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Policy Matters: Louisiana Legislators are Worried Questions will Cause Action

In matters of education, as with many social concerns, there continues to be a disconnect between policy and practice. Sex(uality) education has long suffered from ineffective policies handed down by federal, state, and local agents (i.e. politicians) that don’t bother to critically think through the decisions they are making. I remember a conversation that took place during the 2008 presidential election surrounding the appeal to the “average American” (whatever that actually means) by politicians. They wanted to demonstrate that they could connect with the hearts and “minds” of “every man” (yes, the use of man is very intentional) and in doing so, seemed to limit intellectual discourse. A journalist (I wish I could remember who) responded to this trend in the most logical manner I had heard in quite some time by making it clear that we shouldn’t want an “every man” in the White House. We should want our president to be the smartest person in any room they walk into around the world. Unfortunately, that just hasn’t been the case, and the evidence continues to mount as we suffer from over-simplified justifications for otherwise illogical policy decisions.

Most recently in the ongoing sex(uality) education debate, the Louisiana legislature struck down a bill that would have given the state Department of Education the ability to ask teens about their sexual health. These questions, which are a part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted nationally by the CDC since 1991, ask young people about sexual activity and sexual risk behaviors. The survey is grounded in a solid public health approach, which is in keeping with a majority of mainstream comprehensive sexuality education, and avoids any discussion of morals or values related to sex(uality). However, legislators were concerned that asking about such activities would desensitize them and give them “ideas”. Louisiana law currently reads that

 It is the intent of the legislature that, for the purposes of this Section, “sex education” shall mean the dissemination of factual biological or pathological information that is related to the human reproduction system and may include the study of sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, childbirth, puberty, menstruation, and menopause, as well as the dissemination of factual information about parental responsibilities under the child support laws of the state.  It is the intent of the legislature that “sex education” shall not include religious beliefs, practices in human sexuality, nor the subjective moral and ethical judgments of the instructor or other persons.  Students shall not be tested, quizzed, or surveyed about their personal or family beliefs or practices in sex, morality, or religion.

Sex education is not required in the state, and is even banned in elementary schools. It amazes me that in 2014, when children are born with smartphones in their hands and Netflix accounts embroidered on their baby blankets, that we are still worried that discussing sex(uality) is somehow going to lead to increased rates of sexual activity. I realize that this is the same logic that has led to debates over discussing homosexuality, as if the mere mention of it will “turn kids gay”, but I can’t help but continue to shake my head. How long must we cater to an anti-intellectual fringe minority instead of the educators and researchers who continue to produce sound scientific evidence and pedagogically effective means of providing our young people with a well-rounded education that teaches them to think critically about the world around them. I can only assume that the ultimate threat isn’t that asking kids about sex will make them go have sex, but that it will encourage more critical thinking, which will lead to young people not blindly following outdated beliefs in the first place.

Clearly, those screaming the loudest in Louisiana aren’t presenting a more effective sexuality education curriculum and yet we continue to deny young people access to important health information. This out-of-touch ideology has led to a full 25% of students in the state not having had any education concerning HIV/AIDS, and higher than average pregnancy and birth rates (in a country that already has the highest rates in the industrialized world). Not surprisingly, the rates of HIV and STI infection in Louisiana are also well above the national average. Most recently (May 27), the legislature took the added step of banning any organization the provides abortions from distributing sex education materials in schools (H.B. 305). Planned Parenthood, who no doubt was the main focus of this legislation, is perhaps the largest private provider of sex education in the country.

Now, there are folks in Louisiana, as there are nationally, that are trying to combat these educational mistakes. Legislation has been presented in Louisiana several times over the past five years that would require comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education for young people but it has been defeated each time. Most recently, Rep. Patricia Smith (D), who sponsored the bill, went as far as to say that a lack of sex education “is really a form of child abuse.” These policy debates play out across the country every month, and young people are left twisting in the wind as a result. Until we make it clear to our elected officials that we want them to vote based on educated and informed evidence, they will continue to strike an unwritten bargain with a vocal minority that doesn’t reflect the beliefs of most citizens or the scientific evidence as a whole.

I realize that relatively small legislative decisions such as this can get lost in the black hole of larger social and political issues, but each of these decisions are connected to one another. As educators, it is our responsibility not only to provide young people with open-minded, diverse, and critical perspectives on a host of issues. We must also engage in these policy debates and voice our opinions to those elected officials that are responsible for defining the bounds of our discourse. They may not remember any single vote a few years from now, but our young people will be feeling the effects of those votes for years to come. Policy matters.

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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.

References

Andersson, T. & Boyer, M. (1970). Bilingual Schooling in the United States (2 volumes). Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Laboratory.

Chamot, A. U. (1992). Changing institutional needs of language minority students. Third National Research Symposium on LEP Students. Washington, DC: Department of Education.

Crawford, J. (2004). Educating English learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom. Los Angeles, CA: Bilingual Education Services.

Davis, D., & McDaid, J. (1992). Identifying second-language students’ needs: A survey of Vietnamese high school students. Urban Education, 6, 217-244.

