Is There a Crisis in Boys’ Education?

I feel as though I spend a great deal of my parenting energy fighting boy behaviour.  While I’ve given up entirely on stopping my three boys from making guns out of whatever material comes to hand, I feel I wage a constant battle to put a stop to other undesirable boy behaviour: taming their tendency towards violent play, stopping rough-housing before it gets out of hand, keeping the noise levels tolerable, taking their dinner chairs away and making them stand if I have to ask them too many times to just sit down and eat for the love of god, discouraging loud burps and farts.  I do not look at my battle as a war on boyhood.  I look at it as a civilizing mission.  I’m not telling them that what they are and how they want to play is bad; I’m making sure that their choices are consistent with civility and with a mission to do no harm, to self or to society.  If I surrendered to my instincts, I’d stay in bed all day with a book.  Neither that nor running screaming through the streets, as Youngest is wont to do, is going to do anyone any good if it’s the norm rather than the exception.

the-element-bookI agree that the model of education in most schools is guilty of a similar suppression of a lot of boy energy, and  I applaud teachers who are keen to get their students up and moving and using all their different kinds of intelligence.   Inspired by Sarah Easterbrook’s interview last week, I watched all the You Tube videos I could find of Ken Robinson, then I read his book, The Element.  He is wonderful about teaching us about the outliers who do not fit the mold, and who shine when they are able to be their true selves.  But there is still a time when bums have to be in seats and lips zipped.  We have to hold kids accountable to that, too.  We have to be clear that we have expectations, and we have to encourage our boys to meet them.

I was saddened to read in the first article in the Globe and Mail series from 2010 that

Nearly 70 per cent of parents said they expected their 15-year-old daughters would complete a university degree. Yet only 60 per cent had the same expectation of their 15-year-old sons.

“I think too many of us accept the failure of boys, we say, ‘Well, that’s just the way boys are,’ there’s a social impulse in that direction, that even our expectations are lower,” Dr. Cappon said. “We don’t pay nearly enough attention to their needs and aspirations, take seriously their interests, and what motivates them, whether it’s reading comics or science fiction. It isn’t at all clear that schools have taken account of that.”

But if part of the problem is having lower expectations of boys, then isn’t part of the solution to have high expectations of all students?

I spent a year teaching literacy to adults, teaching men who went from functional illiteracy to Grade 9 or Grade 12 equivalency.  My students were all men, injured at work and having to go back to school to get new jobs through a government re-training programme.  They had all dropped out or been kicked out of school; they were able to find work that suited them better.  Until they could no longer do that work, I don’t think any of them would have gone back to school, and believe me when I tell you that some of them very much resented having to go back to what was obviously something they thought they’d left behind.  They all earned 80% or higher on all of their work.  (For the Americans in the audience, that’s an A- in Canada.)  We had high expectations of this group of students: 80% was our passing mark, and they all did it.  It took injury and many hours of intensive teaching and studying, but they graduated with marks that I’m sure their younger selves would never have expected.  I could not have been more different from those men, but I hope we shared the same degree of pride at their success.

If I am perfectly honest, I know that it was that job that taught me how to punctuate a sentence properly, and not my own experience of Grade 9 to Grade 12.  I could not have recited the rule for semi-colon use before that job, nor could I recite the six occasions on which it is appropriate to use a comma; now I can.  I got through graduate school without the command of grammar that I am convinced can only come from having to teach it.  I persuade myself every day that Eldest will eventually learn to write in full sentences by default and that Middlest will remember to put a period at the end of every sentence.  One day, it will, finally, sink in.

I do worry a little about the boys’ reading and writing.  They were all late readers, and they are not great writers.  I view that as a need for more training, not a lack of ability, and we supplement school with writing instruction to help bring them up to speed.  I aim to read to them for an hour a day, and I pick the books.  (They can read whatever they want to when they get their own time with books.  Who am I to dictate taste?  As long as I don’t have to read a Lego Ninjago book, I’m good.)  I don’t manage it every day, and sometimes we have to surrender reading to rink time or the almighty clock, but I work really, really hard to make sure that more often than not, we end the day with an hour of books that we all enjoy.  Is this to make up for a boy deficit in language?  No.  It’s because it’s a passion and the boys experience it as one.  They will grow up knowing that books are precious, that time to read is made and not found, and, for now, that is more important than their punctuating perfectly or beating the girls’ average in English class.

