A couple of weeks ago, I was volunteering at my son Aidan’s elementary school after hours. The building was empty but for a knot of teachers clustered in the hallway. As we entered his classroom, Aidan leaped up to touch the door frame.
Immediately, one of the teachers scolded him about safety.
Aidan apologized. As soon as we were alone, though, he rolled his eyes at me.
“Teachers don’t like boys, Mom. If I was a girl, she never would have said anything.”
“They’re just trying to keep you safe,” I said.
Still, I couldn’t help wishing, as I do so often, that we had better schools for boys.
I say this with resignation as another school year draws to a close. Now that Aidan, the youngest of our five children, is in sixth grade, I have little hope that the system will change. Our public school curriculum in Massachusetts, as in so many states, is designed to help students conquer basic skills and prepare for the state-administered MCAS exam. Not a bad goal. Just one problem: our teachers now scramble to teach to the tests. This means lots of worksheets get handed out and there’s little time left for creative, hands-on projects.
This is a tragedy, especially for boys. Research tells us what most parents know: boys are apt to be “kinesthetic learners.” That’s educatorspeak for the fact that most boys learn best while they’re in motion. Boys want to get their feet wet and their hands dirty. They want to build things and take them apart, trap small animals and climb tall trees. Or jump up and touch whatever they can.
As Aidan observed once, after spending an entire science class watching a movie about the life cycle of frogs, “We’d learn a lot more if the teacher just brought tadpoles and frogs into the classroom and we could look at them.”
Students in our public schools are rewarded for being quiet and respectful, for scoring well on tests, for coloring inside the lines, for collaborating instead of competing, for writing about their feelings, and for civilized classroom behaviors that don’t include farting or burping. All fine skills. The thing is, most girls – I’m basing this on our own family of three boys and two girls, plus the children of friends – seem to want to please their teachers and be praised. That’s why so many more school valedictorians are girls. The boys, not so much. Until you show them why something matters in the outside world, they mostly don’t see the point of doing something that bores them silly. And I mean silly.
It doesn’t help matters that most teachers are hard-working, well-meaning women who are already overwhelmed with the responsibilities heaped on them by school administrators, inclusive classrooms, parents, needy kids and the threat, always, of losing their jobs or having their pay cut. Would things be different if more men populated our classrooms? I have no idea. I only know that, as it stands now, boys are more likely to fail in school and to be three times more likely to be labeled as ADHD than girls because of their activity level (http://www.healthcentral.com/adhd/c/1443/13716/addadhd-statistics/). Aidan earns A’s and B’s in school, yet I’m constantly fighting battles like this one: When he misbehaves, his teachers take away recess. Please. Are they out of their Vulcan minds?
Recently, I was walking with a few friends and listening to their lamentations about next year’s teachers and class sizes. When they asked my opinion, they were shocked when I shrugged and said, “Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s just school.”
But I can’t help seeing school as a necessary evil instead of an inspiration. It’s great that Aidan has learned how to do algebra, read a map, write an essay and navigate social situations without a black eye. Outside of school, though, is where Aidan does most of his real learning. He pursues his interests with passion: rock climbing, coin collecting, fishing, engineering, snowboarding. Our house is one big science lab; in recent months Aidan has built a hovercraft in the driveway, figured out that you could shrink potato chip bags in the microwave oven, and erected a K’nex roller coaster taller than he is. He has memorized the periodic table and taken apart an old computer. He surprised me in the kitchen by saying, “Here’s a cool invention for kids, Mom,” and pushing a cup of milk onto the ice dispenser of our freezer. Instead of dispensing ice, cereal came pouring out of the freezer and fell into his cup of milk. Messy, but way cool.
What would a perfect school for boys be like? Classes would be small and held outside half the time. Boys of all abilities and temperaments would build, paint, draw, take things apart, play computer games and listen to music while reading if they felt like it. If they wanted to write about volcanoes instead of the weather, or study the Civil War in January instead of September, why not let them choose? And, if they wanted to do math standing up or run a few laps between exams, why not?
Oh, wait. Our boys couldn’t do that. That would be breaking the rules.