Student Engagement and Closing the Opportunity Gap: An Action Plan, Part 2

My previous two posts have described how schools can improve access for students of color and students living in poverty to follow their passions and have more voice in choice in their learning. In the first post, I summarize an Education Week article by Dr. Kimberlee Everson who makes a strong case for schools to pursue these goals. In the second post, I laid out the first part of an action plan that school leaders can follow to address this opportunity gap between affluent, impoverished, and diverse schools. The headings I use to organize my thinking come from Appendix A of Regie Routman’s excellent resource Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014).

You may want to follow the embedded links in the previous paragraph to read this long-form piece of digital writing in a chronological order. Consider yourself warned: This is a longer post. I didn’t feel it necessary to extend this series any longer. I will put this content all together and make it available as a PDF download soon.

So let’s continue…

  • Establish a schoolwide culture that promotes trust and risk taking.

Just as we work harder for those teachers that care about and believe in us, learners will take more risks when the culture promotes it. Promoting risk-taking is beyond a leader simply stating “Try it out” to a teacher curious about exploring a new approach to teaching and learning. They have to know that the leader and their colleagues will be there for them when mistakes are made. And mistakes will be made! We’re not really risking much if challenges do not present themselves along the pathway toward becoming better.

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One decision I made this year to promote more risk taking as a school was replacing my formal observations of staff with informal instructional walks. Instead of scheduling a 1/3 of my staff for announced supervision times, I now pop into any classroom unannounced on a daily basis. We use the instructional walk approach suggested by Regie Routman from her book Read, Write, Lead. It’s a narrative- and strengths-based approach to staff supervision, instead of a check-the-box compliance task to ensure “fidelity” (whatever that is).

In an instructional walk we are looking first for the teacher’s strengths, noticing where support is needed, and also discerning instructional patterns across the school. We are not just quietly observing and writing notes the teacher may or may not see, checking off look-fors, or collecting numerical data through a clicker. It is a process that respects both the teacher and students. (Routman, p. 198)

In order to increase trust in the instructional walk process, I had our faculty participate in an article study in order to develop the tenets of student engagement. Teachers chose one of four articles to closely read from The Reading Teacher, glean specific concepts from the content, and then come together as a whole group to articulate the characteristics of engagement in the classroom. We posted our thinking on a Padlet (www.padlet.com) during the article study.

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These attributes of student engagement became the characteristics I would use as a lens when observing and experiencing classroom instruction. Once a trimester, I would count how I often I was observing each tenet of engagement and let the faculty know these results. If one characteristic was low, such as questioning, we would make a point of encouraging this practice to become more evident within instruction through the sharing of articles and content, and through professional learning activities.

By stripping away formal observations and replacing them with instructional walks, we acknowledged that instruction is not simply a list of indicators to be documented and scored. Rather, teaching is a complex activity that is hard to understand and evaluate without an authentic and comprehensive view of what’s happening in the classroom. Allowing teachers to relax a bit about the evaluation process, they felt more comfortable in taking risks around increasing engagement through providing more access to opportunities. Mistakes were and still are seen as part of the teaching and learning process.

  • Lead the change effort.

Asking for teachers to become better practitioners demands that the leader be a part of the change process. Sometimes this involves becoming a teacher ourselves. For example, I hosted several technology training sessions for teachers to attend during the school year. They could post their questions via a Google Form about a topic or tool. These questions became our agenda for the evening.

I also partnered with a classroom teacher who was exploring how facilitating conversations about reading might increase student engagement. We promoted books we enjoyed, taught students how to recommend titles to their peers, and gave them ample amounts of time to read and discuss their books with peers. I also facilitated some of the data collection by popping in once a month to check in on how students’ reading habits, thinking, and relationships with others might have changed due to becoming more engaged in reading. The results, still being compiled, are very informative.

  • Assess whether we are learning more and getting better.

This might be the most challenging part of engaging in a process of change that will allow students more opportunities to engage in meaningful and self-directed learning. A challenge, but not impossible.

