Publication Type: Web Article
Year of Publication: 2005
Bill Ferriter describes the behaviors of his male middle school student, whose slower-developing verbal ability can lead them to act out physically. How, Ferriter asks, can schools best serve these students?
Ferriter, B. (2005). Are we failing our boys? Teacher Leaders Network diaries. Retrieved from the Teacher Leaders Network 8 Apr 2008. Link: http://www.teacherleaders.org/old_site/diaries04_05/other/BF19.html
Are We Failing Our Boys?
This entry first appeared in Bill Ferriter's Teacher of the Year blog which is shared with a community audience in Raleigh, NC.
I received an email from a parent drawing my attention to an article that ran in the Raleigh News and Observer about an experiment in a local district to separate middle school boys and girls in core classes. The thinking behind the plan was that boys and girls might actually perform better in single gender classrooms.
As I read the article, I was deeply engaged. Over the years, I've read extensively about the brain-based differences between boys and girls and been intrigued by the possibility of serving students separately.
One quote in the article really caught my attention. Anna Worthen, the president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Organization for Women, said, "I really feel this is dangerous. What if you're a little girl that doesn't learn the 'girl way'?"
That's a fair question, isn't it? Clearly you can't say that instructional approaches that work for the majority of girls will work for all girls, can you? If you pigeonhole all girls into classrooms delivering instruction in the same ways, you will be failing someone, right?
And we've worked hard for decades to draw attention to the needs of the girls in our classrooms — with promising results. More girls take advanced placement courses than ever before. More girls take challenging science and math courses and attend prestigious universities. No one wants to see that progress wasted.
But what about our boys?
Are our efforts in education meeting their needs as well?
I would argue that they aren't. In fact, the majority of classrooms in our country are structured to reward students who learn "the girl way." Skills and behaviors like compassion and empathy are celebrated. Verbal ability and collaboration are valued. Many of these skills and behaviors develop quickly and naturally for girls. Others are socially reinforced as positives for young ladies from an early age.
Many boys, on the other hand, are naturally competitive from an early age. My parents used this trait against me at dinnertime. "I'll bet you can't clean your whole plate in ten minutes," they'd say, "And don't forget the green beans!" I'd happily race the clock, unknowingly being tricked into eating a food that I despised! My brain simply couldn't resist a good challenge.
Boys are also more tactile and active than girls from an early age. Movement is essential. Watch your sons — they can't sit still, can they? They stand at the dinner table or while watching television, right? They bounce on their beds, they wrestle, they run and they roll in the grass, don't they? Have you ever seen two boys sprinting to the front door of the church (or their sister's dance recital or cotillion class) after having been dragged out of bed by their moms and dads?
In schools, their bodies are constantly moving too. Boys in my sixth grade classroom play drums with their pencils, whistle, lean back in their chairs, take trips to the bathroom, stand up, and sit down in a year-long game of musical bodies. Paper wads, dinner rolls and Gatorade bottles become basketballs and the trashcan becomes the hoop. Impromptu games of pig happen all the time!
Because verbal ability doesn't develop as quickly in boys, this competitiveness and activity is often expressed through aggressive actions shunned in classrooms. My boys race to see who will be first in the lunch line. They shout out answers. They push when someone takes something that belongs to them. They grab anything set in front of them -- whether it is snacks or dictionaries -- and they are completely unable to describe their feelings when made angry or sad.
What's more, society sends messages to boys that compassion, empathy and collaboration are not traits to be valued in men. Men are supposed to be decisive. They are supposed to be risk takers — "Make it happen" guys. Think about how many times you've heard the following statements made to — or about — the boys and men in your life:
"I never saw my father cry."
"Bullying is just a part of life. Deal with it."
"That's just boys being boys."
"Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."
"Winners never quit and quitters never win."
"Come on Johnny, tough it out now. You'll be fine."
"No excuses, son. Just get it done."
Or my personal favorite:
"My son is just a little sensitive. He'll get over it."
In reality, all boys are "a little sensitive." They're just taught to mask their sensitivity from an early age. To live up to society's expectations — and the expectations of their peers — boys have to work in ways that are not recognized or valued in most classrooms.
And as a result, boys are struggling in nearly every statistical category. Fewer boys make the honor roll than girls. More boys fail core academic classes than girls. Fewer boys are admitted to four-year universities than girls. More boys get in fights than girls. More boys are suspended from school than girls. Boys drop out of school at a higher rate than girls. Boys commit suicide at a higher rate than girls.
Boys commit most acts of school-based violence as well. Just a few weeks ago, a boy shot and wounded one of his classmates in Roseburg, Oregon. This event, along with Columbine, Jonesboro, Prairie Grove, and Red Lake should have drawn our attention to the struggles of young men to emotionally thrive in America.
Let's continue to advocate for instructional practices that meet the needs of our girls, but let's not close our eyes to the very real challenges of raising our boys.
To do so would be just as dangerous.