Duff, P. A. & Uchida, Y. (1997). The negotiation of teachers’ sociocultural identities and practices in postsecondary ELF classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 451-486.

Lucas, T. (1992). What have we learned from research on successful secondary programs for LEP students? A synthesis of findings from three studies. Third National Research Symposium on LEP Student Issues. Washington, DC: Department of Education.

Lyons, J. J. (1990). The past and future directions of Federal bilingual-education policy. In C. B. Cazden & C. E. Snow (Eds.), Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 508, 119-134. London: Sage.

McCarty, T. L. (2004). Dangerous difference: A critical-historical analysis of language education policies in the United States. In J. W. Tollefson & A. B. M. Tsui (Eds.), Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda? Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Miguel, G. S. (2004). Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States 1960-2001. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press.

Nelson, C. D. (2005). Transnational/Queer: Narratives from the contact zone. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 21(2), 109-117.

Nelson, C. D. (2006). Queer inquiry in language education. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5(1), 1-9.

Nelson, C. D. (2009). Sexual identities in English language education: Classroom Conversations. New York: Routledge.

Ovando, C. J. (2003). Bilingual education in the United States: Historical development and current issues. Bilingual Research Journal, 27(1), 1-24.

Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction.Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pick, S., Givaudan, M. & Brown, J. (2000). Working for school-based sexuality education in Mexico: Strategies for advocacy. Reproductive Health Matters, 8(16), 92-102.

Pratt, M. L. (1999). Arts of the contact zone. In D. Bartholomae & A. Petrosky (Eds.), Ways of reading: An anthology for writers (5th ed.), pp. 581-596. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.

Valdes, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ward, J. V. & Taylor, J. M. (1992). Sexuality education for immigrant and minority students: Developing a culturally appropriate curriculum. In J. T. Sears (Ed.), Sexuality and the curriculum: The politics and practices of sexuality education (pp. 183-202). New York: Teachers College Press.

Wiley, T. G. (2002). Accessing language rights in education: A brief history of the US context. In J. W. Tollefson (Ed.), Language Policies in Education: Critical Issues. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Let’s Have “The Talk”

Did you have “the talk”? You know the one I’m talking about. The conversation with a parent, guardian, sibling, cousin, or some other random (hopefully not stranger) person related to you about that awkward and uncomfortable topic. I’m talking about SEX! Uh oh, the cat’s out of the bag. I’ve gone and named it. I said the “S word”. The next thing you know, I’ll be busting out the “F word”. I can probably guess what you are thinking, but I mean feminism. Anyway, the fact that you remember that conversation, or remember the general lack of an appropriate conversation is probably significant. In short, sex(uality) matters.

From the moment I picked up D’Emilio & Freedman’s Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, I was hooked. My own “talk” or lack there of, is fodder for another post. First, some introductions are in order. Well, I guess that could be part of the introduction, but I don’t want to give away the whole story when we’ve just only met. Let’s get to know each other first, eh? This blog is my attempt at broaching the diverse, intimate, often controversial, and seldom discussed topic of sex(uality). My word choice and formatting is quite intentional, and hopefully will continue to provoke such head-scratching moments as you are now experiencing- “what does he mean by ‘sex(uality)’? Why doesn’t he just say ‘sex’?

The answer, like many things, is complicated. As a researcher and generally well-meaning participant in our society, I view sexuality as a socially constructed notion falling somewhere in the space where history, identity, biology, politics, psychology, and theory intersect. The result is a pretty darn messy Venn diagram, but you get the idea. Over the lifespan of this blog, I will do my best to sit down with each of these intersecting ideas and have a sometimes serious, intelligent conversation. My goal is to explore the many ways that our ideas about sex and sexuality impact us on a micro, meso, and macro level. There is no sex(uality)-related topic that is out-of-bounds (until I stumble into it, anyway), and you will hopefully find yourself nodding in agreement at times, as well as questioning my ideas, and jumping at the opportunity to proffer a new or alternative idea. I welcome those comments, and look forward to the opportunity to engage you in dialogue on these topics, while also sharing resources, new research, current events, and doing my best give voice to marginalized groups in this discussion.

In many ways, most people in our society have been silenced around issues of sex(uality). It is a form of oppression that has many faces, and is often misunderstood. With that being said, our discussion and discourse around issues of sex and sex(uality) has historically been very White, middle-class, European, like many other aspects of society. The result has and continues to be a gap in the understanding of and education for historically marginalized populations, which is saying something considering the generally poor (but optimistically improving) state of sex(uality) education in this country. I approach these discussions from a feminist multicultural perspective, for reasons which will become clear as time goes on. I am guided by and motivated by my background, my identity, and my educational pursuits.

So, if you’ll indulge me, I invite you on a journey. This journey will chronicle my research endeavors, my ever-changing understanding of my identity, and hopefully some unique and interesting discussions on the topic of sex(uality). Together, let’s explore just why sex(uality) matters. Let’s have “the talk”.