One approach I like and utilize annually is collaboratively assessing student work. We use this process with student writing during our mid-year professional learning day. This is an application of the collaborative learning cycle from the last post. Here’s how it works:

  1. I collect examples of student work, such as performance tasks or their writing.
  2. I create a gallery of their work, stretching across a hallway for example, in developmental order such as by grade level/age.
  3. We briefly describe the purpose for the professional learning and expected outcomes (connect).
  4. Teachers discuss what they anticipate observing as a grade level or department (collaborate).
  5. Teachers reorganize into vertical/cross-departmental teams and do a “walk” together. They are asked to notice strengths and next steps in students’ work age by age and talk about these as a team (calibrate).
  6. Everyone comes back as a grade level or department to co-develop a new understanding about student work and why they believe what they believe now (consensus).
  7. As a whole faculty, teachers share their takeaways during a whole group debriefing (connect).

Here are few pictures of our most recent collaborative assessment, in which teachers were engaged in a gallery walk of student writing:

This is a cyclical process, which is really a nice model for what all learning looks like. Because we have done this yearly, I can share our debriefing notes to show how we have grown as a staff from year to year. Below are our debriefings from the last two years about student writing (last year is on the left, this year on the right). Notice any difference?

We did. More of our students’ personalities were evident in their writing compared to last year. They were sharing about their personal lives in their writing more often, as well as connecting their reading to their writing. That led us to believe that choice and voice were more amply provided. These debriefings, when focused on our strengths first, become a celebration in a sense. We take pride in how our actions have directly contributed to the positive outcomes in our students’ work.

  • Assess whether students are learning more.

Money, staff, and resources might be tight, but one thing schools are not lacking is data. Seasonal screeners and interim reading measures can provide some information about a student’s growth over time. But if this is all that a school uses, we are outsourcing our abilities to accurately assess the learning that occurred within one school year.

This year our school started using a student engagement survey to gain a better understanding of how they feel about learning and school in general. The results from our fall survey were so compelling, we actually changed our school’s goal to focus on specific practices that increase engagement, such as choice and student discussion, instead of curriculum integration.

Another more authentic measure of student learning we have utilized for a couple years now are digital portfolios. Six times a year, teachers and students upload a learning artifact into FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com). They also enter a reflection that documents what they did well, what they still need to work on, and their goal for the next time they have to upload an artifact to their digital portfolio. As a bonus, families have appreciated knowing how their students are progressing throughout the school year, instead of waiting for report cards and conferences. Students also feel more in control of their learning, as they are being asked to be the “chief assessors” of their work.

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The action plan I have described within the last two posts is one approach to bringing about change in a school with the goal of increasing engagement and providing access for all students to have more control over their learning and follow their interests. It is not to be followed step-by-step. What would be wise is to take what seems useful from our work and apply it as a school leadership team sees fit. I would recommend following the smart steps that Regie Routman lays out in her book, which I used to guide our school’s journey.

As I reflect on the beginnings of this writing, I am a bit surprised to realize that I veered a bit off course in my initial purpose. Readers might be expecting that I would simply advocate for makerspaces and STEM labs as a solution to the lack of access students might experience to unique learning opportunities. Yet here we are, talking about reading and writing and how the connection between the two, when made evident for students, has increased student engagement. Maybe the journey led us to an unexpected destination.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these trending topics. Makerspaces and STEM labs are in part a reaction to the suffocating grasp our policy makers have placed on our schools to meet standards and prescribed expectations in the name of accountability. It is interesting that Dr. Everson does not advocate for any one approach over another in providing access to more engaging and authentic learning experiences for students. Instead, she asks of our nation’s leaders to take a more thoughtful approach about teaching the whole child.

It is my hope that they will advocate for rights of families that extend beyond access to buildings, a uniform curriculum, or high-test-score-producing teachers. It is my hope that they will feel teachers’ desire for freedom to inspire and children’s desire to explore the world with passion.

With that, I hope that school leaders soon find their entry points into discovering what’s possible when we offer students the time, resources, and space to pursue their own interests and develop expertise in that area. This is a necessary part of learning. For us, I am already toying with a schedule that would allocate a 1/2 hour every day next year toward “Project Time”. This would be at the end of the day, where students had even more control over how they spend that time in school. It is not a solution to a problem, but that next step in giving the ownership of learning back to our students.