And the boys do all have girls in their classes.  I do not think that an all-boys’ school is the answer to boys’ educational needs.  They need to see girls and women as leaders, colleagues and competitors.

Eldest is thrilled to have a male teacher this year.  Why?  Because he does not believe in homework.  That’s not gender-specific.  Of course, I’m happy that my boys are happy when they have male teachers.  I’m not worried that there are too few; I’m worried that we undervalue teaching as a profession.  I’m not surprised that more men are not attracted to the profession.  We do not respect or reward our teachers nearly enough.  One proposal from an advocate for getting more men into teaching is to have

A marketing campaign, similar to billboards used to attract women to apprenticeship programs, … with images of men working with young children, so society can see men that way, and men can see themselves that way.

I’d rather see those dollars go towards a pay raise, for male and female teachers.  We value them too little.

Again, it’s part of my civilizing mission to make sure that my kids do respect the adult at the front of the class, male or female.  I do not advocate blind adherence to authority, but I insist on respect for the person whose job it is to take care of you: babysitter, teacher, coach, grandparent or parent.  My message is always the same: work hard, have fun, but don’t make it anyone else’s job to manage your behaviour.

Is there a crisis in boys’ education?  I don’t think it’s productive or necessary to ring alarm bells.  Men still earn more than women.  Men still outnumber women in positions of power and prestige.   But we do all need to work hard to keep all of our kids engaged and living up to their potential.

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What do you learn from your students?

545Being a teacher and spending my days with young children has taught me to embrace living in an imperfect world. The lives of children are often messy and complicated, but that messiness is usually short-lived and turns into joy and exuberance more quickly than we adults anticipate. I am always amazed watching children make mistakes as they are learning or as they are navigating the social world of the playground because I am also witnessing them build resilience and their inner strength, which I know they will carry into their adult lives.  Watching them build their resiliency or come to accept when their ideas don’t work out as planned makes me remember it’s okay to exist in a place that isn’t always neat and tidy, where it’s okay to fail because we often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

What was your proudest moment as a teacher?

imgres-1“As a teacher I am fortunate to be in a profession that allows me to see great accomplishments on a daily basis.  Though I often feel pride, it isn’t necessarily because of something I’ve done. It is because of the accomplishments of others that I’m able to be a part of.

One such example is of two little girls from Bangladesh. Their mother was a gynecologist and father a computer professional. They came to Canada to provide their children with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. Life was not easy for them here. Their parents could not get work in their field and therefore were forced to live in a low-income area of Toronto where the children were living and going to school with people who had different ethics and values.

The two girls had to learn English and struggled to follow an academic path that was very different from many of their new friends.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach both girls in more than one grade. The eldest daughter mentioned me in her grade 6 valedictorian speech as being part of her success in elementary school.

The family has since moved to New York City and Mahshid is now in university on scholarship and wants to be in education. She keeps in contact still and often reminds me of the difference I (along with others) made in her life. I am so very proud – not for what I did, but for what she has achieved and for the fact I was fortunate to be involved, even if only for a short time.

This is what teaching gives you, the ability to guide, inspire, encourage and help someone on their path to achieve what they set out to do. It is pride for what others have allowed you to be a part of.”

For the Love of Learning

On Monday of this week, my husband Ben and I visited our son’s school to meet with the principal about some concerns we have.  Along the glass wall of the office ran a long backless wooden bench.  When we sat down to wait for our meeting, Ben’s body stiffened.  I turned to him.  “I spent a lot of time on benches like these when I was in school,” he said, “and I thought my time on them was over.”

Ben was labelled a “problem” child, a “bad” child.  And often his behaviour was, well, bad.  He smashed a wooden block on the head of a mean child, bit his kindergarten teacher on the hand when she was dragging him somewhere, and threw a snowball across a field where it struck his principal in the face.

The behaviour needed to be addressed, obviously.  But rather than consider why he acted so outrageously and use that information to inform a response, the assumption was that he was just “bad”, and the response simply to control him.  No one questioned the requirement that he be still for extended periods of time when his body ached to run, that he sit cross-legged on the carpet when it hurt his legs and for periods during which he couldn’t focus anyway.  No one cared about an irrelevant curriculum.

Like many boys, and some girls, Ben needed to move.  But he was restrained from moving, and that energy got pushed out sideways.

