B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
By Hope Green
In the Grimm fairy tale Little Briar-rose, also known as The Sleeping Beauty, many a suitor impales himself on the hedge of thorns surrounding the princess as she slumbers. When she awakens and a prince finally wins her hand, the story does not end with the couple living happily ever after. With language more grounded in real life than what's found in the Disney version, the Brothers Grimm tell us the royal pair "lived contented to the end of their days."
The story is rich with symbolism about the risks of infatuation and the reality of what makes a solid marriage -- topics teenagers are often loath to discuss with their elders. But literature has a way of sparking dialogue on difficult subjects, and that is the rationale behind the School of Education's Loving Well Project. The program, which complements the work of SED's Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, uses Little Briar-rose and other short stories, poems, essays, folk tales, and myths to help adolescents learn responsible sexual and social values.
An important side benefit, says Nancy McLaren, the project's associate director, is that students learn to communicate more openly with their parents.
"People today have more trouble saying the four-letter word love than any of the words scrawled on the bathroom wall," says McLaren, who has worked with the program since its inception in 1987 and now runs it. "It's easy at Valentine's Day, when there are all the hearts and flowers and candy. That's fun, that's playful, but our society avoids talking about love in a meaningful way."
School programs that build marriage and relationship skills are becoming increasingly common and are currently offered in about 2,000 schools in 50 states, according to a recent study by the Institute for American Values. Loving Well was one of just three such programs the conservative organization recommended, yet it also has drawn praise from such liberal groups as Planned Parenthood.
McLaren knows of no other relationship-skills program with a literary focus. Literature, she says, provides an effective alternative to "the standard finger-wagging, hear-comes-the-preaching" approach.
"We're not coming down from on high with a rigid prescription of steps 1 through 10," she says. "We're giving kids ways to talk about, and make wise decisions in, complex areas of their lives. We call it an anti-impulse curriculum, because so much of society gives teenagers the other message, that everything is MTV and fast action. We're saying just the opposite: slow down and think about things. The students become so engaged in the characters and situations because these stories speak to the things kids really care about.
"There are abstinence programs that focus more on the biomechanics of sexuality, risky behavior, and safe sex," she adds, "but we don't get into that. We give them a chance to think, through vicarious literary experiences, about situations they're going to confront in real life, and we let them know they're not alone in grappling for answers."
Designed for grades 7 to 12, the curriculum includes a 340-page anthology entitled The Art of Loving Well and a teacher's guide. Promoting literacy is one of the program's aims, and the reading selections span several centuries and literary genres: Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy are among the 40 authors listed in the table of contents, along with Gish Jen, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker.
"Even though the level of reading in some of the selections is quite challenging, the kids will hang in there," says McLaren, who taught English in the Newton public schools for 10 years before raising two daughters of her own. "Teachers tell me they have trouble keeping the book on their shelves."
Educators across the United States have used the curriculum. In one notable example, teachers adapted the program for a group of Littleton, Colo., students following the fatal shootings at Columbine High School in 1999.
"They wanted to teach them about better relationships because these kids had been through so much. This curriculum is not just about dating and sex," McLaren explains, "but also about friendships and family relationships." Single parents and sibling rivalries are among the many themes the anthology addresses.
An independent, scientific evaluation of the Loving Well Project confirms that it is effective in delaying sexual activity among teens who had never had sex before they participated in the program. Anecdotal evidence also points to the program's success. On Loving Well's Web site, an 18-year-old girl in Fitchburg, Mass., is quoted as saying, "I've learned from several stories that sex and sexuality are often used as a means of combating strong negative emotions, such as fear and loneliness."
"I learned how to talk to my mother about things more freely and easily," says an eighth grader in Bath, Maine.
"I learned that you have to communicate for marriage to work," says another Bath student. "The other thing is that love takes time and having sex or getting married doesn't fix your problems."