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No Wonder Boys Hate School

I just have to tell you about something that happened with my nephew yesterday.

We homeschooled him for a year and a half, but he went back to high school this year for grade 9. He still comes over quite frequently because he really is part of the family. He's a smart kid, but he's not highly motivated to work hard.

One thing he is, though, is a naturally gifted writer. What bothered me when I was homeschooling him is that he wouldn't take notes, he'd keep his work in utter chaos, and then when he finally did get around to writing the actual report, it would be good. I'd have little to criticize. But his methods were so sloppy!

His English teacher has not figured out that he is a good writer, I think because she gives him assignments that border on really dumb. I don't know this woman; I don't even know her name. But one thing I do know is that some teachers think like girls (especially female teachers) and they don't tend to make assignments that boys will like.

To use another example, I know a little boy in grade 2. He is bright as anything (I sat down one day and taught him the concept of multiplication, and he could figure out on his own what the x2's and x 3's were). But he absolutely hates writing. He doesn't like to hold his pencil, and he's really awkward with it. So he hates coloring and he hates writing his letters and numbers, which are important things when you're in grades 1 and 2. So nobody has ever figured out that this kid is smart, even though he's great at math, he can do puzzles my girls have trouble with, and he's reading quite well. He doesn't colour in the lines, you see. Because he's a boy.

Another family I know had an extremely bright boy in grade 5. He could take apart radios and put them back together. He liked doing logic puzzles. And he was asked, on a test, for 10 points (one quarter of the marks), "how do you think it felt when Susie saw her family kidnapped by Indians?". He wrote a one sentence answer, "She felt badly." He's a boy. He doesn't like talking and analyzing feelings. So he flunked that question.

Yesterday I was working through an English assignment with Alex, my nephew. He had to analyze a novel on twenty different lines (what is the inciting action? What's the climax? What are the main character's physical characteristics? What is the atmosphere? What is the narrative voice? What is the author's tone?). By the way, if anyone can tell me the difference between atmosphere, narrative voice, and author's tone, I'd be immensely grateful.

So he had to come up with all of these things for a novel, which I'm okay with. That's how you analyze a novel. And then he had to come up with a quotation from the book which backed up each of the 20 assertions, I suppose to prove that you actually read the thing.

The problem came with the second assignment. They then had to make mobiles (like those baby mobiles above cribs) of the book. They had to use 3D objects that represent something about the book. It had to be aesthetically pleasing. It had to be attractive. It had to be well done.

So here's my question: Why? You've already analyzed the novel. You've already shown that you know all the different elements of it. Why make a mobile? And even if the teacher wants you to think about symbolism (which is valid), why not ask the kids to put all these elements in a shoe box or something? It's a high school English class, not an art class! Why does a mobile have to be aesthetically pleasing?

If it were me, I would give kids a choice. Either write down about the twenty elements, or make a mobile about ten elements and then present it to the class. They seem about equivalent to me, and both show that you have thought about the book. One focuses on writing; one on art and speaking. Two choices for all the kids. But instead everybody has to get busy with string and scissors and markers when they're 15.

How many of you know 15-year-old boys who are going to be happy doing that assignment? Kids aren't happy doing written assignments either, of course, but at least they know there is value to them. They are learning something, and they are working through the material. Glueing something on a mobile has no value.

As a homeschooler, whenever projects like that come along, I give the kids the choice. Many, many times we've abandoned projects altogether because they've just seemed like "busy work". My goal is to get the kids to learn stuff and then move on. It's not to make them work with the same concept ad infinitum.

But schools don't work that way. And I can't for the life of me figure out why so many schools teach things in a way that alienates boys. I'm not sure girls would want to make that mobile, either, but at least most would be more open to it than males. Most boys can't even keep their binders neat, let alone do art like that.

So many teachers are female. They have this dream of getting kids to love learning THE WAY THEY DO. But not all students operate the way they do, especially males. And to think that all first graders need to colour, and all fifth graders need to talk about their feelings, and all ninth graders need to do craft projects in English is ridiculous. And then we wonder why boys aren't engaged in school (girls now surpass them in all subjects in standardized tests).

