School choice gives single-gender education a chance to prove itself

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by Kelly Garcia

My all-boys classroom didn’t look like a Norman Rockwell. There were boys tapping pencils. Boys squeezing stress balls. Boys pacing while reading independently. Even boys sitting on their desks.

But despite what some people may think from that description, it was also full of boys learning.

In the past few weeks, there has been a renewed flurry of articles and discussions (see here, here and here) about the value of single-gender education, which has grown to classrooms in more than 500 public schools since the Department of Education eased federal requirements in 2006. After completing my first year of teaching at the all-boys Franklin Middle Magnet School in Tampa, Fla., I can say this with confidence: Single-gender schools are not for every child. But in the age of expanding school choice, they are a valuable option.

Most boys benefit from frequent movement. I gave my students the option to move out of their desks during class time. In his articles, Leonard Sax, a leading proponent of single-sex education, often shares the scenes of organized chaos he sees when visiting some all-male classrooms. In my first few days of professional development, the thought of having boys tapping, drumming, walking and standing up  during class time was enough to make me cringe. But, within a few weeks of working with my middle school boys, I realized that when the boys are comfortable, they are more engaged and less easily distracted.

Most boys are stimulated by action. One of the best tips I learned as a reading teacher for engaging boys in texts is to introduce a new book by reading the most action-packed scene first. I introduced Gordon Korman’s “No More Dead Dogs” by reading a scene where a male character leaps on top of a stuffed dog that is ready to blow up. I can’t say the novel was a huge hit with the boys, but starting with the action first certainly was.

Most boys are motivated by competition. I can remember the teachers at my all-girls high school passing tests back, as we quietly peeked at our grades and tucked them into our folders. I didn’t want to brag about a great grade and cause anyone to feel bad about her own grade. And I certainly didn’t want to feel deflated if I realized everyone did better than me. Many girls in high school felt similarly. I learned quickly that passing tests back to the boys was a time for them to leap for joy, shout that victory was theirs and throw themselves into overt celebratory moves. These boys regarded each test as a way to prove they were smarter than their peers.

I harnessed the spirit of competition when it came time to review for final exams.

Instead of playing a typical jeopardy game, we played a game that awarded each correct answer with a chance to shoot a paper ball into a crate. The review became a way for the boys to show their peers that not only were they smarter,  but they were better basketball players, too.

Most boys touch and play rough. They say hi, bye and get their peers’ attention by grabbing, tugging or even punching. The boys’ physicality can quickly turn into horseplay, and as an instructor it is difficult to distinguish affection from affliction. When I learned how physical boys are, it prompted me to rethink the traditional behavior standards. I didn’t need to reprimand each time a boy tugged his friend’s backpack or gave a big pat on the back. It was his way of communicating.

Most boys have a tendency to talk tough, too. Missing a free throw during a novel review game resulted in a lot of “Come on, bro where are your muscles today?” and “You’re hurt, man.” For some boys, the smack talking was a motivator and a way to build camaraderie. For others, I could see it left them feeling inferior and insecure. These boy behaviors are still challenging for me to manage in a classroom. There is a fine line between motivating and deflating one another, and it is near impossible to determine when it’s been crossed.

There is a reason I included the word most before each observation I shared. No two students in my classroom were the same, and there were certainly some students who I rarely observed taking part in those behaviors at all. As we have heard in education so many times, there is no one size fits all instructional practice that will reach every student in the room. Some of the boys struggled to adjust to the classroom being more loud and boisterous than they had experienced in prior years. One way I accommodated them was by offering them classroom jobs, giving them an opportunity to contribute to the class in a meaningful way. I never wanted my students to feel invisible.

Single-gender schools are certainly not a panacea. But it is powerful to apply gender-specific strategies to general good teaching practices. I don’t argue that employing all-boys strategies in my classroom made my students smarter, but for many students it made them more engaged and more open to the idea that there was value to what I was teaching. This simple shift in thinking can make a huge difference.

Many private schools have long benefited from single-gender education. And it’s an option that growing numbers of parents are choosing when given the opportunity in public settings, or with vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. I don’t doubt that the idea merits fair-minded debate, and that it will benefit from more research. But I also appreciate that the expansion in school choice, public and private, has given it a chance to prove its worth.

1 COMMENT

  1. John Kirtley recently made a $100,000 donation to the Hillsborough school district’s two single-gender schools, and Step Up For Students is matching John’s donation with $100,000 we raised from the Walton Family Foundation. We made these donations because we support the Hillsborough school district’s efforts to create more diverse learning options for disadvantaged students.

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