Student Engagement and Closing the Opportunity Gap: An Action Plan, Part 1

In my previous post, I highlighted an article from Education Week about students being able to pursue their questions and interests in school. The author, Dr. Kimberlee Everson of Western Kentucky University, is suspicious of the use of standards and accountability measures in schools. She believes that if students do not have a voice and choice in their learning, then all of the focus on the core academics will not amount to much.

Education policy should not prescribe children’s access to institutions at the expense of access to personal development, growth, capability, or happiness. All students attending free and high-achieving schools from preschool to college is certainly a beautiful ideal, but if these very institutions quash passion or inhibit relationship-building, then the loss to our nation may be greater than the gain.

e152f6d4What Everson leaves for the reader to figure out is how to develop and implement an action plan that honors all learners’ need for autonomy to follow their passions and become more engaged in school. This is essential for our students of color and students living in poverty. According to Everson, they generally do not have the same level of access to this type of instruction, even though they may be the ones that benefit the most from a more authentic approach.

As a principal in a Title I elementary school, I can attest to the needs of these students. We have implemented a plan that has started to better engage all learners. I am using the headings from Regie Routman’s Change Process Worksheet/Appendix A, from her essential resource Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success, as a guide for organizing and describing our school’s planning process. The next part expands on the first steps in this change process.

  • Prepare people for change process.

Being very upfront with faculty about any upcoming change, such as increasing literacy engagement, is vital. It shows that we are honest and transparent about our intentions. In our school, we facilitate regular instructional leadership team meetings where we discuss the building’s goals and objectives. Meeting agendas and minutes are regularly shared out via Google Docs to ensure everyone is aware of our conversations. This was how our school started as we embarked on a schoolwide goal of increasing literacy engagement this year.

In addition to visibility, I have found it to be helpful to actually teach the staff about the process of change. To start, I share information about how change can have both an emotional and physical effect on a person. This leads into a conversation about why people resist change, and how colleagues can support one another to ferry through the expected challenges. Also necessary is pointing out that any kind of significant change is a gradual process, so it is important that we become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

  • Infuse optimism.

Think about your favorite teachers from your own school experience. Why did you work so hard for them? Likely, it was because they believed in you and what you were capable of as a scholar and as a person. For some students and teachers, this has become a lifelong friendship.

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Infusing optimism as a school begins a journey that moves toward increasing engagement for all students. It is a smart way to start.

I have found that the happiest students learn best in classrooms with the happiest teachers. That means the principal needs to celebrate all that is good in his or her teachers on a daily basis. Celebrations can be as public as a highlight in a weekly staff newsletter via Smore (www.smore.com), or as simple and intimate as a handwritten personal note placed in a teacher’s mailbox that describes what was appreciated about them.

Optimism can also come from the outside. One year, I took my staff to a woodland shelter for a retreat. We brought in facilitators from the Center for Courage & Renewal to guide us toward rediscovering why we went into education in the first place. For some of our staff, I know it was a life-changing experience. We kept this enthusiasm going by constantly coming back to the tenets of our time together, such as showing appreciation for our efforts through nominal gifts and words of praise. This feeling of connectedness along with a sense of optimism for the future is a cornerstone for trying to engage all learners.

  • Build in ongoing support and collaboration.

No amount of optimism will sustain a school culture throughout the year without regular support from a collaborative professional community. There has to be structures and systems in place to ensure that an organization stays focused on their goals (which in this case, is increasing student engagement to close the opportunity gap).

Our school has implemented what I call a collaborative learning cycle. Each part in the cycle represents a weekly meeting. It is a process in which we connect as a whole faculty to set the purpose for the following month of professional learning. This is followed by an opportunity for grade levels or departments to collaborate about the task at hand. The third week, teachers from different areas come together to calibrate their conversations and expectations across grade levels. Finally, grade levels or departments revisit and reach consensus with regard to the better practices to implement within their instruction.

Here is a visual of this process as it looks in our school:

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Source: Renwick, M. Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (2014)

We do not engage in this process every month, or even that often. Sometimes, teachers need to be able to choose how they want to spend their time together with their colleagues. That might include exploring a new science kit or taking time to analyze the most recent benchmark and screener data. We use the collaborative learning cycle when we have a specific goal in mind. One example is collaboratively assessing student writing at the beginning, middle, or end of the school year.

In my final post within this three part series about student engagement and the opportunity gap, I will describe the last four steps in the change process a school can take to address this aspect of learning in schools that deserves more attention. Stay tuned!

