from a variety of perspectives, and the implementation of these educational forums is influenced by the beliefs, background, and moral and political leanings of those conveying the information. Both aspects of education will remain highly controversial issues for at least the immediate future. As the number of children being served by ESL and ELL programs increases, the significance of an equitable approach to sexuality education for these students will be more and more important. As a result, the process of reform involves numerous key stakeholders.

This process begins with those individuals funding the curriculum, extends to those developing the curricula, and ultimately rests with the K-12 educators charged with implementing the curricula. The approach to bilingual education thus has a direct impact on the content and effectiveness of sexuality education provided to ESL students, which in turn plays a significant role in influencing rates of STD contraction and pregnancy, as well as fostering a stronger sense of identity in line with their own cultural backgrounds and beliefs.


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