Strategies for Reaching Boys Inside and Outside the Classroom

Rick Edie, Middle School Faculty
Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. This 1992 best seller by John Gray described the fundamental differences between men and women. Perhaps Mr. Gray was extrapolating on some differences between the sexes that were expressed in the early 19th-century nursery rhyme “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” “Snips and snails and puppy dog tails” is the answer, whereas little girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Society today recognizes the sexism in those words, yet the stereotypes of how boys and girls should dress and behave persist even amidst the growing awareness that we do not live in a gender-binary world.
For many years, parents and educators have recognized the disparate messages that the media presents to boys and girls. As an educator (and parent of three girls), I’ve most often heard of the challenges facing girls in the classroom—that they are not as confident in their abilities in math or science, for example, or that their voices can be drowned out by more outgoing, talkative boys.Yet some have been raising the flag for boys. Michael Thompson’s 1999 book Raising Cain and Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s upcoming documentary “The Mask You Live In” both argue for the need to understand boys better and help them develop fully as individuals. Schools obviously have a role in that development. But given all the societal pressures boys face, how does one engage them effectively in school so that they excel academically and become emotionally and socially healthy individuals? And, how does one do this in a co-ed environment?

My first experience in educating boys came as a leader at an all-boys summer camp in upstate New York. There, the goal was to develop in boys the capacity to empathize with others, to think of others besides themselves, and to learn that showing emotional connectivity was just as masculine as being a good athlete. At the root of the experience was the camper-leader relationship, in which leaders (not “counselors”) were role models for the boys. Leaders coached boys on teams, ate meals with them, and shared cabin life. We spent free time with them; led cabin overnights, hikes, and canoe trips; and held thoughtful discussions before bedtime to allow boys to discuss ethical and moral choices. Leaders came to know their campers well and campers their leaders over a four- or eight-week period. The role leaders played in the development of their campers’ character was significant.

A recent book has applied the same concept to education. In I Can Learn From You: Boys as Relational Learners (Harvard Education Press, 2014), authors Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley argue that the key to effective engagement of boys lies not in content or pedagogy, but in the relationships that teachers develop with boys that inspire them to achievement. The authors write in an article at edweek.org, “One intriguing finding [from their study of 18 schools in six countries] was that the boys asked to comment on pedagogy (specific lessons) that worked well for them were unable to do so without describing—and appreciating—the teacher conveying it.”
Of course, the classroom is one place where teachers make connections with boys (art classes included). Research says that boys need to move more, participate in activities that end in a product and that build in competition, read books and write about topics that interest them (rather than the teacher), and express humor in appropriate ways and at appropriate times. This kind of physical learning can be found throughout DCD’s classrooms, from science labs to history archeological digs, from math manipulations to written translations in language. For my part, I try to engage students in material using a multi-media approach. When studying Sherlock Holmes in the Seventh Grade, for example, students watch snippets of films to see how different actors portray the famous detective, physically construct a jigsaw puzzle for one story and design the illustration for another, and are visited by a local Boston Sherlockian. Later, they draw a floor plan of the castle in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” In Sixth Grade, students act as police and keep a “detective notebook” as they investigate a crime committed in McKnight Malmar’s “The Storm.” When it comes to that dry subject of grammar, nothing beats the “Schoolhouse Rock” videos that students love dancing and singing to as they learn the basics of the English language. The enthusiasm and creativity with which DCD teachers share their subject matter is of course one way to connect with boys.

But any single teacher (in the Middle School, at least) only sees a boy for 45 minutes a day in class, so where are the opportunities for developing relationships with boys outside of class? The advisory program and athletics are two good places to look. In the advisory program (which includes Middle School meetings and cross-grade activity groups), faculty play touch football or ultimate Frisbee with students, teach yoga, bake cookies, lead trivia contests and bike rides, as well as give talks on their experiences in order to share personal values. Teachers who coach can also develop unique relationships with boys, both presenting and observing different skills and interests that complement what happens in the classroom.

But it is outside the classroom and off the field, in the little and perhaps more individual moments, that true relationships develop, those connections that inspire kids to strive to excel: teachers can shoot the breeze with students at the end of sports as they are packing up to go home; pat them on the back for a job well done on a quiz, for a particularly astute comment in class, or to show support when they have made a mistake; seek them out to review a poor quiz or to work on a challenging math assignment rather than wait for them to initiate a meeting; or privately encourage them to present at a Middle School assembly.

Readers might be thinking that the focus on connecting with boys is too narrow, and that inspiring all students, no matter the gender, is the most important job of a teacher. Fair enough. If teachers vary their instructional approaches and consider the needs and learning differences of all their students, gender becomes less of an issue. That is one of the many qualities that makes DCD special: teachers work to get to know and develop relationships with each student individually, inspiring them to a love of learning and to be the best they can be.

Article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of the DCD Bulletin. Click here for the PDF
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