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Church Program Offers Frank Lessons on Sexuality

  • A student answers a question from religious educators Sparrow Alden, left, and Geraldine Fowler, right, during Our Whole Lives, a sexuality education program, at the Norwich Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Norwich, Vt., Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. The Our Whole Lives program is taught in conjunction with the religious values of Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ, and has curricula for kindergarten through adulthood. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students in the Norwich Unitarian Universalist Congregation's "Our Whole Lives" sexuality education class try to match anatomical and reproductive terms to their definitions during the class in Norwich, Vt., Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students in the Norwich Unitarian Universalist Congregation's "Our Whole Lives" sexuality education course match definitions with words describing anatomy and reproduction in Norwich, Vt., Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students in the Norwich Unitarian Universalist Congregation "Our Whole Lives" sexuality education course return to their teachers after completing a vocabulary matching exercise in Norwich, Vt., Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2017

In a small and sunny room, a stuffed snowy owl sits nestled between two enormous bean bag chairs, a nod to the room’s purpose. A few feet away a “question box” — actually a large can wrapped in rainbow duct tape, with a slot cut into its lid — contains anonymous slips of paper from students in Our Whole Lives, or OWL, a weekly sexuality education program that aims to cover territory that usually gets short shrift at public schools.

Among past questions: Why are blobfish blobby? Why are parents so weird? What would you say if I told you I was bi? Why are some people terrible? What if I feel like I’m a girl, but I have a boy body?

The “OWL room,” as facilitator Sparrow Alden calls it, is in the upstairs of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley, in Norwich; though the program was designed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, there is no religious component to the curriculum. Alden, the religious education director at the church, has been leading OWL sessions since it was developed in 2001.

Sexuality education in public schools is subject to few, if any, requirements: Vermont is one of 24 states that mandates sex ed in public schools, with New Hampshire mandating HIV education only. In both states, individual school boards decide on what schools will teach students, and when. And in both states, schools are not required to disseminate information that is medically accurate, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

As a result, educators often skirt such politically fraught topics as contraception, non-heterosexual relationships and gender identity — which is where OWL comes in. The program, which bills itself as a “comprehensive, lifespan sexuality education curricula,” seeks to fill some of the most common gaps in students’ understanding of human sexuality and development, with a focus on both the physical and social aspects of growing up.

Alden’s latest crop of students — at 16 strong, it’s one of her largest — range from fourth to sixth grade. Most of the students in Alden’s OWL group belong to the Norwich congregation, though some students come from Woodstock and Hartland, as well. Hartland’s UCC also offers OWL programs for several age levels on a rotating basis, but is currently in between sessions.

“The 9- to 12-year-old crowd is fun,” said Alden, because “they’re all right on the freakin’ cusp of maturity.” In the past, she’s also taught the OWL modules designed for students in kindergarten and first grade, grades 7-9 and grades 10-12; there’s also a curriculum for adults between the ages of 18 and 35, and another for adults older than 35. There are usually around 10 sessions per program.

“One of my favorite exercises,” Alden said, is one that’s done in the seventh-to-ninth grade group. “We get a big piece of newsprint and write down all the words we know for penis, vagina, menstruation, masturbation … and pretty soon it’s like ‘um, we’re going to need a bigger piece of paper.’ ”

Because the vocabulary can be awkward for some, the group decides together on what, if any, euphemisms to use for the remainder of the program.

“We keep negotiating until everybody’s comfortable — hey, wait, could that be a thing?” Alden said, letting her mouth fall open in mock bewilderment. “Although sometimes I’m like, great, now I have to say ‘peacock feather’ instead of ‘penis’ for the next 10 weeks. Oh well.”

Instructors must undergo training for each level they plan to work with, as the curriculum takes an age-specific approach to sexuality and its related social issues: Conversations about consent, body image and family structures begin in K-1; fourth- through sixth-graders start learning about traditional and non-traditional kinds of conception, birth control, puberty and AIDS; seventh- through ninth-graders cover topics that include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression; and students in grades 10-12 delve more in-depth into such quandaries as equality and reproductive rights, power dynamics and intimacy. The program is based on the idea that sex is not inherently a bad thing, and that sexuality and gender are not black-and-white identities, but fluid ones that occur on a sliding scale.

