RANT: Gender Diversity and Equity, Safety and Consent in Physical Education

Gender Diversity and Equity, Safety and Consent in Physical Education juicygreenmom

I wrote a letter to my child’s school administration about concerns I had about her Grade 8 Physical Education class.

(My original letter is here on my Substack or Instagram or Facebook.)

After this letter, I had a meeting with my child’s Physical Education teacher and Assistant Principal. Here’s a summary of what I took away from the conversations on the 2 main topics.

Part 1: boys & girls in segregated groups

I expressed concern about segregating students into “boys” and “girls” groups because it is not inclusive of students who are outside of the gender binary.

I was told:

Girls are at a disadvantage when it comes to fundamental skills in physical education, particularly at the Grade 8 level.

I was told that because girls today are still socialized as being “inferior” to boys with regards to physical activities, they aren’t starting in the same place as boys in terms of skill level at age 13-14. Boys typically have more opportunity to develop skills in childhood. For some units in Grade 8 Physical Education class, it is necessary to segregate girls from boys to allow girls the chance to develop fundamental skills and flourish. If they are always placed with boys, boys tend to dominate and girls are not given the opportunity to develop skills and confidence. This is, of course, a generalization, and there are certainly exceptions. Girls’ performance in a co-ed class vs an all girls class can vary drastically.

I proposed:

What about separating into groups based on skill level rather than gender?

I’ve heard some parents report their schools have “play for fun” and “play for competition” groups, rather than gender segregated groups. The PhysEd teacher had said that sometimes individual girls will request to be in the boys group because they want to be more challenged for that particular unit, and they are accommodated. So my thinking is: then why do we need to call it “girls” and “boys” groups? Why not “rec” and “competitive”? This would allow full inclusion of any students who don’t adhere to the gender binary without having to make exceptions for them.

I was told rec & competitive groups (instead of boys & girls) isn’t feasible.

I was told this is tricky for junior high age because: 

1. Kids are often inaccurate at rating which group they should be in, and 

2. Kids want to be in the group with their friends, not necessarily in the group they should be in. Therefore giving them this choice can result in children being placed in groups that aren’t appropriate for their skill level. 

My afterthoughts:

What about having parents select the appropriate skill level group for each unit at the beginning of the year? Like an online form with checkboxes that gets completed with all the other forms given at the start of the school year. There could be a caveat that the PhysEd teachers will assign the student into the group they deem the best fit if the parent doesn’t complete the form. Making this a universal strategy would provide a more inclusive environment for ALL students, rather than making exceptions where a student is forced to be singled out.

I proposed:

What about having a third group?

What if kids could choose between a girls class, a boys class, and a co-ed class? 

I was told this isn’t feasible. 

Logistically this doesn’t currently work because then a third Physical Education teacher would be required, which would require more funding for additional staffing.

(Personally, I still think this would be the most ideal option. In the same way kids choose their option classes, they could choose the physed class they’re most comfortable with.)

Bottom line:

Currently, kids can say what they need and be accommodated.

I was told that if kids advocate for themselves, tell the staff that they don’t fit into the gender binary and want to be in one group vs the other, they will be accommodated. 

When kids are separated by gender for specific units, they can speak up and say they want to be in the other group and be accommodated (e.g., if a girl is a strong basketball player, she can request to be with the boys group for that unit). 

BUT: This still places the onus on the children to be able to self-advocate, which I still don’t believe is a realistic expectation for junior high kids. And it still means that kids have to be okay with being “the exception.” Which means they will still be singled out or “different” than the other kids.

What now?

Based on this particular discussion, I don’t think anything is going to change at our school.

The message I got was that the administration of the school really sets the tone. Even though I brought up alternatives, I felt I was being told that none of them were realistic, and that running a smooth class was the ultimate goal, not inclusion. 

I am also going to approach my school board trustee to go “further up the chain” to discuss potential policy changes that would involve increased costs (like hiring more staff).

What did I learn from this experience?

This was an act of micro-activism, and it wasn’t easy for me. I experienced a lot of anxiety before going into the meeting, and did a lot of reading about school board policies and provincial curriculum to prepare myself. I can see why many of the parents who agree with me on these issues don’t go further and speak to their school administrators and teachers about them. It takes a lot of energy and effort.

BUT. It did provide an opportunity for discussion and potentially increased awareness of the issues for all of us involved. 

AND. Change will only happen if we push for it to happen. 

