Boys Are Culturally Maligned in Elementary School

Something awesome happened in my classroom recently. It was something that I had hoped would happen, too. I played this video from a TEDx talk at Penn State about bringing gaming into elementary school classrooms to help inspire boys’ to engage in school-based learning activities.

In this 12-minute presentation, Ali Carr-Chellman talked about her research as to why boys are disenfranchised in today’s educational system. She points to some eye-opening statistics about gender inequities in schools today that belie the idea that boys will automatically outpace girls academically. But she is clear to point out that she is not gender-baiting. Her point is that we need to meet boys where they are, culturally.

I’ve been saying the same thing for about a year now. I have noticed the phenomenon since day one of teaching. In all of my classes, boys were the ones who were “most likely” to be reprimanded for some fashion of unacceptable behavior. Boys were the ones “most likely” to turn off during lessons. Boys were the ones “most likely” to lag behind their female counterparts in any kind of reading or writing assignment. I put “most likely” in quotes because I am referring to my experience and not any empirical data.

At the same time I was noticing this trend among boys, I also noticed another trend among teachers. Carr-Chellman calls attention this, too. It is the demeaning of boy culture by teachers. Teachers describe boy interests using diminutives like “little” and “toy”, or dismissive generic nouns like “thing” or “stuff”. I experienced this myself as an adult when I started to show my new iPad to some female friends. Immediately they called it a “toy” in a not-so-supportive tone. Conversely, they revered their less-powerful and single-use Kindles, and promoted them to their friends. And this has happened repeatedly in the past year, but less so as the iPad has gained acceptance.

It was a perfectly timed experience for me, beacuse I was immediately transported back to my pre-teen self when my teachers, administrators, counselors, etc. would make similar remarks about the toys and interests my friends and I had. I even remembered thinking on at least one occasion, “Wow. I hoped I could have made a connection with my teacher just then, but I failed.” That memory made me more aware of my own interactions with my students, male and female alike. I made an effort to have more authentic interactions with them about their personal interests. It immediately improved my understanding of them as individuals, and it allowed me to improve my rapport with students which was especially useful for times when I had to discipline them.

So, before I showed this video to my students, I asked my boys if they have ever felt like school was just for girls. I asked if they felt like their interests were discounted by their teachers, and how that made them feel. The answers were unanimous. They did not feel like school was a place for boys. So, I expected it to be true, but to hear them agree so enthusiastically was astounding. Asking those questions empowered these boys in my class to express themselves publicly in an honest and visceral way that they hadn’t before in school. I guess no one had thought to ask.

This whole exercise, of course, is connected to the curriculum. It is in fact connected to my writing curriculum. One of my goals this year is to break down the barriers that kids have in becoming good writers – really good writers. And I want my boys to feel like they can express themselves using words without fear of retribution or ridicule, but in a way that isn’t mistaken for violent expression.

Watching the video and the discussion that followed got the whole class riled up. That’s good because the writing unit we are working on at the moment is personal essays. I’ve been using audio and video versions of good personal essays mainly to distinguish between a personal essay and a personal narrative. After seeing this, each student could have written a personal essay about his or her feelings about school – the boys especially. Seeing them write with conviction, passion and purpose – that will be the biggest (and most welcome) surprise of all!

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