Rev. Robin Junker-Boyce, the pastor at the UCC on Thetford Hill, is hoping to launch an OWL program for 10th- to 12th-graders in early December.

“It can be hard to get it up and running because people totally freak out about religion — and rightly so,” she said in a recent phone interview. A few weeks prior, at the UCC on Thetford Hill, she’d noted the centuries-long history of homophobia in Western religions and Christianity in particular, which contributed to anti-gay ideologies that persist today.

“You can’t erase that history,” she said at the time, “but you can do what you can to subvert it.”

Kym Anderson, who lives in Brookfield, Vt., and does not belong to a church, found out about OWL when someone she knew from the UCC in Randolph forwarded her an email about it.

“I’m not religious ... but I started researching it, and I thought it was a fabulous program because it’s just so uncomfortable talking about sex with your parents,” she said.

Her 20-year-old daughter, Ellie Anderson, said she initially “was quite embarrassed” when her parents signed her up for the OWL program, which Junker-Boyce was leading at the time. But in the five years Ellie’s had to reflect on her experience in the group, she’s come to feel “very appreciative of the knowledge I gained … especially since learning about the extreme lack of sex education in schools across the country,” she wrote in an email this week.

She remembers how the program embraced the awkwardness of its content through silly competitions — like who could get a condom onto a banana the fastest — but also encouraged a sense of vulnerability and trust among group members, as in one exercise that involved leading fellow blindfolded students around the building by holding their hands.

“High school is an embarrassing and awkward time for everybody,” she wrote, “so I figure you might as well lean into it and take part in a course like this.”

Jessica Stout, of Woodstock, enrolled her 10-year-old daughter, Jane, in Norwich’s OWL group after realizing how powerfully the pressure to be “normal, beautiful and good” can seep into young minds.

“We’re not even big media consumers, and she’s already absorbing all these messages and expressing concerns about her own body, like is she normal, is she the right size,” Stout said in a recent phone interview. She’d been dismayed to learn that Woodstock Elementary School had seen some incidents of students teasing each other about weight — and even more shocking to Stout, there was at least one student using the word “gay” in a derogatory manner.

Woodstock Elementary teachers work with educators from WISE, the Lebanon-based organization that works against gender-based violence, on teaching “consent, self-esteem, diversity and gender issues … to establish a basic awareness around some of the important issues,” wrote Erin Klocek, a school counselor who co-teaches health classes at Woodstock, in a recent email. She noted, though, that “at our level (K-6), these things are not covered in great detail.”

While topics of identity aren’t explicitly included in Vermont’s sex ed requirement, they could fall under a couple of categories in the National Sexuality Education Standards, which were released in 2012 and which the Agency of Education encourages districts to use, said Thomas Aloisi, the sexual health coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Education.

Still, Alden emphasized that many students don’t find their identities affirmed by their course material: In a recent report from the Human Rights Campaign, fewer than 5 percent of LGBTQ students indicated that their health classes included positive representations of LGBTQ-related topics; in a 2015 survey, only 12 percent said their classes covered same-sex relationships at all.

The implications of an inclusive environment, Alden said, can be huge. LGBTQ youth, particularly those who are transgender, face an elevated risk for depression and suicide. But Alden cited a 2016 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, which reported that transgender children who are encouraged to express their gender identity experience “normal” rates of depression compared to their peers whose gender matches the sex assigned to them at birth.

“Wait, so not teaching people to self-loathe … can be a good thing?” said Alden. “Who could have ever predicted that?”

As for 10-year-old Jane Stout, she’d gone into OWL with “extreme trepidation” about its potential awkwardness, her mother said. But she came home “glowing” after one OWL session that featured guest speakers from a women’s roller derby team who explained that diverse body types are not only welcomed on the team, but are vital to how their sport is played. In a few weeks, another guest speaker will address the group: Sparrow Alden’s wife, Grace Alden, who is a transgender woman.

While guest speakers and light-hearted activities help reinforce OWL’s themes, “the most powerful tool, I would say, is that big ol’ question box,” Alden said, adding that many of the slips in the box contain variations of two questions: “Am I OK?” and “I am so scared, what do I do?”

“There’s so much power in hearing someone say, ‘OK, well that’s pretty real. Let me give you some tools to make it a little easier,’ ” Alden said.

For more information about Our Whole Lives, visit www.uua.org/re/owl.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.