Oh, and yes, he was plied with Ritalin.  Which had all manner of predictable and long-term adverse consequences and about which it would be better if I did not get started.

I have an appreciation of the many wonderful teachers working for and with children against some very difficult odds.  I loved school, and remember clearly a few teachers who had a really meaningful impact on me.  But even the best teachers have an easier time if their class is fairly cohesive as a group, because there is such limited time for individual students.  And, of course, there exists the other kind of teacher too, the one who doesn’t like to teach and doesn’t even really like kids.  During a recent shop for art supplies for the children, my heart sank as I overheard two teachers loudly laughing about the artwork of their Grade 8 students and the teachers’ feigned interest and encouragement at the children’s efforts.

I agree with Beth-Anne’s comments yesterday that our public education system would benefit by allowing active boys to be active boys.  There are a host of ways to release and express those physical energies so that they can be better harnessed later on.  There is more to a boy or girl child than the academic mind, just as there is more to being smart than knowing how to memorize, write sentences, and do sums.  There are other intelligences to discover and build upon, including the intelligence of the body, of emotion, of the spirit.  I did well at school, and it served me well in securing a higher education and employment.  But it didn’t prepare me especially well for life generally, and both our schools and our society will be better served when our definition of intelligence is broadened, and our appreciation of divergent student strengths honoured.

When I became the mother of a son, and then the mother of two sons, I made a commitment to ensure that their education would be a better experience than what my husband had endured.  How do I plan to do that given the limits of some aspects of current public education?  By keeping close watch and participating in what’s going on at school.  And if it’s not satisfactory, being prepared to take them out and learn with them ourselves.

I was so pleased to recently see that homeschooling options had moved sufficiently away the educational fringe to be respectfully portrayed in the mainstream parenting magazine Today’s Parent. There is something compelling and undeniable about the unschooling movement when it asserts that “the world is your classroom”.  Math can be learned from taking the measurements to build a birdhouse, follow a recipe, or plant a garden.  Biology can be learned through sports, drawing, and playing with animals.  Reading and writing can be learned by reading and writing with the people who love you the most.  And unless you live in remote lands, there are opportunities to make new friends and be a team player everywhere.

Homeschooling may seem radical to some, but to me it’s more radical to allow someone or some system dumb down the strengths of children.  Learning comes so naturally to them (did you “teach” your children to walk? run? talk?) that there really is something wrong when that natural impulse is quelled by the very institution that purports to foster it.  Is there anything sadder than an 8 year old so jaded with school and learning that he (or she) doesn’t want much to do with either anymore?

For me, the highest goal of education is to instill a love of learning itself, for life.  It might just be that the people best placed to do that for my children are the people, nestled comfortably within a supportive learning community, who love them the most.

As for my husband, he became a squash professional when he grew up.  Although he has shifted from full-time to part-time work in order to spend more time with our boys, he loves being on the court, where he easily connects with people, especially little people, as a squash coach.  He continues to live largely in his body; he can no more sit for hours on end now than he could when he was a child, nor does he have any desire to try.  The difference is that now no one is punishing him for being who he is.

We’ve also noticed that his body has stayed pretty much the same for the last 20 years, which can’t be said for many men inching their way to 40.  There’s a health and vitality that surrounds Ben when he comes back from moving his body, doing work that he is designed to do, and that can’t be said for most of us either.  What exactly did he lose and what did he gain by not being able to conform to the mould of school?

Ben is with our kids most days, and I notice he makes a point of taking them outside everyday, running them around for hours, biking, gardening, going to the swimming pool in the summer and the dead of winter too.  By two, both kids knew how to hold a racquet.  I notice that familiar health and vitality that surrounds the kids when they come home, where I do most (but not all) of the reading, writing, drawing, crafting, and cooking with them.

Ben’s school history stays alive with me as I watch my boys grow.  We’re hoping for the best with public school, and will strive to make a positive contribution of time and energy there.  We would love the assistance of a school that is supportive of our values and our children’s needs to help us educate them.  But if there’s an impasse, I’m not afraid to try something else.  Deep down, there’s a part of me that believes that taking the education road less travelled might not just make all the difference, but be a truly enriching route for all four of us.

Whatever happens, no one is going to tell me or my boys that they are “problems” or “bad” or “can’t learn”.  It’s just not an option.