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phys ed

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

"What's fisting?"

The question came up during Laurie's first semester of teaching sex ed at a Toronto high school.

The 29-year-old physical education teacher, who did not want her full name used, told the student that it was "a very mature thing," and steered the conversation safely away.

Mostly, the questions she fields are about pregnancy, and these flow when Laurie sets up her confidential question box. To get her students thinking about sexually transmitted infections, she screens the "most disgusting slideshow I could possibly show them" as a "scare tactic."

Laurie exemplifies the keen health-class instructor.

But at a time when curriculum advisers are pushing for increasingly sophisticated lessons that venture well beyond the anatomy chart, some teachers are less than enthusiastic, and the unit has become the blight of their semester.

One teacher at a Toronto east-end high school said he pops in Dave Chappelle standup comedy DVDs instead of teaching his Grade 12s the birds and the bees. Others trim the health unit down from the already slim four weeks allotted to it, while some cancel health class altogether if the sun is shining down on the soccer field.

That reticence is hardly surprising: Teachers face cramped weight rooms full of diverse, pubescent kids whose sexual experiences are moulded on Internet porn, and who would rather die than tap their phys ed teacher for relationship advice in front of their peers.

Critics say this fraught relationship, as well as a lack of time and resources, mean kids aren't getting the information they need, or want: A survey conducted by Planned Parenthood Toronto found teens want more on healthy relationships and sexual pleasure, and less on the placement of fallopian tubes.

At the core of the problem is that health education has long been "really low on the totem pole," says Mike Pasquale, who taught at Toronto's Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute for two decades before retiring in 2004.

By the time national guidelines put out by the Public Health Agency of Canada - which were recently revised and agitate for a focus on healthy relationships - trickle down through the province to the board and out to the classroom, they're "diluted," said Mr. Pasquale, who fielded plenty of "locker room" questions in his day.

Although teachers are supposed to work from the provincial curriculum, departments independently decide how much time to devote to a health unit, which is also supposed to address meaty topics such as drug abuse and self-esteem.

"What can you do in two weeks?" Mr. Pasquale said.

In Canada, sex ed is supposed to start in Grade 5. Students begin with relationships, hygiene and puberty and move on to reproductive organs in Grade 6 and STIs, protection and abstinence in Grade 7. Many students are too overwhelmed by academic courses to continue phys ed past Grade 9, when it becomes an elective. This means many never receive sex ed past the age of 14.

Most frustrating to teachers is a lack of time and infrastructure.

Jane, a 33-year-old phys ed teacher who did not want her full name used, teaches sex ed among the equipment in a weight room. Her Grade 9 classes typically have more than 30 girls, and Jane drags a vinyl curtain across the space because another class works out in the other half of the room. The lack of privacy can be a problem for her teenaged students, many of whom have serious questions.

"They want to know why people have sex, what it's like, and is it really scary," said Jane, adding that in nearly every class, there are questions about the orgasm: "They want to know what it is."

Asked if she felt equipped to talk to girls about the psychological ins and outs of good romantic relationships, Jane said, "not really."

"You go to teacher's college and they teach you about curriculum expectations and then all of a sudden you're thrown in front of 30 girls talking about sex. How do you teach this kind of stuff if you can't do it yourself?"

Diversity poses other challenges. Many of Jane's students are new immigrants; she said some girls don't know that the monthly bleeding they are experiencing is a menstrual cycle.

"There's such a wide diversity in prior knowledge that it's very difficult to design lesson plans that keep everybody stimulated and involved."

Students are also malcontent. Alison Vicrobeck, a Grade 10 student at le Collège Français, had one day devoted to sex ed in Grade 9. She watched a video on STIs, and got quizzed on it afterwards.

"Everything that we want to learn we kind of have to learn through each other and each other's experiences and I don't think that's really appropriate," said Ms. Vicrobeck, 15.

Fan Wu, a Grade 12 student at Toronto's Don Mills Collegiate Institute, said sex ed failed to engage the students.

"We didn't even get to experience the classic 'condom on banana' demonstration," said Mr. Wu.

While teachers were "competent," the curriculum was lacking: The focus on vaginal intercourse was "a bit outdated" since oral and anal sex intrigue teens now, Mr. Wu said.

All in all, sex ed was "wholly forgettable."

Mr. Pasquale said it was a different story in the eighties, when he collaborated with public-health nurses to teach a Grade 11 health elective that ran a full semester. They helped him bring in compelling guest speakers, including teen mothers, child support experts, recovered drug addicts, victims of domestic violence and "kids that were dying of AIDS."

"When you bring in a 'real actor' as the kids used to say, boy, you could hear a pin drop."

Word of mouth filled the classes up every semester, but the course slumped after provincial funding cuts limited access to the nurses. When Mr. Pasquale retired, the course was abandoned: None of his colleagues wanted to take the torch.

"Too much work," Mr. Pasquale said.

Ultimately, just as curriculum advisers rally for more mature sex ed, conservative parents are gaining power. Last month, Alberta passed legislation that allows parents to yank their kids out of classes related to sex, sexual orientation and religion, without academic penalty.

Mr. Pasquale said the public-school system is about "openness," and that parents "need to step up.

"It's your kid," he said.

"You've got these people that have questions. They're looking for answers. If [they]can't get it at home, and if they can't get it at school, and if the church won't deal with it, where are you going to go to get this answer?"