Friday, February 18, 2011

Bad Boys, bad boys, whatchu gonna do . . .

As the mother of boys, I suppose I'm fairly sensitive to what feels like prejudices and misjudgments concerning that half the species.

In my Psychology of Education class earlier this week, the professor was discussing gender differences in the classroom. The fact that boys and girls learn differently, that they possess different strengths and weaknesses, really wasn't a question in my mind. Of course they do. BUT when we make statements to young teachers like, "boys aren't good at  . . ." (or, for that matter, "girls aren't good at . . .") we are doing everyone involved a disservice.

"Boys aren't as good at verbal-linguistics as girls . . ." said the instructor pointing at a graph he'd drawn. "As you can see--Girls aren't as good at math as boys are . . ."

I raised my hand. I am fairly sure that the instructor knows my name better than he knows anyone else's. I can't decide if this is good or bad. It's just that when you ask for an opinion on something when I'm in the room .  . . Well . . . I'm going to have one. This instructor asks for input regularly in a classroom full of young people who aren't yet confident enough of their opinions to state them without some coaxing. I like to think of myself as encouragement.

I pointed out that I have four boys, four different styles of learning, four very different people. But all four of them love to write and do it well and three of the four will talk your ear off at the first opportunity (They're my kids, after all). While Daniel struggles with spelling, it doesn't slow him down as a storyteller. He writes short papers, but they're well organized and to the point. (Daniel likes specific, logical outcomes, so math is more his speed). Now I realized before I spoke, that my boys were not representative of all boys everywhere. But I also know that they are not THAT exceptional either.

The instructor pointed out that four boys do not represent a larger study group and I didn't argue that. "My boys are good at these things because it's important in our house and they've caught on to it-- so my question is--how much of this is about what comes naturally to boys and how much of it is us pigeonholing them."

He conceded that we needed to be careful about this and elaborated on the pitfalls of doing so. But  he continued to talk about boys being "bad" at certain subjects--talking about how they are usually the worst students in the class (but are often the best as well and are typically the valedictorians--which I suspect is nonsense). There was also some more talking about gender differences in behaviors--specifically with respect to aggression--that girls are often more verbally aggressive and boys physically so. That part of the conversation was interesting and--basically-accurate, in my opinion. But the whole "boys are bad . . ." didn't sit well at all.

Today I did my first practicum--classroom observation--in a fourth grade classroom in a small rural school. The teacher had warned me in advance that this was the worst class she'd had in ten years of teaching. She called them a "bad class" more than once, expressing dismay at how they treated one another--being "mean", adding that they seemed to "feed" off one another's behaviors. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I think I envisioned something far worse than I saw. And I diagnosed her "problem" almost immediately.

As they trooped in from the gym at the beginning of the morning, I took a tally. There were eighteen children in this class--five girls, thirteen boys That's right. Thirteen boys. All of them having gone to school together since kindergarten. Mystery solved.

Later as the kids were off to "specials" she gave me more information about the students, singing the girls' praises almost exclusively, I noticed--for being on task, and helpful, and affectionate and quick, discussing this or that boy's tendency to be disruptive and inattentive.  I kind of felt like defending them, but that's not what I was there for. So I listened and asked a lot of questions and worked hard to suspend judgment. One morning in a classroom does not make me an authority on this class. She knows more about these kids than I ever will.

 Also, she is an exceptional teacher--she clearly cares about her students and is has done wonders with them in just the six or so month she's had them in her classroom. She tutors after school to ensure their success. And it is also obvious that they care about her. These kids are going to end the year at least proficient in a subject they were lagging notably in at the beginning of the year.

But it's the label "bad class" that bothers me. When we label entire groups of kids "bad"--there should be a pretty good reason for it.  And when the class is overrun with boys, well . . . Then I have to wonder--how much of it is bad and how much of it is boy?


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

Knee jerk reaction would be to label the teacher bad for not being able to do her job well. But really. Girls can be so, so, SO bad. They just do it by being manipulative and/or using words and "looks" to bully. Teachers can just really easily ignore this because they're not being "disruptive," yk?

Bandersnatchi said...

mary, I share your misgivings about labeling - "give a dog a bad name and he will be a bad dog."

In all my years of teaching, I have been leary when told by an administrator or another teacher that a "particular class is a bad class."

The distinction of academic success along gender lines may have some truth in fact, but the cause is what is interesting to me. Is it expectations? Is it cultural norming? In prairie farm communities in Alberta many boys show up for school after harvest, sometimes late in October. Even today. They may be behind because they get less schooling than girls.

Politically, there has been this push from the government to discourage boys from academics ever since the time of Pericles. The government needed them for war. This has been repeated down the ages. You see it various forms. In the 20C, the draft excluded those with academic deferemnt - which might have been an incentive to study except that it was not previously announced and war was a surprise to the public, but government knew, and they were against promoting studies to boys lest it reduce the numbers available for conscription. Why teach them letters if they are just going into the trenches? It was easy to promote this untruth that boys aren't as good at studies as girls - from the top down. Who existed to dispute this? Only those who had more to gain by supporting it.

Commonly, the ethnic minorities were hit the hardest as their young men were typically less schooled and employed in agriculture. If you are cynical you may think that there was a sort of ethnic cleansing was taking place as regiments of southern black men were conscripted for WW II.

I believe children are like little sponges and they will absorb anything that their parents & teachers believe is important, be it poetry & chemistry or baseball stats and cosmetics. having teachers with open minds about academic potential is vital in my opinion. I'm not sure that the government agrees with this view.

Bernard Mandeville said in the early 18th century, I paraphrase,
"To govern effectively, the mass of men must be kept poor and ignorant."

Scotty said...

Gender stereotyping; don't ya just hate it? Unfortunately, until there's a major paradigm shift in some peoples' mindsets, I don't think anything will change any time soon.

Ro said...

I'm with Elf mom - most times I've been told about a 'bad class' it's the teacher that's the problem, not the students.
It's surprising how the 'bad class' seems to follow the same teacher around every year, even to other schools...!

Mary O. Paddock said...

HEM--If I hadn't seen her in action, I'd agree with you, but she isn't bad--just unprepared for the dynamic.
And, yes, girls can be merciless.

Bander--Thank you for your thoughts on this matter. And I agree with many of them--especially the part about our standards for boys having roots in agendas that suit someone else's purposes.

Scotty-I don't think it will either.

Ro--I'll be curious to see how she evaluates her next class.