Relationship education a gap in the curriculum

Critical thinking about God, and relationship teaching were two major gaps in Catholic school religious modules, identified at the Catholic Education Convention last month.
But at least one RE teacher says this gap may have been filled at her school

Cecily McNeill

Critical thinking about God, and relationship teaching were two major gaps in Catholic school religious modules, identified at the Catholic Education Convention last month.

But at least one RE teacher says this gap may have been filled at her school in the last couple of years after a survey showed relationship breakups were the biggest challenge for teenagers.

The national convention, which attracted some 800 participants from throughout the country, was held at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre on 31 August to 2 September.

One of the workshops heard students’ voices from different perspectives of Catholic education and some of the speakers talked to Wel-com afterwards.

Antonia McBryde who left school five years ago, said she realised the teachers were fully stretched with a busy curriculum but she felt there was a gap in teaching about how to get on with others.

After she left school, Antonia presented with others a programme called Postponing Sexual Involvement or PSI, a life-skills programme for years 9 and 10 students which the Auckland-based Family Education Network developed.

In five, weekly modules, the interactive programme is about how to talk to your boyfriend or girlfriend, media pressure, assertiveness techniques, making responsible decisions and knowing that a natural consequence of your actions should never be something unplanned, unwanted, or unexpected.

‘You start with perceptions of self and where those come from – from within, from without. By the end they [participants] evaluate [the presentation]. The feedback is quite good. The kids seem quite impressed.’

Matt Mullany, who left school last year, says he would like to have had a programme like PSI in his time at school.

His fourth form religious education [RE] class discussed sex in terms of health but it was superficial.

‘It was one of those topics that you maybe touch round the edges but you don’t explore more, like go into the deeper aspects of sexuality. I can’t even really remember. Health was discussed but only really on the surface.

‘With the benefit of hindsight, I would have been really keen to do something like PSI – even just sort of explore sexuality in an educational environment – more actively.’

Tele’a Andrews who left school in 2003 says he felt the students were not challenged to engage with the issues. He says he tried to pull out of RE because he felt it was irrelevant.

‘The classes were not stimulating. I didn’t enjoy the lack of discussion. I’d just zone out. Everyone was just real apathetic about it.’

He said there was little attempt to place sex and sexuality in the context of a loving relationship.

‘We had sex ed in third form and puberty in third form and then STIs [sexually transmitted infections] in seventh form – that’s crazy. Then drumming it home – sex before marriage is bad. There was no bridging.’

Likewise discussion about spirituality was quite superficial and ritualised. There was little guidance about how to articulate spirituality in his life and to take responsibility for the practice of religion.

‘That’s a really bumpy road for a lot of people because they’re not prepared enough at school to own what they’re doing. And I certainly think that’s the way it is at a lot of colleges. Do this, do that. Cool. Ostensibly be Catholic. After school then you can search for what it really means.’

Matt says he had a great experience in his RE classes at school. But he admits it helped to have a ‘thirst’ for the gospel.

‘I had a lot of friends around me who were inspired but I also have friends that came up from college maybe scratching their heads a bit as to where they go with their spirituality. … You can only tell people a certain amount. It’s up to them what they do with it. You have to want to go out and find that knowledge.’

Antonia says she missed the experience of active engagement with the topic in her RE classes at school. Her classmates were reluctant to join in discussions and any attempt to stimulate discussion often fell flat.

When she left school she did the Young Adults Ministry Leadership Formation Programme which ‘changed my life’. She said being with other young people who really wanted to learn about the faith inspired her.

‘Practising the things we were learning gave me ownership. … the community aspect meant that there was a network there.’

Antonia has been involved with the Catholic chaplaincy at Victoria University and with the Young Adults Ministry. Tele’a is now involved with his former school, helping out with retreats and leading focus groups on aspects of spirituality. All three admit that, with their passion for the gospel and the church, they’re probably unusual among their peers.

Meanwhile, the director of religious studies at St Patrick’s College, Kilbirnie, says the RE/Sexuality programme has changed in the last few years to address the needs of their students.

The school surveyed former students a couple of years ago and discovered that the breakup of relationships tended to be a challenge that was far ahead of anything else for students.

The survey showed that students were most affected by their relationships and had greater difficulty coping when a relationship broke up than almost any other challenge they met in their schooling.

Lorraine Fairfield says the school used the results of the survey to design a programme in which classes on sexuality and relationships are presented in a variety of ways. These include a comedy group, and parents with their babies and toddlers who work with the students.

The school’s RE programme focuses on the sacredness of life in terms of sexuality. There are a number of principles involved based on the importance of students understanding Catholic teaching. The teachers try to explain this in a context that students can relate to.

She says the church’s teachings are often seen negatively – ‘what we are not allowed to do’ – but the students need to understand the positive values behind them.

‘I have learned a lot from listening to the students and hearing about their questions and fears,’ she says.

In using varied ways to present a programme to the students, Lorraine invites a comedy group, Attitude, into the school, to present key messages about living a healthy, fruitful life. They use humour and stories to get their message across and often ‘have the kids rolling in the aisles’ while imparting the same information the teachers have already given.

The school also uses the PSI programme presented by 19-year-old to 23-year-olds who look at why young people become sexually active and the role of the media, advertising, music, videos, songs and movies. Another programme, Tots ‘n’ Toddlers is run by the Plunket Society. This includes up to five lessons on what it means to be a parent, aimed at replacing the romantic connotations with reality. This promotes parenthood as ‘fantastic and awesome’ as well as ‘exhausting and a huge responsibility’.

The module also looks at different types of love as expressed in the bible. ‘The Song of Songs’ and the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 are used to look at eros – the erotic, passionate love – and agape – the strong, friendship-based love.

Lorraine says the students ‘need to be able to debate conscience and morality issues and express their sexuality in a safe environment’ so the school provides opportunities – retreats or open forums where this might happen.