The North's New Sex Ed
A Grand Traverse church and Public Schools of Petoskey are rewriting the “rules” of sex education
By Craig Manning | Aug. 24, 2019
What should a modern sexual education curriculum look like? How much should teachers tell kids about sex in a school environment? And what topics are parents truly comfortable with their kids learning?
These questions have been batted around for years, often with no clear resolution or forward momentum. This coming school year, though, a Traverse City church is offering up a new kind of sex ed program — one that is progressive, comprehensive, and largely groundbreaking. It also has the potential to be extremely controversial — especially among parents or educators who believe strongly in the lessons of abstinence and prevention that have typically dominated sex ed curricula in a public-school environment.
The program, called Our Whole Lives, will be offered throughout the 2019-2020 school year by the Unitarian Universality Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT). This iteration, developed several years ago in collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ is an update within the larger OWL program, which has been around for over 40 years. It began as About Your Sexuality, and changed to Our Whole Lives about 20 years ago, with continual updates.)
Although developed by a religious organization and being offered at a church, UUCGT's OWL program is completely secular and free of any religious doctrine or reference. As the name of the program implies, the goal is to create “lifespan sexuality education,” where learners at different stages of life could access and engage with information relevant to their sexual experience levels and situations. There are currently six curricula in the OWL program, starting with grades K-1 and moving up to adulthood. Each curriculum is aimed at providing accurate information about sexuality, in a way that “dismantles stereotypes and assumptions, builds self-acceptance and self-esteem, fosters healthy relationships, improves decision making, and has the potential to save lives.”
"It seems like the focus with sex education in the past was to prevent problems: to educate so there wouldn't be sexually-transmitted infections or unintended pregnancies,” said Katie Tomczyk, a religious education teacher with UUCGT who will serve as a facilitator for the new sex ed program. “Our program does include those components, but it goes above and beyond them to help students consider more of what defines ‘sexual health’: feeling good about themselves and their bodies; trying to be healthy and smart; having positive, equitable, loving relationships.”
The curriculum coming to UUCGT this year specifically targets grades 7-9 and aligns with when students in the public-school system typically go through sex ed classes. It will feature 25 workshops, each about two hours long, that will focus on a wide array of sexuality-related topics. The program will run from October through early May and is open to any student in the age range, regardless of cultural background or religious affiliation.
For Tomczyk, a former public-school health teacher who came onboard with UUCGT earlier this year, OWL offers a chance to fill in gaps that most sex ed curricula do not address. That list includes sensitive or misunderstood topics such as gender identity, sexual orientation, body image, consent, masturbation, lovemaking, and enjoying sexuality. By exploring these topics, Tomczyk says that OWL helps break down some of the discomfort and shame that people feel when discussing sexuality or being open and honest about their feelings and experiences.
“One of the goals of the program is developing skills that reject double standards, biases, stereotypes, dishonesty, and harassment,” Tomczyk said. “It’s about recognizing things related to sexuality that are hurtful and harmful, beyond unwanted pregnancies and STIs.”
Because of the sensitive and mature nature of some of the topics covered in the OWL curriculum, UUCGT will begin the program by meeting with parents to discuss what students will be learning and to clear any video resources or other educational aids that will be used throughout the process. In addition, Tomczyk says all workshops will be taught by at least two adult facilitators and will follow an open-door policy, to ensure the safety of all students.
The teaching style itself, meanwhile, skews away from the rigid formality of many school-based sex ed courses and toward a more discussion-based approach. Since a big aim of the OWL program is to help students become more comfortable talking about sexual topics, the facilitation builds those conversations directly into the curriculum.
"These kids, this is a very social time of their life and we believe they learn best socially,” Tomczyk said. “So, whereas parents can certainly talk to their kids about these sorts of things – and it can be very important to have those conversations — this is a way for kids to learn from each other in a social context. The facilitation is not a sit-down-and-listen lecture format. It's very active. There are activities, and lots of questions where the students can answer to each other. The facilitator often gets to sit back and watch the participation unfold.”
The OWL program is radically different from what exists in most high school environments – both locally and throughout Michigan. State law requires all public-school districts to provide instruction on sexually transmitted diseases, “including, but not limited to, HIV/AIDS,” but has few required curriculum points beyond that. The law also states that “Instruction in HIV/AIDS and sex education must stress that abstinence from sex is a responsible and effective method of preventing unplanned or out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and that it is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and sexually transmitted HIV infection and AIDS.”
Jame McCall, associate superintendent for Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), says the school district follows this requirement for an “abstinence-based curriculum” closely, and notes that there have been “no significant changes” to the sex ed curriculum in many years. Topics like sexual orientation and gender identification are not discussed at all, and parents have the right to review all course materials ahead of time and exempt their children from sex ed classes if they so wish.
“I would say that we are very much on the conservative side of sexual education, which is exactly what the state law would require of us,” McCall said.
Not all northern Michigan school districts are as conservative, though. According to Karla Akins, director of teaching and learning for Public Schools of Petoskey (PSP), the district’s board of education recently voted to adopt a new curriculum called “Real Essentials.” The curriculum, developed by The Center for Relationship Education, includes sexual health components, but focuses more broadly on helping students develop and nurture healthy relationships. Topics include identity, friendships, communication techniques, healthy dating strategies, social media guidelines, and “sex in the context of love.” Akins says PSP health teachers have been trained on the curriculum will begin delivering it to students in grades 6-12 “beginning in the fall of 2019.”
Tomczyk recognizes that most people would assume religious organizations are even less progressive in addressing sex than schools. She views the OWL program as a way to change the narrative about sexuality in the context of religion, and says these things needn’t be segmented off in the way they often have been in the past.
“I like mixing it with spirituality, because so often, these two things have been separated,” she said. “As a result, there’s maybe some guilt or shame about talking about these topics. There shouldn't be, and that's part of the premise of this program: everybody is sexual and it looks different for a lot of people. It's important to learn about our differences and to be able to determine you own values."
UUCGT will hold an informal parent orientation meeting for the OWL program on Sunday, September 8 at 4:30pm. The meeting will take place at the church (6726 Center Road, Traverse City) and is open to all.