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Negotiating State Policy in the Improvised Classroom: An Ethnographic Inquiry into Sexual Health Classrooms

Sat, August 12, 4:30 to 5:30pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 517B


In September 2015, the Ontario government updated their public school sexual-health curriculum causing outrage among parents. Meanwhile, teachers are tasked with navigating formal curriculum, parents’ concerns, students, and their own personal histories while teaching this class. Unlike much policy research on sexual health education which is concerned with sex education policy making, which debates types of sexual-health education given to students, or which questions whether the education is comprehensive, good or bad, this paper i) maps out the organization of the sexual-health classroom (and the larger political and social realm in which the classroom is a part) to discover how the organization of the classroom coordinates sexual-health lessons, and ii) uncovers the ways in which gender, class, and race are produced in these spaces. This paper is based on data generated through classroom-based ethnographic observation and interviews with four Ontario public school teachers responsible for health and sexual-health curriculum, as well as interviews with five other health teachers to supplement the ethnographic data. I find that the sexual-health classroom is organized around teachers’ negotiations of formal (institutional) and informal goals, inter-personal relations (such as imagined parents or inquisitive teens), and teachers’ own personal beliefs and histories, which significantly coordinates sexual health lessons. Moreover, teacher’s assumptions, such as about gender relations and student class-based life trajectories impact what and how they teach. In conclusion, this paper illuminates the interconnectedness of institutional, personal, and inter-personal relations of the classroom and educational landscape by mapping out the complicated work that sexual-health teachers do.