Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D. : Thoughts on how teachers can better support boys in schools

Suggestions for teaching boys (handout given at event)

Suggestions for teaching boys (handout given at event)

This evening, I listened to a presentation given by Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D.  He is a clinical psychologist, school consultant and international speaker on the subjects of children, schools and parenting. He’s also written several books focusing on parent-teacher relationships, child development and the psychological aspects of school leadership. Some of his books are Homesick and Happy: How time away from parents can help a child grow, The Pressured Child: Helping your child find success in school and life and Raising Cain: Protecting the emotional life of boys.

While there were many interesting tidbits learned, I was most struck by three points on the handout titled: Twelve Suggestions for Teaching Boys.

Re-think homework. Meaningless or make-work homework creates the greatest pushback from boys because it ruins their playtime and causes fights at home. Teachers should try to use differentiated homework, offer homework online that gives immediate feedback, or give boys a way to earn their way out of homework. 

Because I went to a traditional private Catholic school (1st-12th grade), and I received tons of homework, as a novice teacher, I did the same. I was under the belief that if my students practiced skills at home then they would fare better in school. However, in the last ten years my pedagogical approach has been slowly changing and now I question the rationale for homework, particularly in the primary grades. I’m not a fan of homework packets, especially during vacation. When I speak to families and they share the constant fights that occur at home in the evenings over homework, I wonder, How is this benefiting the child or the home? Who’s paying the cost for this turmoil? Is homework creating a negative connotation between school and learning? –  I’d also like to point out that this argument can also be made for girls. I believe that both boys and girls, particularly in the primary grades would benefit greatly from having a reading log (reading is the gateway to learning) and perhaps a quick review of math facts, sight words or something else that is quick and easy. And once children begin the third grade, homework can be implemented so long as it is pertinent to what they are learning and not time-consuming. I hear parents share that their fourth and fifth graders spend up to three hours doing homework – that is insane!

Movement. Let them move inside the classroom as much as you can tolerate. Remember that boys who hate Shakespeare will learn the lines from Romeo and Juliet when they can act them out with others – with swords.

This is a doozy for me –  Dr. Michael Thompson said that this is how boys are wired and that our schools need to adapt to this. So long as no one is getting hurt, and work productivity is not being slowed down, then if a boy needs to wiggle around, stand up, walk outside and then come back, not a problem. As I listened to his presentation I understood exactly what he was getting at. Our schools are designed for learners who sit quietly in their seats, take their time with their work, don’t disturb and make life easier for teachers. In the past I have been guilty of this. I remember getting my feathers ruffled when a former student would be in constant motion. Another teacher friend said, “Is he learning? Is he hurting anyone?” This little guy was learning and he wasn’t hurting anyone and that is when I finally learned that taking away his recess (not the best option) was only hindering his ability to focus in class because what he really needed to do was MOVE AND PLAY!  The irony is that our schools keep increasing the rigor of subjects and adding more things to teach (maybe there aren’t enough school minutes to get in done) and in a bind, teachers opt to shorten recess or in more extreme cases, not have recess at all.

Another thing mentioned was the manner in how boys tend to play. I am not comfortable with roughhousing and wrestling. I am quick to pull boys apart on the playground and in most schools this type of play is not allowed. But a question posed this evening was, What if we were to let boys wrestle and play in this manner? So long as no one is getting hurt or targeted to be hurt, what would be the harm? I have been pondering this all evening and I have to say, this doesn’t sit well with me. Nevertheless, when I look at how the adult men behave in my family, they wrestle each other, they run and “dunk” their trash in the wastebasket, they jump and move as they watch sporting events – they too are in constant motion.

Let boys read and write about (and draw!) what they love. There is often a collision between boys and teachers when it comes to reading. Teachers tend to like fiction, character development, journals and emotional openness. Boys, in general, like non fiction, science fiction, graphic novels and stories of emotional toughness such as sports biographies. They especially love and value stories of espionage, combat and death.