I suppose I'm not the one to talk, since I don't have boys in the system, except for my nephew, but stuff like this makes me mad. I don't think we should be turning boys off of learning the way we do. I wrote a curriculum lately, for instance, called The Any Novel Novel Study Guide, that you can use in grades 6-12 to study any novel. But for each major assignment I gave kids a ton of choice, based on their learning styles. They could write, they could make charts, they could draw, they could build, they could create. (you can see it here). That, to me, makes sense. Making everyone create a mobile does not.

What about you? How are your sons treated in school? Do you ever get frustrated, or find that the girls are favoured? I'd love to hear about it!

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At 10:34 AM , Blogger Laura said…

I agree totally. I have 6 nephews. We also homeschooled the oldest for a year before he entered high school.
It pains me to see the unmotivated, painful teenage years made more difficult by assignments and classwork that don't match how boys work.


At 11:28 AM , Blogger Tracey said…

I totally agree too and I'm a teacher! I will be purchasing your book. I also wanted to add that MOST of my projects are ones that allow the kids to pick and choose what they will do. I assign points to everything and have both written and creating aspects to it. I also think boys need more movement too, so I am constantly finding new ways for them to move around. A simple one is I don't pass out papers, but have everyone come up to collect their own. This may sound like the room gets crazy, but if you have good classroom management it all works out. I also assign kids jobs and they run all my errands. The only times they have to sit in their chairs is when we test and if they are not working productively.....otherwise they can sit anywhere in the room they want (floor, under tables etc.).


At 12:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I have a very active almost 5 year old boy. Right now he is attending a private preschool. We have chosen this preschool because of their focus on play and socialization rather than academics. That being said this year, his last year before kindergarten, has been difficult for him. The teachers are requiring him to sit for longer periods of time. Nothing outrageous, just trying to get the kids ready for kindergarten. He is struggling with even this. My husband and I decided that we would be homeschooling, mostly because of this. If he is having trouble in a laid back preschool class, I can only imagine the trouble he would have in public school. It continually amazes me that they require young active children to sit for so long. I don't think my son is any more active and hyper than the next kid, he just has less impulse control and is a little bit immature for his age. We felt that sending him into an environment like public school where he was required to sit for long periods of time and learn things that he already knows(he is very bright)would be just setting him up for failure, so we decided to keep him home, for at least the next few years.


At 1:05 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Hi everybody!

Tracey, so glad you wrote in! (And good to see you again!). I'm so glad there are some teachers like you (and I know there are others) who do take a better view of things and who do try to engage all kids, regardless of learning style/preference.

I just wish you could duplicate yourself (and maybe come teach my nephew's English class, though I think you normally teach grade 3, if I remember correctly!).

Laura, Glad to hear someone else homeschooled their nephews! I used to feel like I was alone!

And Jr. miss, good for you with your son. Do whatever you think is best for him. I think if kids get a rotten view of school from the beginning, it can damage their long-term learning and their view of themselves!


At 2:36 PM , Blogger Berji's domain said…

I'm with you almost all of the way on this. I know people have different learning styles and doing arts and crafts for English class (I had to do it too) and be graded on the aesthetics of it is wrong (I failed the aesthetically pleasing part). BUT... I do think there is value in not letting kids always choose their own methods. I think it is good to let them learn that there are different ways of learning and presenting the knowledge learned (and sometimes they have to do things they don't want to). But it is useful to learn to think in different ways- for boys and girls.


At 3:03 PM , Blogger Llama Momma said…

I've got twin boys in second grade, going to public school. Thankfully, their teachers are both very tuned into learning styles. They don't spend much time coloring, but they do build models and give speeches.

Overall, I'm very pleased at the quality of their education. They're both in the "gifted" program for math and science, and that helps.

We're in a great school district...and I'm so thankful!! :-)


At 4:15 PM , Blogger Tiana said…

I spent several years as a preschool teacher before having my own children, and I can tell you I've seen the type of thing you've described here, and it's one of the very reason we have chosen to educate our children at home.

My five year old is brilliant--I'm amazed at what he knows, and I know that as he grows up, educating him will keep me on my toes! However, I also know he would not do well in a classroom environment. He would be bored by most of the assignments, and accordingly, would have a hard time behaving himself. I can't do that to him.