Are you going to take a quiz on that book?

51Z6V9NQKkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I just finished reading aloud Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz to my daughter. It’s about a farm pig named Flora who hitches a ride with explorers and takes a journey over the oceans toward Antarctica. Flora thinks she is a part of the crew as a “sledpig”, but the ship’s cook has other intentions…

After finishing the book, I almost asked her if she wanted to take a quiz on it at school the next day. Fortunately, I stopped myself and, instead, briefly discussed the book’s ending with her. She wanted to know if there was a second book about Flora. I said that I wasn’t sure and that I would check into it.


Our school resides within the city that serves as headquarters for Renaissance Learning, home of Accelerated Reader. It is one of our area’s biggest employers. Renaissance Learning has a national and global presence in the educational world. I know educators who have left teaching and taken positions within their company related to sales and training. Some of my staff have spouses who work there. You can understand the internal conflict I might experience as I write this post.

If you are not familiar with Accelerated Reader, students take a quiz about the book they just read to check for comprehension. They can earn points based on the complexity of the text. According to Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research for Renaissance Learning, “Points are a mashup of three factors: volume of text, difficulty of text, and student comprehension of that text.” I have never observed the use of the phrase “mash up” within the context of educational research. Have you?

Anyway, students can earn points toward their Accelerated Reader goal with each book they read and then pass the quiz. There is a flower visual that fills with color, which creeps closer up to the petals with each book read. Is a student a proficient reader if his or her flower blooms? Is a student a poor reader because his or her flower failed to reach maturity?? Why are they using flowers?!?

We have these technologies in our classrooms, and we know that we should use them thoughtfully and with intention. We understand this, and yet their mere presence, just even knowing that they exist in a learning space, has some type of pull where we want to maximize its use regardless of its impact on student learning and engagement. If we are used to having these technologies in our classrooms, it can be a hard habit to break, even when we come across knowledge that clearly shows that external rewards do not building lifelong readers and learners.


After my daughter went to sleep, I went to Chris Kurtz’s website to find out if a sequel to Adventures of a South Pole Pig did exist. Alas, no. That’s okay. Kids need to understand that some books as good as this one deserve to stand on their own.

What I did find on his website was an interesting reflection from the author about his school experience:

The most important thing I learned in school was how to read. But it was not the most wonderful thing. The most wonderful thing I learned was to love books. Reading words connected me to a page of paper. Reading books connected me to the entire universe, hundreds of new thoughts, millions of people, and to myself.

This quote gave me pause. If I had asked my daughter if she wanted to take a quiz on the book we read together, would I have stopped her from wondering if there was sequel? Would that simple question have reduced her desire to keep on reading within this genre and lessen her relationship with the written word? Would she have connected reading as something that we do exclusively in school instead of something to love? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I am glad that I didn’t ask.

Make a Book Map with Google Maps

I was filling in for my son’s teacher in 3rd grade yesterday (no substitute). One activity I facilitated was their prepared book talks. The students had four minutes to talk to their classmates about a book they enjoyed and why they should read it too.

I noticed that a few of the books that were shared had specific locations for the settings. We decided to make a book map using My Maps from Google to highlight the settings in which these texts took place. Here is how it works:

  1. Go to mymaps.google.com and give your map a name, such as “Book Map”.
  2. Select the marker tool and place pins on the locations of your books shared.
  3. Add the title and author of the book to the heading.
  4. Add a photo of the cover of the book by doing a Google image search within the marker menu.
  5. If you’d like, find a URL to the book’s Amazon or author page and paste it into the pin’s description.

Now you have a book map! This map can be shared with other teachers and students the same way you would share a Google Doc. They can add to the map during the school year. One idea to take further: Add another layer of markers/pins of locations of books that you want to read. You can change the pin colors to differentiate between the two layers.

Below are a few screenshots of the start of our book map.

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Author Visit: Michael Perry

New York Times bestselling author Michael Perry (Population: 485 – Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time) visited Howe Elementary School today. He spoke with our 4th and 5th graders about his new book for middle level readers, The Scavengers. Perry shared his process for writing, including the research he does prior to starting a book and his methods for revising his manuscripts once a draft is written. The teachers I spoke with thought he gave an excellent presentation. “The students were totally engaged in his stories and insights – you could have heard a pin drop in the cafeteria,” described one teacher.

