Boys Will Be Boys

12 Sep

I’m going to begin field testing one of the branches of the Models by Design approach to teaching, using colleagues as models of good (and — let’s be honest — not-so-good) teachers and classroom managers, in the coming months. I’ve reached out to all faculty, elementary – high, in my school and asked if any would mind letting me observe their classrooms for an hour or so just for my own personal professional growth. I won’t be providing feedback (unless someone specifically asked for it) on these visits, but rather absorbing all kinds of ways that other people run their classrooms and teaching time. I believe most of us teach too often in isolation, and I’m a big fan of a doors-open kind of school.

So expect more on this kind of model use in MbD in the coming weeks and months.

But today let me tell you why I was so inspired to add this to my Models by Design approach and why I have boys on the brain.

First, the boys: In the past year I read two books on boys and education that I think should be required reading for every teacher, pre-K – 12, Raising Cain and The Trouble with Boys. The former is from a psychologist’s perspective, and it utterly shifted my thinking about boys (both my sons and my students) and their needs; the latter is by a journalist, and she makes a scary and compelling case for schools to change their approach to boys pronto. Reading these books has had an immediate impact on my decision to include more boy-friendly books in my grade 9 course, to allow for a break during our long block classes, and to embrace the boy energy in the room.

About that boy energy in the room. One of the best things about teaching in Doha was having to share a classroom with sixth-grade English teacher extraordinaire Chad S. Because of space restrictions we both taught in the same classroom, but the room was my office and workspace, while his office was down the hall. While it sometimes made prepping more challenging — sitting in the back, trying to type up some rubric in time for my next lesson while he and his class had buzzer-beater vocab competitions — I’m so grateful I got the chance to share the room with him, because I was able to watch how he expertly dealt with the raucous boy energy day in and out.

Watching Chad’s sixth grade class was like watching a flash dance mob: it seemed chaotic at times, as if little clumps of kids were doing their own thing and not with the whole; but if you looked closely, you’d see the whole thing was well-choreographed. He never lost control of the classroom. Quite the opposite — despite what often seemed to me an intolerable noise level, kids were actually getting stuff done. Good stuff.

And Chad had a sixth sense for when they were not. When he sensed a student was getting too far sidetracked (playing little games on the side with a friend instead of working in a group of four to write down as many nouns as they could in a minute), he would gently call that student to task. When the student needed another reminder, he’d give a slightly firmer one. When the student still couldn’t manage to focus and sit still, Chad would call him over for a one-on-one discussion, look him straight in the eye, and ask him to articulate the steps he needed to stay focused and on task.

Chad’s tolerance for group work, noise, and movement astounded me. At first it seemed so out of control (I admit I’m a bit of a control freak and a noise phobe), since I’m a high-school teacher; but later I realized that the students weren’t out of control at all. Chad was allowing them to be independent. Yes, many times in their groups or pairs, they would stray from the task and have a side conversation or a laugh. But I began to realize that this was not counter-productive. Often, it seemed, those little “breaks” kept the students more focused and more productive, ultimately very efficient.

What does this have to do with boys? Watching Chad really humbled me about the way I had always taught boys up until then. Like many teachers, I expected them to have “girl” behavior: “Sit still, don’t move your desk, don’t tap that pen against the table, don’t tip back in your chair, please pay attention, listen.” But after reading Raisin Cain and The Trouble With Boys, I see how the problem was never them but me. Chad showed me that my fear of losing control if I allowed for more group work, noise, and movement was really unfounded. Actually, he showed me that being less rigid can actually allow for a better learning environment.

So, thanks Chad for being such a great model for me in how to handle younger, energetic kids — especially the boys.

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One Response to “Boys Will Be Boys”

  1. grantwiggins September 26, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    Great piece, Lex. That is indeed the hardest thing to overcome as a HS teacher – the seeming chaos and the intolerable-to-uninitiated-adult-ears noise level. It took me a long while as a visitor to classes. On the other hand, what a good MS classroom also teaches is that you can free yourself up to be a better observer – hence the ‘sixth sense’ you describe the teacher as having. Actually, i think it is just the freeing up of the 5 senses from too much self-centered thinking about the ‘teaching’!

    And a big thank you on behalf of us guys! I really do think school is organized along female-norm lines about content, behavior, values; we need to change that if we are going to deal with the growing gap between boys and girls in literacy in particular and school success in general.

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