The Manitoba Teachers' Society has passed a motion demanding the government ensure same-sex families and issues around sexual orientation are reflected in the educational curricula. The president of the MTS, however, says these changes could be incorporated when a curriculum undergoes regular review. This is a very lengthy process and smaller, but significant changes, should begin immediately.
Back in 1977, I was part of a group concerned with sexism, racism and class bias in the schools. We produced a small booklet, Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up, which we used to argue our case to whoever would listen. Surprisingly, the government did, and I, along with Ellen Kruger and Roslyn Silversides, was contracted by the Department of Education and the Manitoba Human Rights Commission to write two resource books for teachers. Entitled Confronting the Stereotypes, these books promoted ways of dealing with the stereotypes at the elementary school level. They included amending, substituting, challenging or adding to existing material. Our goal was to allow all students to feel part of a learning environment where children could develop a sense of themselves without the limitations imposed by gender, race, religion, ethnic or economic circumstance.
The argument for curriculum change today is the same as it was then for children and youth who are or are in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer families and do not find themselves reflected in the classroom materials or reading. I am certain, without having done any research, there are few or no established reading series for elementary students with same-sex parents or gay siblings.
In our work, we analyzed each subject area and grade level and provided teachers with ideas, materials, references and activities they could undertake to challenge the bias in the materials and classroom work. Language changes and adapts. We provided alternative words for teachers to use instead of the sexist words common at the time. We no longer talk about spokesmen, postmen, firemen or forefathers. It is easy and comfortable now to speak of spokesperson, postal workers, firefighters or ancestors. LGBTQ is now pretty readily understood, but that was not so when the existing curriculum was developed. Teachers need information on books sensitive to LGBTQ issues now.
Bias can occur in different ways. First, by defamation or slandering that occurs when students or materials use homophobic, racist or sexist language, which is pervasive in schools. Bias also occurs by inertia, because of the failure to keep up with historical research or fact.
We see, for example, many instances of same-sexed, or biracial or single-parent families on television and in popular media, but few references in curriculum. Bias by distortion involves stereotyping such as the overwhelming presentation of families as composed of a middle-class white husband and wife and two children. Bias by obliteration occurs when, for example, an article appears about the great Canadian railroad with no reference to the thousands of Chinese brought in to build it or when no material is presented with LGBTQ references.
After our books were published, they were distributed to every elementary school in the province. Of course, the people who used them the most were those who already understood the bias in the school material and were looking for ideas and support in changing the school environment. For them, it was particularly helpful but it also introduced discussions in the staff rooms and in the community as a whole. It was part of a change happening on a broader scale, just as the issues around sexual orientation are today.
When we began our work, a lot of the people felt we were interfering with the rights of teachers, and were promoting a women's-liberation perspective they did not support. No doubt some of these same people today will oppose bringing sexual orientation into the classroom and believe it will destroy families and wreak havoc on society.
But most thoughtful people would like to see children grow up to achieve their potential regardless of their class, ethnicity, race, gender or sexual orientation. If our schools cannot support that, it is a loss for all of us.
My recommendation to the teachers is that they get this process started immediately. Insist that the government provide some funding and let those teachers who understand the issue have some help with the existing curricula and identify reference materials and ideas to help students. Continue with the unnecessarily long and laborious process of changing the curricula. But if students today are not living up to their potential because of bias in the schools, that process will take too long.
Linda Taylor is a Winnipeg freelance writer.