I had a school administrator meeting, so I was unable to enjoy the presentation. Fortunately, Michael Perry was speaking at our public library the evening prior. This was the main reason he was in town in the first place: McMillan Memorial Library hosted our first ever community book club. It was titled “Rapids Reads” and focused on three of Michael’s books (Population: 485, The Scavengers, and The Jesus Cow) to read. The author visit at the library was the culminating activity.

The assistant director of McMillan Memorial Library, Brian Kopetsky, introduced the program and the author. It was nice to hear the purpose and the expected outcomes of hosting a community read. “We wanted to create a dialogue around a story, and through that dialogue we can come to discover our values.” One of the activities hosted by the library was a youth writing contest. To my pleasant surprise, two Howe students were the winner and the runner up!

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Next up was Michael Perry himself. He started off by sharing that he was very shy by nature and did not naturally enjoy speaking in front of others. Perry’s preferred lifestyle is writing in his second floor office in his farmhouse in Northern Wisconsin. “I will spend multiple days not talking to anyone. This recharges me and allows me to speak to audiences such as writing groups and community programs.”

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Next, the author went into his life as a professional writer (and part time farmer). He specifically spoke about the revision process as something he really enjoys.

I am a polisher. I love to revise and edit my work. For example, I will play what I like to call “desperate literary solitaire”: I will print off my manuscript, cut up the sections into smaller pieces, and then move the pieces around until they make sense to me.

Michael Perry did not attempt to glorify the life of a writer. It is his livelihood. He finds joy in his profession as a writer, yet he does not wait to be inspired.

My muse is Mr. Jim, the bald guy nine miles away sitting at the Chetek State Bank who holds my mortgage.

With regard to generating ideas to write about (Perry also writes a weekly column for the Wisconsin State Journal), he finds the best ones derive from his everyday life.

A lot my stories come from phone calls from my brothers.

As I listened to the various stories he shared about his family and friends, I found that these narratives relied on the language and the dialogue of the characters. Their words revealed who they were. What Michael Perry does, in both his speaking and writing, is to pace the narrative in a way that allows for unique phrases to provide a big pay off.

I wasn’t able to stick around for the entire event – my wife had Zumba. Perry read aloud from some of his work and also shared some personal thoughts on the book that I am reading right now, Population: 485.

It is your classic “Can you go home again?” book. What I can say about this book is that I am very grateful that I was able to write it. I got the opportunity to work on something for two years on a topic that I love – the small town of New Auburn and the volunteer fire fighting department.

This post does not adequately convey Perry’s humor, modesty, and honesty that I witnessed in person. If you can bring Michael in for a community read in your area, or to speak with your students, I highly recommend it. His observations about writing, small town America, family and friends, and what it means to be a part of a community are not to be missed.

 

Beliefs and Values

You’ve probably experienced this before: While checking out at a local store, the clerk asks if you would like to donate $1 to an important cause or organization. With others in line, you feel a sense of urgency along with a bit of guilt while making a decision.

Recently, I have countered this request with a question of my own:

“Does (insert name of franchise) match my donation?” Every time I have asked, I get one of two responses: “No” or a look of confusion. For the latter, more than once the sales representative has commented that if their store does not, maybe they should.

Our beliefs and our values in schools and districts are too often two different things. For example, schools post their mission and vision in the hallway about offering the best education for all students. Yet they fail to adequately support our most marginalized students. Policies and procedures are developed that cluster low SES students in specific areas. Scripted, one-size-fits-all programs are purchased at once instead of investing in ongoing and embedded professional learning. Classroom libraries and school librarians are viewed as ancillary instead of the essential resources that they are.

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Source: Flickr
Of course, no school or district is going to proclaim that, due to limited funding and support, not all students may have access to the same high-quality education. Yet is that what is truly stopping us? If we are finding distance between our beliefs (what we say we agree upon) and our values (how we live out our beliefs daily), I have found it helpful to have real conversations and ask honest questions about the current reality. If everyone involved is invited to the table and is allowed to speak candidly about the issues, this can only lead to the start of a better learning culture for our students, staff, and families.

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.