Boys Will Be Boys

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My son, appreciating the view of the Poconos Mountains in Pennsylvania

At one point in the school year, I was in my office with two different students, both males. A primary student was sent out of class because he refused to complete his math work. I helped him with the last part, which was challenging, although the student was fully capable. An intermediate student went into a complete shutdown in the LMC. He and another boy were playing tag in the library. After taking a break, he refused to leave, which led to climbing on windows, which led to threatening to pull the fire alarm, which led to…

Outside my office were three more boys. They had taken a snack off of a classroom table and then gotten into an argument with the teacher about who was the guilty party. When I attempted to engage in a conversation about what happened, lots of arguing and finger-pointing ensued. “I did not take that snack!” cited one student. “That’s not true – you were totally there!” a peer responded. Our counselor stepped in and helped them process through this situation and then write an apology note to the teacher.

Misbehaviors in school are certainly beyond a “boy” problem. Around the same time, two girls became very argumentative with the art teacher and were removed from class. Poor choices are not exclusive to one gender.

But after looking at our school behavioral data over the past three years, the results are clear: 4 out of every 5 behavior referrals are attributed to boys. The most common incidences involve physical aggression, disruption, and defiance. Why are they misbehaving? I’ve heard from educators in the past that “boys will be boys”. Is this a fair assessment? The fact that girls are now faring better than boys in school achievement leads one to believe that this is not just a boy problem, but rather an issue with the educational system as a whole.

When you combine this information with the unfortunate reality that higher academic expectations has led to more ADHD diagnoses, and that boys are more likely than girls to receive this diagnosis, a sense of frustration can set in. How do educators respond while still holding all students responsible for their actions? In addition, changing how school looks and feels for males can be a significant adjustment for teachers. It might involve giving up some control and allowing students to determine their own learning destiny more often.

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My son, listening to an audiobook on our iPad

Designing school with boys in mind is also a departure from the historic role of school: To disseminate information and build basic understandings. If a school were to alter their approach for teaching boys, a priority would have to be placed on hands-on experiences, constructing knowledge at their pace, and not placing such a premium on assignment deadlines or the printed and written word.

The last part of the previous statement might rub literacy experts the wrong way. My position is in no way a condemnation of current literacy practices found most effective for learners. Rather, I am questioning the limitations teachers and school leaders set on students when reading text and producing writing. For example, how are digital tools being leveraged for this kind of work? A multimedia presentation, such as an interactive video, doesn’t have to replace the traditional report. In fact, the report could be a prerequisite for the digital-based task which could complement the original writing project. This could lead to a more robust performance task for a unit of study.

Another idea is to allow students to dictate their writing using voice recognition software. This circumvents the oft-cited complaint of boys that they hate the physical act of putting words on paper. This deficit is supported by research that shows boys develop more slowly than girls in fine motor skills, a critical skill for writing. Conveying that writing is more than just a piece of paper and a pencil might alleviate some of these frustrations.

I don’t believe educators have to think too hard or do any significant extra work by designing school with boys in mind. The most challenging aspect may be in rethinking our belief that many boys are not built for schools. Rather, we need to rebuild schools and make them more accommodating for how boys learn. The best part of this approach? That both genders would benefit from changes that would be made if educators more closely considered the needs and interests of males in the learning process. Offering appropriate challenges, lots of choice, reasonable accommodations, and opportunities to be active are strategies that allow for all learners to be more successful and less frustrated with school.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, also in Wisconsin (http://mineralpointschools.org/). He also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

11 thoughts on “Boys Will Be Boys”

  1. This is a major reason why, though I always wanted to homeschool, homeschool became THE option for us. I have three school age boys, and though they are all very intelligent, reading and writing have not come easy to them. Even my boy who learned to read pretty much through osmosis, hates writing. But we haven’t pushed at all, and without us really worrying over it too much, my 7th grader is showing these signs of maturity in ALL areas. In other words, without tears and frustrations, he is catching up. Boys are floundering in schools. They need to change.

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    1. Katherine, I empathize with your plight and understand your decision. If a parent is available and well-trained, they can make the home school experience a good one. Good of you to advocate for your own children as you see best see fit.

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  2. Yep. Nice observations – also tricky in schools where majority is one gender; sometimes hard to have empathy for opposite gender and their typical learning styles – but more we know, the better we do

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    1. You bring up a good point, Ian. It is a challenge to address this type of situation when looking to hire the best teacher available. Any insights you might have would be most appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You nailed it: hire best teacher available…for the needs you are hiring for – but like a sports draft, both strategies are right: draft/hire best available or draft/hire based on need.

        Liked by 1 person

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