Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Boy Friendly Classrooms

My family and I recently returned from a memory-filled vacation at Disney. While there, my fifth grade son Matthew had the foresight to think about how he would preserve these memories and asked if I would purchase a photo album so that he could make a scrapbook commemorating the highlights of our trip. Both touched and thrilled at this suggestion, I overpaid for a Mickey themed album, brought it home, developed our photos, and Matthew went to work. I sat beside him as he busied himself with sliding the pictures into the plastic sleeves and wrote catchy captions to describe the events of our vacation. I watched intently as he worked. He misspelled words and scribbled them out and rewrote them. His handwriting was messy. There was none of the meticulousness that I remembered applying to similar projects in my childhood.

As he worked, I thought a lot about what I had read that morning. In Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys: How to Engage Boys in Reading in Ways That Will Change Their Lives (amazon affiliate link), she quoted Harvard psychologist William Pollack who says, “More boys than girls are in special education classes. More boys than girls are prescribed mood-managing drugs. This suggests that today’s schools are built for girls, and boys are becoming misfits.” And it was these words that forced me to muster every ounce of self control in me and refrain from chastising his work. I wanted to say, “Can’t you do that a little neater? Don’t you think it would be better if you were more thoughtful?” But I didn’t because I realized that what I wanted was to cloud his vision with what I perceived to be a more correct vision. I wanted him to do it my way. My female way.

This got me thinking about how often we do this in schools. Are children, particularly boys, doing things “wrong” as often as we think they are? When they write, is it really not that good or is it that it doesn’t match a preconceived notion of what they should have written? Are they really misbehaving or is it that they are not behaving in the way that we would have? Is their artwork messy because they didn’t color in the lines or is it that they intended to add action in ways that we could not conceive of?

Most school faculties are comprised of a female majority. School activities and classroom management and expectations of how children comply are driven by the female psyche. Could it really be that the female way of thinking is different enough from males that we create environments that alienate half of the learning population? On this one occasion I stopped short of committing the crime of imposing hearts and borders on my son’s scrapbook but I have to wonder, how many times did I not? I am willing to stand among the convicted when it comes to admitting guilt of making boys feel like misfits. But I am repenting. I am thinking hard about what I will do differently to embrace gender differences and create learning environments that cater to the unique needs of boy learners.

To start, I will no longer insist that children write or read sitting down. If they need to stand and shift from side to side, so be it. I will no longer insist that reading time be uninterrupted by bathroom breaks or short periods of gazing out the window. If they need to let their minds wander or to think more about what they are reading, so be it. But past this, I’m not sure what else I should change and that is why I am appealing to you, my readership, to share your suggestions for modifying common practices to make boys feel more at home in the classroom. What else can we do in schools to close the gender gap?


LeeAnn said...

We also need to respect the choices boys make for the content of their reading and writing. Allowing magazines, graphic novels, comic books can help boys connect to text that interests them. I've known boys to lose themselves for hours in a good Calvin and Hobbes book--except for when they HAVE to share the next funny panel with you or a friend. :)

Kim Yaris said...

I couldn't agree more! I'm thinking that we need to honor the reading that they do online as well. Sometimes I have to force my ten year old son to pick up a book but he'll research what's new in the Lego world for hours.

sakinah said...

Being a bit of a tomboy and was active in field games,I can relate to boys easier.Tough love is needed.we need to be tougher,not harsher.We women teachers have to observe how exemplary male teachers conduct classes consist of boys.Thank you for the post.Very beneficial for me

Leanne S. said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head with this one! There is such a need in our world to label and define with 3 or 4 letter acronyms when, in many cases, it may come down to learning style, not necessarily 'disability.' Each child is an individual who is going to learn, respond and grow differently. The challenge of classroom teachers is all of the requirements and demands put on them by the district, by testing expectations and by parents.

We ended up homeschooling our son this year because, although he got almost straight A's every year, his self confidence was shot because his need for standing up or sitting on the floor while learning, and his need to talk through things as he was learning them had him being constantly corrected, moved and chastised by his teacher.

Now, when we're learning fractions, we're not sitting - we're standing in the kitchen with a slew of measuring cups and he's pouring water from one to the other to see physically how 1/2 + 1/4=3/4. We're sitting at the coffee house with a blueberry muffin cut into pie shapes and he is calculating how much 1/8 of 16 is. When we're learning science, we're taking a walk on the greenway by our house to examine the information about plants in his book hands on, in the real world that surrounds him. I am overjoyed at seeing the light come on when he "gets it" and the enthusiasm and slew of questions he is now free to ask when he finds something he's really excited about.

Thank you for the challenge in your post, because as much hands on learning as we do - I still often find myself expecting his work to look like mine did in school and I don't "get" what "doing his best" looks like in his mind.

Anonymous said...

I hear exactly what you're saying, Leeanne! I wonder how many children, boys in particular, walking around labeled as ADD or ADHD or even learning disabled are really only "guilty" of being male? We need an all out call to arms to start thinking differently about our practices. I think it would go a long way in bringing about the changes that many children need to make school a more positive experience! Thanks for sharing!

Heidi Siwak said...

One thing I allow boys to do in my class is to write what they want to write. Their stories are action-filled, often low on "feelings" sometimes violent often gory, funny, silly, and there is a propensity for weaponry. So what? The one thing I force them to think about is audience. Who are they writing for? This is what tempers their plot choices. When they're writing for other boys ... it's a different story. And when they read their stories to other boys ... well... let's just say there's always an appreciative audience.

Kim Yaris said...

Heidi, I have to confess, once upon a time I had a no blood and gore rule when it came to writing. That was before I had children (2 boys) and before Ralph Fletcher gave me the insight I needed to understand what goes on in the minds of boys when they write. I think giving boys the freedom to write about whatever it is that burns in their minds is exactly the kind of modification we all need to be thinking about when it comes to accommodating the unique needs of boy learners! Thanks so much for sharing!