OWL program takes flight

OWL program takes flight

The sexuality education program moves beyond our congregations.

Don Schawang (in blazer) teaches owl to students in his senior year ethics class at Bishop Seabury Academy.

Don Schawang (in blazer) teaches owl to students in his senior year ethics class at Bishop Seabury Academy (© Leslie McCaffrey).

© Leslie McCaffrey


When Cynthia Fine led a four-week “Responsible and Healthy Sexuality” workshop at Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women in Medical Lake, Washington, in 2009, eight to ten women signed up for the voluntary class, embarking together on a rich discussion. “There was one woman,” Fine recalls, “who got a little teary and said, ‘I’m 35 and I don’t even know how to put a tampon in my body.’”

Fine, a Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane member who works at Planned Parenthood, addressed that workshop attendee’s issue, and many more. Our Whole Lives (OWL), the human sexuality class many UUs know as a religious education offering for middle and high school students, anchored Fine’s work at Pine Lodge. “It was a patchwork of OWL, and frankly, I really let the interests of the women guide the flow of the curriculum,” she says. She defined success by how well she answered inmates’ questions. “The most notable thing for me was that the idea of self-determination and respect was welcome—and I think that a lot of these women had not experienced self-determination and respect for their sexual selves.”

Fine’s workshop at Pine Lodge represents just one of a growing number of OWL courses offered beyond congregational walls. Requests from other denominations, parents, and secular organizations have crept up noticeably over the past two years, says Melanie Davis, Our Whole Lives program associate at the Unitarian Universalist Association. “I think people are hearing about it more, and because OWL is secular, it can be used in any context as long as they’re on board with OWL values. Parents are just wanting something for their kids.”

Introduced in 1999, OWL is a set of human sexuality curricula co-developed by the UUA and the United Church of Christ. There are six OWL curricula (grades K–1, 4–6, 7–9, 10–12, young adult, and adult); a curriculum for adults aged 50 and older will be released next year. Facilitators also use the supplemental Sexuality and Our Faith publication when they’re teaching in an exclusively UU or UCC context. While other faith traditions can choose to use and adapt the supplement, all other permutations of OWL (generally known as “OWL-Out”) may draw only from the secular OWL curricula.

The UUA’s Faith Development Office launched a one-time OWL-Out grant program in spring 2016. Grant-funded programs wrapped up several months ago. Eight grant recipients, including at-risk youth programs, a charter school, Planned Parenthood, and congregations, received the money they needed to offer OWL in their settings. “We were really trying to get groups who wouldn’t otherwise benefit from Our Whole Lives,” says Davis.

OWL facilitators throughout the country have stories to tell about their OWL-Out experiences: UU World has heard from facilitators using OWL curricula at a Montessori school in Minnesota, a Quaker congregation in Philadelphia, a Waldorf/homeschool group in Washington State, a program for sex offenders in Kentucky, the University of Louisville’s peer sexuality program, and a Presbyterian church in North Carolina.

In Arlington, Massachusetts, the town’s community education program offered middle school OWL for the first time last fall and winter. The sixteen-week, $320 course for eighth- and ninth-graders sold out in short order, and attendance was excellent. Arlington Community Education’s Youth Program Coordinator Andrea Loeb says the class, offered as an “experiment,” is slated for a return. Class co-facilitator and First Parish UU Arlington member Lynn Rosenbaum describes participants as “extremely liberal, extremely open-minded.”

Many clients of More Than Sex-Ed fall into that same category. The secular Los Angeles-based not-for-profit offers customized OWL workshops, discussions, and classes for organizations, schools, and private groups. Founded in 2015, More Than Sex-Ed quickly benefited from a state-level legislative change when the California Healthy Youth Act took effect in January 2016. The act outlines and mandates sexuality education based on the idea that sexuality is a “normal part of human development.” Everything required by the Healthy Youth Act is “already in the OWL curriculum,” notes Jill Herbertson, co-founder of More Than Sex-Ed and former interim director of religious exploration of the UU Church of Studio City. As a result, More Than Sex-Ed has already had three contracts with Los Angeles-area schools. Through this work, the organization’s paid OWL trainers have taught students who express a range of religious views, from humanist and Buddhist to evangelical Christian.

At one school, nearly all of the students are first- or second-generation Latino/Latina immigrants with more conservative values than most UUs. Talking with parents of any background at OWL orientation, “we will always lift up that parents are the primary sexual educators for their kids,” Herbertson says. Her message: “In this program, we will present facts, and we will support your family in working through your values.” And regardless of background or religion, she notes that “the kids all want to be good allies to their friends,” whether gay, straight, transgender, queer, or questioning. Moreover, their questions follow a set pattern; at the core, “they all want to know, ‘Am I normal?’”

Not every school, or even every state, offers California’s clear guidelines on sexuality education. Only 54.9 percent of middle schools and 73.6 percent of high schools in the United States provide sexuality education, according to the 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study.

Thinking proactively, Bishop Seabury Academy, a private Episcopal school in Lawrence, Kansas, decided to use the middle school OWL curriculum for its 2008–2009 eighth-grade human sexuality class. Trained to teach OWL at every level, Judith Galas worked as the Christian education director at a local UCC church in addition to her work as an English teacher and dean of students at Seabury.

“Seabury is a very open learning environment—their goal is ethical education,” rather than the transmission of Episcopal theology, Galas says. That mission draws families representing a spectrum of religions and ideologies. While students liked and felt comfortable with the class, a subset of parents was unhappy with the OWL approach, and vocally so. “For each of these parents, OWL was butting up against something they didn’t approve of,” Galas says. “But we could have helped them more intentionally; it was a reminder to me that sex is a hard topic. I am left to wonder how you negotiate these things that UUs and UCCs had so carefully negotiated.”

Galas consequently reimagined the eighth-grade sexuality class, excising most of the OWL material, and the school returned to OWL beginning with the 2010–2011 school year—this time bringing in the high school curriculum for a senior-year ethics class. A success with students and parents alike, the “sethics” unit remains a senior-year staple. The frank discussion about sex and sexuality marry well with ethics “because ethics is about how to make better or worse decisions, the process of how decisions are made,” says Head of School Don Schawang, who co-teaches the class.

Bishop Seabury Academy has aligned itself with OWL recommendations, but Schawang says the school’s use of high school OWL isn’t exactly as prescribed. “When I went through the OWL training here in Lawrence, I got the idea that you shouldn’t hunt and peck,” he says. Yet he does, keeping OWL guiding values and assumptions at the core of each class.

Many OWL-Out programs use the same approach. “No school has the time, nor do they want to pay for” the program in its entirety led by two instructors, says Herbertson. “So we have to edit. Any comprehensive sexuality education is better than nothing.”

Whatever demographic they teach, trained OWL facilitators are figuring out how to bring progressive, comprehensive, affirming sexuality education to where it might just be most needed. And while Davis highly recommends OWL-Out instructors take the OWL training and follow best practices, she does so with the hope that demand for OWL will continue to grow. “I kind of like the idea of offering OWL to as many people as possible, as affordably as possible,” she says.

In Washington, OWL won’t reach more Pine Lodge inmates; the corrections center closed in 2010, ending Fine’s work there. “It was good while it happened,” she says. “It was probably the most satisfying group that I’ve ever facilitated.”