What are your thoughts on the issue of gender-segregated groups for PhysEd?

And what do you think of my proposed solutions?

join the discussion on my Instagram post:

Part 2: partner dancing in social dance

I expressed concern about safety and consent with regards to touching between students in partner dancing, especially when partnered with someone a student is uncomfortable with. I was especially concerned about bodily autonomy, particularly at the junior high age.

I was told:

Children can choose their partners, and there is no requirement for being with someone of the opposite gender. (Even though it was STRONGLY suggested to my child’s class that they dance with opposite-gender partners.) However, when doing mixer-style dances, there are quick and frequent partner changes where children do not “choose” their partners. I was told that accommodations can be made for children who do not want to switch partners, that they can stick with the same partner. 

My main question: Why partner dancing?

I reviewed the Grade 8 curriculum (my child’s current grade) and didn’t see anything about requiring partner dancing. 

I was told that mixer-style dances are the focus in Grade 8. The quick partner changes in this style are intended to provide scaffolding for Grade 9 where partner dancing is the focus.

I was mistakenly led to believe that the Grade 9 social dance curricular outcomes DO state partner dancing. I was told that accommodations could be made for children who only want to dance with one partner, or for children who would prefer to learn the moves by themselves.

Again, the fact that junior high aged children have to self-advocate and be “the exceptions” if they don’t want to follow the norm of partner dancing made me feel yucky. 

I looked up the Grade 9 curriculum after the meeting and it states:

Students will:

  • A9-8 create, refine and present a variety of dance sequences; e.g., jazz, square, social and novelty, alone and with others
  • A9-9 choreograph and perform dance sequences, using the elements of movement and basic dance steps and patterns
  • A9-12 apply and refine ways to improve the functional and expressive qualities of movements, that combine basic skills in a variety of gymnastic experiences individually, with a partner, or in a group; e.g., educational, rhythmic and artistic

*This is the current Alberta curriculum.

“individually, with a partner, or in a group” – to me, the “OR” signifies that those are OPTIONS, and not REQUIREMENTS. If it said “individually, with a partner, AND in a group” then I would consider all three of those things to be required.

So then I wrote back to the assistant principal to clarify – hey, it doesn’t explicitly state partner dancing as a requirement. So again, I ask – why partner dancing, when I have brought up my concerns around safety and consent (which I do not think are issues to be taken lightly)?

I received this reply:

“Common pedagogical practice would lend most teachers to choose either group experiences or partner experiences pending the stylistic choice of Dance used to implement the learning outcomes. It is best practice to give all students the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills in a wide variety of environments, this would mean that at some point in their Jr High School path of Social Dance they will have encountered a partner style dance. Whereby the dynamics of the classroom will determine the type of partner pairing (same sex or otherwise – generally based on numbers and teacher’s discretion and comfortability with instruction), the teachers have spent time developing a scaffolded program that bring students into the idea of alone, to group, to partner with thoughtful planning for curriculum development and human flourishing.”

When I was in the meeting and brought up the fact that there are children (not just my kid!) who wouldn’t feel comfortable with partner dancing, but also wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking up about it, I was told they could be accommodated IF THEY SPOKE UP. (But what if they aren’t able to speak up??)

I was also told that there are children at the other end of the spectrum who really want to do partner dancing and were actually disappointed that the teachers did not “force them to have opposite gender partners.” So it’s hard for the teachers to accommodate everyone. They don’t want to deny certain children the opportunity to explore partner dancing (and touching??). 

But my concern about safety and consent isn’t about trying to accommodate as many people as possible. If there are children who want to touch each other, I think they have plenty of opportunity to do that in all kinds of settings, like junior high dances. But why are we catering to them and endangering the children who don’t feel safe about having to touch and be touched by others? 


What now?

I am putting together another letter to reiterate my concerns and provide evidence from other parents and teachers I have spoken to who have reported:

  • Their school doesn’t do partner dancing in the social dance unit.
  • They as Physical Education teachers have used other forms of dancing to meet the curricular outcomes, to avoid having the children touch each other.
  • Parents who went through partner dancing as young teens had traumatic experiences where they were touched inappropriately by their partner, but did not feel they could speak up about it.

What are your thoughts on the use of partner dancing in junior high Physical Education?

What advice do you have for me on this issue?

join the discussion on my Instagram post:

I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts, and experiences with regards to gender diversity and equity, and safety and consent in the context of junior high Physical Education!


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