Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Schools Playing Catch-Up

This morning's Washington Post had a feature article on a sex-ed teacher in MCPS who has seen it all.

Here's how it starts:
Susan Soule was a sex education teacher for decades before she ever had a student identify herself as gay in front of the class.

It was in the late 1990s, and by then the subject that Soule began teaching in 1973 as little more than a guarded anatomy lesson had been buffeted by the emergence of AIDS, test tube fertilization, the gay pride movement and other earthquakes of the sexuality landscape. A few days into a class discussion that Soule had led countless times before, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School raised her hand and matter-of-factly declared that she was a lesbian.

For a breakthrough, Soule recalled, it proved an unremarkable moment.

"She was very comfortable saying it," Soule, 55, said. "The other students were like, 'Oh? Really?' And then we moved on. It was very simple." Teacher Takes a Long View of Sex-Ed: Montgomery Pilot Program Part of Movement Toward Greater Openness

One of the odd things about all this "controversy" over teaching about sexual orientation in the schools is that it's water under the bridge. The world has changed already. It's done.

When I was in high school, we didn't know about any gay students. Now you know they were there, but at the time they kept quiet about it. In those days, homosexuality was something involving strange people, somewhere else. It wasn't about somebody you actually knew, and it couldn't possibly be somebody right in your class.

I don't know why it was like that, it just was.

But today in high school, some kids are gay, and some aren't. There are still all the usual subgroups of angst-hounded adolescents, and nowadays some of them are gay or lesbian. Whatever happened, happened; the whole concept of being gay came out of the closet.
It has become far more common for students to assert their homosexuality from their school desks, said Soule, who now teaches the same subject at Wheaton's John F. Kennedy High School. Last week, as Montgomery County schools prepared to wrap up pilot testing on a curriculum that would open the way for deeper discussions of sexual and gender identity, Soule noted that it is not the first time official lessons are playing catch-up with the students.

"One thing that has always been true is that the kids are much more at ease with all of this than the grown-ups are," said Soule, whose 18-week Comprehensive Health class includes units on mental health, violence, addiction and infectious disease. "Nobody blinks an eye."

Kids grow up together, they change over time, but they accept each other as they are. My kids have had a number of friends over the years who turned out to be gay; some of them it was like, <rolls_eyes> duh, and some caught them by surprise. In any case, never was it any big deal, as far as I know nobody ever broke off a friendship over it.

But about this teacher ...
She lives in Gaithersburg and said she doesn't find much difference between upcounty and downcounty attitudes toward sex education. "In my experience, the vast majority of parents support it," she said. The health class is mandated by the state for all 10th-graders, but parents can request that their children not be exposed to any part of the curriculum.

According to Soule, fewer than 1 percent of parents countywide exercise that option. The material on homosexuality and condom use now being tested required, for the pilot phase, additional consent from parents. School administrators said about 91 percent got their parent's consent to participate.

Under current guidelines, teachers can talk about homosexuality only in direct response to a student's question. The pilot curriculum includes it as part of the standard lesson. "Before, students had to ask," Soule said. "Some classes got it; some didn't."

Look, the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum want to stop something that can't be stopped. They want to turn back time, and it doesn't go that way.

The school district has humored them, it seems to me, more than they should have. Well, it was an innocent mistake, they assumed these were decent, reasonable people -- after all, they always said they were. The first new curriculum, which we call sometimes the "Fishback curriculum," bent over backwards to include conservative views. That citizens advisory committee was loaded up with people representing conservative groups. In fact, the CRC was started by members of the citizens advisory committee that David Fishback chaired. An assumption within that group was that you could negotiate with those people, you could reach a compromise that made everyone happy, and it was a good, idealistic thing to try.

But the fact is, the betterthanyou members never wanted to find a common ground, they wouldn't negotiate, they didn't think they had to. They were so sure they were absolutely morally superior to everybody else that they didn't have to consider other points of view.

Sadly for them, the rest of the county has refused to play along. One wild scheme after another has failed -- from trying to recall the school board to having to apologize to the board for threats on their web site, to stamped, self-addressed anti-curriculum letters that people changed and sent to the school district with messages favoring the changes, to the famous town-hall meeting where the CRC had to apologize for their bigoted speakers, to reprimands over misuse of the PTA directories, to ... [tons of stuff skipped here] ... the latest grand attempt to undermine the pilot testing, the CRC has failed at everything. They got one 10-day restraining order two years ago, that's it, that's their success.

They tried everything to stop it, but the world has moved on.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Susan Soule is one of the most remarkable teachers I have ever known (retired teacher here). When she speaks, people listen. Her students have always had incredible respect for her because she respects them. And she has always been a strong supporter of GLBT students and their unique needs. What readers might not know or remember is that she served on the Family Life and Human Development Advisory Committee several years ago...her input was always wise, professional, and right on target. She was also selected as Maryland's Health Teacher of the Year (I think that was the honorific) a couple of years ago.

April 10, 2007 12:36 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

That's great then that the Post chose to write up this unique person. It is an unusual article, in that it focuses on Ms. Soule as a person. I'm glad to hear that she really is that good, and that she has been supporting our cause for a long time.


April 10, 2007 1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MSNBC also featured her and Wash. Post story.



April 10, 2007 2:15 PM  
Blogger grantdale said...


You've hit the nail on the head. Again.

"We" have always existed, and people knew that. But "we" were expected to hide -- regardless of the harm that caused "us" and the absence of any benefit this gave "you".

Fear drove that dynamic. And times have changed.

The CRC people wish the times had not changed. They ask for "us" to again be harmed, but offer no benefit for doing that "you".

Gladly, "you" aren't prepared to accept that for "you" or "us" any more.

That is what really pisses them off.

April 10, 2007 2:43 PM  
Blogger JimK said...


Most of the time I feel like the biggest idiot in the world, trying to discuss these topics that I don't really know anything about, beyond common sense. I decided long ago to just take the bull-in-a-china-shop approach and try to say straightforwardly what I'm thinking, trusting that my heart is in a good place.

I appreciate your vote of confidence.


April 10, 2007 3:09 PM  

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