Educators Try Teaching Teens to 'Love Well'
In the effort to promote responsible behavior among youth, yesterday's 'sex ed' has evolved into today's 'character ed'
THE students in Nancy Flescher's eighth grade English class at Wellesley Middle School are in their second year of what might loosely be called ''sex education.'' In seventh grade it was the typical health class, explaining the human reproductive system. This winter it's the ''Loving Well'' curriculum, which attempts to explore moral choices concerning sexuality through the use of literature.Skip to next paragraph
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Or, as Ms. Flescher puts it, ''In seventh grade it was the 'how to.' This is the 'why not.' ''
Loving Well was developed by education researchers at Boston University (BU), building on earlier, federally funded work in ''character education'' -- a term they prefer over ''sex education.'' Their project, under way for about seven years, is one element in a national drive to find ways of strengthening morality among young Americans. This effort is seen in an emphasis on ''shame'' in the juvenile-justice system, in frequent political exhortations about flagging values, and in an array of school curricula based on character or values.
Stephan Ellenwood, a professor of education at BU who helped create Loving Well, says that research shows that kids from various backgrounds respond positively to short stories, poems, and even fairy tales that deal with timeless issues of relationships and responsibility.
Over the years, this approach has won allies from both liberals and conservatives. William Bennett, former secretary of education and a prominent conservative spokesman, was an early supporter of BU's character-education work, according to Nancy McLaren, who coordinates the project. But political backing is a subject Loving Well's creators don't dwell on.
''Our underlying belief,'' says Mr. Ellenwood, is that literature ''can help people slow down'' and be more reflective. ''In essence, it's an anti-impulse program.''
The youngsters in Flescher's class strike something of a reflective tone as they volunteer answers to her questions about a selection from the Loving Well text, an account of a teenage father titled ''Ben's Story.''
One girl, Meg, suggests that the boy in the story was pressured into sexual intimacy with his girlfriend by talk about sex among his football-team buddies. ''That could be a problem, if all the guys are talking about it,'' says a classmate, Kevin.
Do 14-year-olds in this wealthy suburb of Boston feel similar pressures? Not with regard to sex, another girl says, but clothes and social cliques are another matter.
Catching kids early
Why talk about these issues in eighth grade if the challenges are more likely to come later in high school? Three or four kids have answers, all of which revolve around the need to start thinking seriously about relationships now in order to avoid drifting toward the kinds of problems faced by the character Ben. Another boy in the class, Matt, observes, ''The book really makes you think about the consequences.''