Letting boys be boys in school

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Every year before students have taken their standardized tests, former principal Terri McCann, now a district administrator, has walked into the third grade all-girls’ classroom at West Memphis Bragg Elementary, told students what to expect, and reminded them to sharpen their pencils. It’s always been very calm and encouraging. Then she’s walked to the all-boys’ classroom, closed the door behind her, and shouted, like a football coach, “Are you going to let those girls beat you again?!”

“No!” they’d yell like they were ready to run out of a locker room and run over an Ole Miss Rebel.

Those motivational techniques are just one of many ways third grade boys and girls are taught differently at Bragg Elementary, and it all started when McCann and other school leaders looked at test results and realized that girls were outscoring boys just about everywhere in every grade.

Those problems mirror what’s happening throughout the rest of society. Academically, girls are outperforming boys and have been for a long time and in many countries, according to a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, females made up 57 percent of all college students in the fall of 2015.

Of course, the educators at Bragg Elementary aren’t responsible for the performance of America’s youth. They’re responsible for their kids. So they asked themselves a hard question: At Bragg Elementary, how are we failing boys, and how can we help all students?

They decided to offer parents the choice of a boys’, girls’ or mixed-gender classroom. They trained with specialists who taught them about different learning styles. And then they implemented those ideas.

The differences in the boys’ and girls’ classrooms start with how they are arranged. In the girls’ classroom, desks face each other in neat, small clusters. In the boys’ classroom, desks are arranged shoulder-to-shoulder. Carpet is glued beneath the boys’ desks so they can rub their hands back and forth and release energy while they are listening.

Movement, in fact, is one of the keys to success in the boys’ room. While the girls typically work well at their desks, the boys are allowed to do workbook problems standing and pressing their paper against a wall, or they go outside and toss a ball while doing math problems. Teachers walk back and forth and expressively use their hands to keep students’ attention, and they skip from topic to topic.

Other communication and teaching styles differ. Boys are given simple instructions and then dive into the lessons, while girls, who are better hearers from birth, are given a much more thorough explanation. The boys’ room has a lot more competition, and because boys learn better under stress, they have many timed activities. Girls, on the other hand, compete less and are given more time. In math, boys use fewer math manipulatives, which become distractions and, inevitably, projectiles. The girls tend to learn better using those hands-on, concrete objects.

The results? In 2005 four years before the change, only 55 percent of third grade students were proficient in literacy and 78 percent in math. In 2014, it was 87 percent and 96 percent. The biggest recent gain has been in boys’ literacy – from 53 percent proficient in 2009, the first year of the change, to 87 percent in 2014.

True, test scores generally have increased throughout Arkansas. But McCann and her fellow educators are confident their methods have made a difference and have seen other successes, such as improved discipline. Moreover, students with special needs are mainstreamed into these classrooms rather than housed in special ed. Educators and parents alike have noticed that the students, particularly the boys in the all-boys’ classroom, rally around those classmates and make them feel part of the team.

Interestingly, Bragg Elementary didn’t see the same success with mixed classrooms in the sixth grade, so only the third grade offers gender-based classrooms. Still, the lessons learned have been incorporated in all grades.

To some, the model probably sounds politically incorrect, especially when society is debating the notion of gender these days.

But left and right ought to be able to agree that classrooms should fit the student rather than the other way around. This is how Bragg Elementary is doing it: by taking into account gender learning styles, giving parents a choice and, when appropriate, letting boys be boys.

Related: How two sisters and a cup of coffee changed a school

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