Creating a classroom that is supportive of BOTH boys and girls. How is this possible?
Posted on 05 March 2011
Barry MacDonald, Registered Clinical Counsellor, is also described as a champion for strong families, strong schools, and an advocate for boys on his website www.mentoringboys.com. Today, I attended his Vancouver session about boys and learning, and I can attest that he is, indeed, a dynamic speaker. Barry has worked with parents, educators, and youth for over twenty-five years, nationally and internationally.
MacDonald knows first hand boys need to move. He was once an active boy and has a painful memory of being trained to sit still. MacDonald recalls, in grade one “….I had my right leg tied to the desk to help me remain seated. “(Boy Smarts p. 148, 2005).
School has changed considerably in the 40 years since Barry’s awful experience. MacDonald argues educators need to provide their active learners with effective and positive ways to use their energy. He explains movement “strengthens the development of neurons and encapsulates information in the brain so it can be recalled more easily later.” (p. 149)
I build in frequent large muscle breaks for my kindergartners because I know they need them. Bodies that squirm are giving me a message. After my young students have a run around the gym or outside in the fresh air I can feel the difference in the classroom. A good number of students have become better able to focus and to learn. Telling a student to wait until recess or home time to be physically active is just wrong. A child’s need to move must be acknowledged and accommodated in a learning space.
As a teacher with over 3 decades of experience, I know that for many children, boys and girls alike, sitting and listening to me isn’t engaging enough. Running, walking, laughing, singing and dancing are often what keeps them connected with learning. Yes, I said laughter. The classroom should be a place of joy. Since the late 70’s when I began my teaching career, I have witnessed humour help students diffuse stress and handle change. MacDonald says it also “activates the body’s physiological systems, including muscular, respiratory, and cardiovascular.” (p. 110) Norman Cousins, the author of Anatomy of an Illness calls laughter “inner jogging”. (p. 110)
In his countless discussions with boys about what they most like about a teacher, MacDonald says they value those who take time to have fun and to laugh with them. These boys’ words resonate with me. Why? They are precisely the ones my grown son said about every teacher he admired during his 13 years of school. He continues to say this of his university professors. Students, regardless of their sex, need to know their teachers like them. Laughing together is a powerful way to express mutual affection, I have learned as a teacher of a wide range of students from ages 4 to over 50.
MacDonald asks educators to consider the physical elements of their classrooms as they have the potential to facilitate or inhibit learning. “Within the Reggio Emilia schools, great attention is given to the look and feel of the classroom. Environment is considered the “third teacher.” Teachers carefully organize space for small and large group projects and small intimate spaces for one, two or three children. Documentation of children’s work, plants, and collections that children have made from former outings are displayed both at the children’s and adult eye level.” http://www.youngchildrenslearning.ecsd.net/reggio%20emilia%20philosophy.htm
I had the good fortune to have Dr. Pat Tarr, a University of Calgary professor, as my advisor in graduate school. She introduced me to the Reggio philosophy that invites educators to re-think the image and role of the teacher, the child, the community and the environment. Pat revealed a new world to me when she spoke of being part of a study group visiting Reggio preschools and kindergarten in the 90’s. She observed they were very different than their North American counterparts. These schools were home-like, including vases of flowers, real dishes, tablecloths, and plants. Pat observed: “There is attention to design and placement of objects to provide a visual and meaningful context. The objects within the space are not simplified, cartoon like images that are assumed to appeal to children, but are “beautiful” objects in their own right.” http://www.designshare.com/Research/Tarr/Aesthetic_Codes_3.htm
I know that Pat would agree with Barry’s tips for teachers about their classrooms. I think for most kids, outside of home, and possibly, daycare, kindergarten is the first place they spend a good deal of their day. His recommendation that lighting be quieter without glare from fluorescent lighting makes sense to me. I turn on only one set of the 3 available to me in my classroom each day. If I forget to do so, I know one of my students will remember. One morning, I accidentally turned them all on. A young 5 year old girl exclaimed, “Those bright lights take my fun away! They make me tired.” During my lengthy career, I have observed subdued lighting and an abundance of natural light create a tranquil and pleasing atmosphere.
MacDonald believes that clutter is a problem in a classroom. Absolutely! When I invite my students to jump around the room or to move to music, they can do so without issue. I have learned to value a space that is free of detritus. The tricky part is what to do with all the things that come into a classroom and that are created within it? Since the 90’s, I have been keeping a lot of delightful homemade presents in a lovely large tree, a gift made for me by a student’s grandfather. Many a child’s face has beamed when asked where he or she would like to hang a special card for me, which I am sure took quite a while to make at home or at daycare. Unfinished art projects we store in a spot in the back of my classroom behind a mural. Students know where they are and are encouraged to complete them when they like over the course of a week or several.
This morning, Barry MacDonald spoke of what teachers should not do. He is quite right when he says they must stand clear of the ‘stand and deliver’ approach to instruction.
From my conversations with teachers at over 34 conferences at which I have delivered workshops, I know that we all struggle each day to bring quality instruction to our students. I strongly believe that to ‘serve up’ a curriculum to kids with no recognition of their varied learning needs is wrong. We must acknowledge differences among students in terms of their ages, sex, interests, abilities, cultures, temperaments and backgrounds.
“In our current recognition that boys are struggling within the education system, there is a danger of portraying boys as a homogeneous group of underachievers who are victims of a female gender bias in our classrooms.” (p. 24) Considering boys in a deficit position from the beginning or faulting teachers for creating feminized classrooms kindles a sense of abandonment. Believing we cannot help boys achieve may make us conclude we can do nothing for them.
‘It is important to remember that each boy responds from his genetic blueprint in a unique and individual way that involves a complex interplay of biology, culture, and personal meaning-making.” (p 24) The same can be said of girls, I think. MacDonald cautions we should be mindful not to pit the needs of girls against those of boys.
Teachers and parents must “honour each child’s powerful desire to learn…” (p. 248 Boys on Target) Good teaching is about recognizing the potential in all students and discovering a way to allow it to blossom.
“Everyone has inside himself a piece of good news! The good news is that you really don’t know how great you can be, how much you can love, what you can accomplish, and what your potential is!” Anne Frank