A few weeks ago I was doing a shared writing activity with the class. Using equity sticks, the chosen student added details to the story while I wrote them on chart paper. I called on a little boy and he said something about a sword and killing one of the characters. I’m sure I put on my teacher face and in my teacher voice said something like, “Well, can you think of something different that doesn’t involve any violence…” Dr. Michael Thompson said this sort of exchange deters boys from reading and writing because these are the topics that they get excited about, yet are often not accepted in the classroom. Again, I’m going to have to think about this. But I can see how writing about mermaids, rainbows and unicorns can seem boring and uninspiring to some.

I plan on reading some of Dr. Michael Thompson’s books and I hope to get more answers to the thousands of questions I have. I have many things to think about in terms of how I teach and the environment I create for my students. I wonder if wrestling during recess is a safe and healthy alternative so boys don’t feel disconnected and bored in school…

Rambunctious Boys and Little Playtime

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Last week during a math lesson in my first grade class I was very aware that the content I was covering was over their heads. The lesson objective was solving for the missing addend. Let me just say that I don’t remember learning this in Sister Agnes Marie’s first grade class. Secondly, my rambunctious little guy was obviously over this lesson and over me.  During the forty five minute lesson I had asked him to simmer down, pay attention, stop rocking on his seat, stop playing with the math manipulatives, and to change his color on the behavior chart. My rambunctious little guy sits within arm distance from me and I often reach over in the hopes that my magic tap will calm him down. Everyday my team teacher and I remind him of the importance of paying attention and doing one’s best work. This particular day I asked him what he needed from me. He looked solemnly at me with his big brown eyes and said this, “Can I have lunch recess?”  I was speechless.

Coincidently, that very day my sister sent me an article by Christina Hoff Sommers, What Schools Can Do To Help Boys Succeed.  Sommers proposes three simple changes to help boys have more success in school.

1.  Bring Back Recess

Ironically, recess is usually the first thing that is taken away from kids when they break a rule. And for a little guy who is in constant motion, running around on the playground would be more beneficial than sitting in my class with his head down. The article also points outs that 39% of first-graders get about 20 minutes of recess each day in comparison to Japanese children who get 10 minutes of play each hour. Nixing Recess: The Silly, Alarmingly Popular Way to Punish Kids advises that “research has shown that taking away recess does not make classroom behavior any better, and, in fact, it might make things worse in the case of students who are misbehaving because of an excess of energy or boredom.” How many times has my rambunctious little guy been denied the opportunity to blow off some steam? Unfortunately, too many times.

2. Turn Boys Into Readers

I love picture books and I read three different books a day to my first graders. However, the picture books that I tend to choose for read alouds are ones that I, a female teacher, find appealing. I need to get comic books because truth be told, I don’t have any in my classroom library. I also need more non fiction books and a variety of books that little boys will find appealing.  Alex Carrera, a fellow colleague has already started to think outside the box by bringing her little dogs to class to encourage her fourth grade boys to read. 

3. Work With the Young Male Imagination

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I’m not too fond of vampires, pirates and other ghoulish things. But as I’m realizing, some little boys are and I need to foster their creativity.  This past Halloween another rambunctious little guy couldn’t stop talking about monsters and scary skeletons. If it were up to him, he’d draw all day and he’s pretty talented as you can see by this picture.  Last year, I had a another little boy in my class who would rather doodle cartoon like images instead of listening intently to class lessons. Lucky for him, his mom enrolled him in an art class. He came alive when he talked about his Wednesday art classes. I was invited to attend his art class’ puppet show and it was spectacular. This little boy was a very different student than the one that showed up to my class. He was excited and engaged!

Lastly, while these articles have been eye openers, I’m not quite sure how I will move forward and implement changes in my classroom. But I do understand that my rambunctious little guy needs his playtime. Imagine when I tell him, “Go out and play. We’ll figure something out together.” Priceless.