Blessings to you!



At 9:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I am a homeschooling mom of three children, two of which are boys. I have been feeling very overwhelmed and tired lately, as we have been homeschooling since the beginning and my oldest is now in 7th grade, and I have been seriosly praying about the possibility of putting them all in school next year. I feel that God has used your article to remind me once again of one of the many reasons we homeschool. Thank you for the reminder! God bless and Merry Christmas!


At 9:28 PM , Blogger dianne - bunny trails said…

Excellent post, Sheila. I have two boys and definitely had issues with my youngest when he was in public school, for this very reason. Being a homeschool mom, I allow my boys to work in a variety of locations as long as they get their work done. I really appreciate hearing all the things that Tracey does to facilitate teaching to boys in her classroom. It's good to know that at least some teachers are more accommodating.


At 12:32 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I’m working on my Ph.D. in children’s literature so I think I can help.

Atmosphere is the general feeling created in the reader or audience by a work at a given point. It is often synonymous with mood. Atmosphere is distinguished from tone because tone refers to the attitude of an author toward reader or audience, subject matter, or even himself or herself.

I’ll use Charlotte’s Web as an example. The atmosphere of Charlotte’s Web is one of nostalgia; it invokes a longing for childhood. The tone of Charlotte’s Web is an invocation of curiosity. The author sees the miraculous in the mundane. To separate tone from narrative voice, one must understand that the author and the narrator are not the same person. In a way, the narrator of any novel is, him or herself a character. In Charlotte’s Web the author's narrator does not interfere or directly comment on the action, unlike, C.S. Lewis’s narrator, who occasionally breaks the narrative flow to address the reader and comment on what the characters are doing.

Some educational theorists believe that by asking students to use as many parts of their brains as possible the students create multiple memory paths for the information and thus retain the information longer. So, while writing and documenting the information through the questionnaire, and supporting this information with quotes from the material the student is learning through visual and possibly auditory means. What the mobile project adds an additional element to the learning process by using tactile and visual processes.

However in a class of 18-30 students, a teacher might use this approach so that she or he can avoid tailoring a project to each student or letting them select how they wish to demonstrate their knowledge. The idea is in a multi-pronged assignment like this, students who benefit from different learning approaches would have the ability to excel. It also means that every assignment can be graded using the same rubric. However, the advantage for the student of having a multiple assignments is that no portion can be worth an exorbitant part of the grade.

What is wrong with asking any student who is naturally disorganized to develop organizational skills and understand aesthetics? Organization is another important skill that boys are too often excused from. Learning to organize one’s process and notes helps students to organize their minds and think more logically and rationally.

Additionally, it is because boys do not naturally express their feelings that they should be encouraged to do so. The most successful people are those who know how to read others and react accordingly.
However, I would not have failed the student who said the girl felt badly when her parents were kidnapped. The kidnapping of parents is a traumatic and horrifying idea to a child; it’s unfair to expect them to express this because it’s tantamount to expecting a child to express how they would feel if their parents were kidnapped.

The fact that many children enjoy coloring simply makes the medicine go down easier. Coloring teaches children the fine motor control they will need to develop handwriting. It also develops the muscles in your hands used for writing. Learning to color in the lines teaches students how to write letters within the lines.
Also, if a child is uncomfortable holding a pencil and is unusually awkward with it, he should see a doctor. He may need physical therapy. By the second grade, a child should be demonstrating competency with holding a pencil.

I agree that certain aspects of various disciplines tend to appeal more to one gender than another; however this does not excuse either gender from completing the assignment. (It certainly didn’t get me out of dissecting frogs!) I believe it’s a life lesson to learn that it doesn’t matter if you like an assignment or not; you still have to do it.


At 8:03 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Thanks for that explanation of atmosphere and narrative tone! That makes sense.

Let me just address a few things you said, though. First, I know that boys don't share their feelings well. Neither do men. It doesn't mean they don't have them; but they tend to share them with one person whom they trust (a mother, a wife). This is simply a gender difference. To say that it is the school's job to teach a boy to share his feelings, I think, is unfair. Studies have also shown that men who aren't the greatest at sharing their feelings live longer than those who break down a lot. To me, a school should teach knowledge, not interpersonal skills. When a school starts trying to make a boy not a boy, there's a problem.

