When I began my teaching career, I had the benefit of working alongside one of the most brilliant, forward-thinking minds to ever grace a classroom. My mentor and pal, Beth, lives to challenge her students to think, and from her passion transpired an opportunity to move them beyond reading and writing and toward feeling and doing; she created The RIGHTS Project. RIGHTS stands for:
Humanity for a
Beth will tell you that she and I co-created this project, but she really just threw ideas at me and I was like, “YES TO ALL OF IT!” because I knew she was on to something big. Our brainstorming sessions evolved into a research-based, cross-curricular project with an ultimate goal of driving awareness to examples of human rights violations, while encouraging compassion and tolerance. Inevitably, we encountered a few unhappy parents because our project included examples of homo and bisexuality, but overall, our diverse community welcomed the topics with open arms.
As educators, it’s our privilege to teach young minds how to think about ideas and facts; how to ingest information, produce something with it, and then if we’ve done our job well enough, to be moved to feel or do something with that information. Go to college, start a campaign, use more three syllable words. Whatever “do something” means; it’s different for every student. Our RIGHTS Project did just that, and we were thrilled with the end result. Students demonstrated empathy as they were exposed to the deplorable conditions under which fellow human beings were forced to live–and die–by, such as cultural genocide and the injustice of Jim Crow Laws.
All this to say I am not opposed to a curriculum that aims to educate kids about events that take place outside of their little fish bowls.
So when I heard about the proposed new curriculum by the Fairfax County Public School System, the teacher in me immediately wanted to know more, and the parent in me knew it would be a big ol’ shit show. The county plans to include gender identity and transgender issues in its “family life curriculum for grades 7 through 12.” Specifically, middle school students will learn the:
definitions for sexual orientation terms heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality; and the gender identity term transgender. Emphasis will be placed on recognizing that everyone is experiencing changes and the role of respectful, inclusive language in promoting an environment free of bias and discrimination.
All that means is students will learn vocabulary words and be encouraged to treat everyone with respect. I say KUDOS!
But then there’s this part:
Eighth graders will be taught…Individual identity (has) four parts – biological gender, gender identity (includes transgender), gender role, and sexual orientation (includes heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual). The district will also introduce young teenagers to the ‘concept that sexuality is a broader spectrum. By tenth grade, they will be taught that one’s sexuality ‘develops throughout a lifetime.‘
I struggle with that because it all seems so subjective. Not everyone believes that individual identity consists of those four components or that any of them are fluid. This topic is steeped in emotion and laden with varying, incendiary opinion. Whether you’re for or against the new curriculum, support and opposition are both articulated by nothing more than opinion. Which is why discussing such a sensitive topic in school is unsettling for so many parents.
I’m not trying to go all Kim Davis and deny anyone his rights, or the scope of sexuality. My children will grow up knowing about gender issues whether my husband and I discuss them or not; the media has made sure of it. I don’t particularly care that my kids know, but I do care how and when they know. Is eighth grade, already a vulnerable time for a lot of kids who are like, AHHH! What are these hairs down there?!, really the right age to broach such a delicate subject? I think open dialogue is valuable, and contrary to what some believe, we can’t talk a man into being gay and I’m no less married because my gal pals legally put a ring on it, but discussing gender issues when most kids are only beginning to think about their own gender can create confusion. And don’t we have to respect the fact that there are parents who don’t want their kids learning about these issues in eighth grade, or at all? It doesn’t matter that I’m not one of them or that someone reading this will agree with the man who actually compared the new curriculum to what the Jews experienced in Nazi Germany. Seriously, if that guy is allowed to speak in public, why can’t two women marry?!
But I digress.
You may have noticed my omission of religion throughout this whole piece. That was done on purpose, and it’s not because I’m opposed to it. Fairfax County Public Schools are just that–public–and separation of church and state exists for a reason. Though it does bear mentioning that religion is a set of ideals not everyone shares, and is therefore not welcomed in public schools; this curriculum could be viewed the same: an opinion based on a set of ideals shared by some, not all. One journalist cited the Bible as the reason he takes issue with the new curriculum, and that was the moment this church-going cradle Catholic questioned his credibility. Not everyone views gender issues through a religious lens because, in very simplistic terms, religion is opinion. Unfortunately, parts of this new curriculum also fall under that same umbrella, which make them–like religion–something that is up for individual interpretation and best suited for families to discuss at home.
Am I a hypocrite? The “co-creator” of the RIGHTS Project isn’t 100% on board with Fairfax’s new curriculum! Part of the reason why is because if the goal is to create a more inclusive and empathetic school culture, why is the county starting and stopping at gender identity issues? Why didn’t they add Muslim rights education to their curriculum after 9/11? Why are they not including current race issues? Maybe they have, and gender issues is the only one making headlines. Obviously I am not against incorporating instruction that advocates for basic human RIGHTS (see what I did there?), but Fairfax seems to be packaging opinion as factual education.
Or maybe I’m simply not understanding what, specifically, the curriculum entails. I don’t think the school district even knows what it entails! If I applaud forward thinking, having seen great results from brilliance first-hand, why am I still struggling to determine how I feel about this? It’s not a brand new class; it’s a few lessons (which amounts to, what, five hours over the span of three years?) about a topic students will be exposed to whether parents like it or not. I would prefer my children learn about transgender issues in an educational setting rather than from a pimply-faced 16-year-old spouting off nonsense from the back of the bus, but ultimately, I would like to have that conversation with my kids instead of a teacher I don’t know.
At the end of the day, Fairfax’s new curriculum comes down to this: no one can argue a mathematical algorithm; parents don’t question the parts of speech. But content as subjective and susceptible to attack as this will be argued and it will be questioned. Is that reason enough not to include it? Or is that the best reason to include it?