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.
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.''
Ms. McLaren was on hand to observe Flescher's class and has visited many other schools that use the Loving Well curriculum. The material had five years of field testing in Massachusetts and South Carolina, she explains, in schools from inner-city Boston neighborhoods to tiny hamlets on South Carolina's Piedmont.
Wherever they live, teens ''have a tendency to see themselves alone in the world,'' McLaren says. When characters in the stories come alive for kids, ''they feel like they've been there before. And the sheer act of reading in an electronic age is an anti-impulse experience in itself,'' Ellenwood adds.
The selections in the book, ''The Art of Loving Well,'' published by BU, took a year to compile and have been revised a number of times. Authors include John Updike, Maya Angelou, and D.H. Lawrence, as well as William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, and the Brothers Grimm.
It's not always easy to convince '90s teenagers that stories set in the 1950s, or much further back, are relevant to their lives. But that's part of the effort, McLaren says, to show kids that the relationship issues they may be wrestling with are a perennial part of human life. And the relative ''neutrality'' of literature as a means of instruction makes discussion of such complex matters easier for both students and teachers, the BU scholars say.
Values in schools
They admit some schools have been a ''little wary'' of character education -- an area many Americans feel is best reserved for the home or church. Ellenwood says he is not aware of any organized objection to the Loving Well curriculum, which has spread far beyond the test states. He does, however, recall a meeting between educators and parents in Maine where a father objected to some of the description in an Updike story, ''A&P,'' about a teenage supermarket checker's reactions when three girls wander into his store in bathing suits.
That controversy was quelled, Ellenwood says, when the local principal reminded the father how mild the material was compared with what his son was seeing everyday on television.
Still, it hasn't been easy to find stories that ''have sufficient literary merit and are thematically relevant,'' Ellenwood says. The federal Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs, which funded field testing of the program, asked for more ethnically diverse material. State and local school officials have examined the curriculum. The selections ''had to pass the censors' scrutiny, and that's tough,'' he says. ''And acceptable language in South Carolina is significantly different from acceptable language in Newton, Mass., or New York City.''
The testing in Massachusetts and South Carolina included analysis of the impact of the Loving Well program, with questionnaires given to a group of children who were in the program and to a group that wasn't. A 1992 report found ''more strongly abstinent values'' among the eighth graders who had taken the Loving Well class.
Ideally, McLaren says, follow-up interviews with kids would be done four or five years after the class is taken, to see if the thinking about character had stuck. But that, she says, would take more resources than they have.