Also, regarding the coloring. That little boy now has a device he uses in conjunction with the pencil to make it easier for him to write. And I agree that he needs to work on manual dexterity. Absolutely. My beef is not so much with that. My beef is with the fact that the teachers don't even know that he is smart because everything they do is coloring based or writing based. So because he can't write, they think he's stupid. No one has sat down to just read with him and figure out how much he knows, or try to count by 2's and 3's with him to see how well he gets math. Because he can't write the number "23" well, they think he's dumb, even though if you say "point to the number 12,342" on a piece of paper covered with numbers, he could identify it. Coloring and writing tend to be girls' strengths, not boys, and that is what they emphasize in school.

As for the high school assignment, I understand trying to get kids to learn by different methods. Like I said, I have no problem with asking the kids to collect a bunch of objects and stick them in a shoebox. My issue is with asking something to be pretty when it's an English class. It's not an Art class. Don't make the English mark dependent on Art skills. If you want to require that kids take Art, that's fine. But don't lower a kid's English score because they can't make a pretty mobile.


At 12:15 PM , Blogger Luke said…

Dr. Sax in Why Gender Matters goes over this kind of thing in very fascinating detail. You're right on, and if you're looking for more information on this, I highly recommend "Why Gender Matters." It blew me away when I read it.



At 12:19 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Luke, I LOVED that book! You are so right. I echo Luke's comments, and I'd advise everyone with boys to go get it.

It's not written from a Christian point of view, and some of it you may not agree with, but it is thoroughly fascinating, and extremely well-documented, especially when it comes to his recommendations for boys and school!

Thanks, Luke!


At 2:14 PM , Blogger Mrs W said…

I have to disagree with you on this one, Sheila. Why should he have to make a pretty mobile instead of just throwing objects in a box? Because he should be required to do his best, whether or not he likes the assignment. It's about discipline.

I tend to think the problem is with home schooling rather than the methods of public school. In home schooling the general attitude appears to be that parents think their child is far more special than other children and shouldn't be "forced" to do the same work as the other kids, because, after all, they are special.

There are going to be times in life where boys do need to know how to write, and write neatly enough for people to understand. They should be required to write correctly. It's not about a girls skill or a boys skill, it's about LIFE skills. They should be required to colour as well as they can for the same reason as the mobile...discipline, learning to give something your best effort even if you don't like it.

There are times in life when a child must sit still and quiet, doing that does not hurt a child, it builds character. Yes, he must sit in school, to learn, but afterwards can play. I'm not seeing what is so wrong about that.

Normally I agree with you, but just can't here.


At 2:25 PM , Blogger Tiana said…

I don't think anyone was saying that they ought not have to write, be creative, do their best, or learn to sit and listen. Most home educating families teach their children all of these things.

The problem comes with assessing a child's general intelligence based on areas where they are not strong. I could read when I was three, and read well by first grade, but I was put in the lowest reading group because I stuttered. (A problem I quickly grew out of, by the way).

My five year old boy is *very* good at math, but he still has trouble writing his numbers. He writes a lot of them backwards. I know he's not dyslexic--he can read at a fourth grade level!--but in a large classroom environment his natural talent for math would be obscured by "2"s that look like "5"s and "5"s that look like "2"s.

It's not about homeschooling parents believing that our children are somehow "special"--it's about every child being special, and deserving an education that builds on their strengths and patiently encourages them in their weaknesses.




At 9:52 AM , Anonymous Misty said…

Why is it that when boys get in trouble teachers often take away recess? That's the worst thing you can do to a restless boy with tons of energy driving him crazy in a classroom.

If they are really misbehaving and you really want to take the fun of recess away as a consequence, you could still make them run laps around the schoolyard instead. Boys NEED physical activity and do much better in school when they have it.

At least then, you'll have a nicely tired boy who has gotten rid of all that bouncy and angry (about missing recess) energy when it's time to sit back down.

I try to do the same at home - when everyone is getting a bit stircrazy (4 boys, one girl) we go outside for recess. It's always the favorite!

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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