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Educating Boys for Success

Are today's classrooms biased against boys?


By Dionna Ricks

As a conscientious teacher and mother, I wanted to believe I did what was best for my students and children. After viewing the PBS documentary Raising Cain, I was jolted into a new level of awareness and self-reflection. The film did a powerful job of exploring the emotional development of American boys and how they learn differently from girls. I observed that the students at my school who were constantly in trouble were overwhelmingly boys—and the majority of these were Black and Hispanic. I found myself rethinking how I taught and disciplined my male students. 
As an African-American mother and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher at a majority-minority elementary school, I started by focusing on minority males. However, as I did more research, the numbers revealed that we must do better at educating all boys. Consider:

  • Boys account for 71 percent of all school suspensions. Fifty-nine percent of Black boys and 42 percent of Hispanic boys report being suspended. (U.S. Dept of Ed and Schott Foundation Report)
  • Boys comprise 67 percent of all special education students. Almost 80 percent of these are Black and Hispanic males. (USDOE and Schott Foundation Report)
  • Boys are five times more likely than girls to be classified as hyperactive and are 30 percent more likely to flunk or drop out of school. (National Center for Education Statistics)
  • Girls outperform boys in grades and homework at all levels. (NCES)

To complicate matters, elementary school boys have few male role models. Eighty percent of the educators in my county, and 91 percent of those in my school, are female. In light of these statistics, I started using more gender-friendly instruction and proactive strategies to help my boys maximize their potential.

As I continue to grow and develop, I’ve learned to embrace the following concepts:

Let boys be active. I often do small group instruction on a large floor rug. When boys lounged or fidgeted, I used to tell them to “Sit up! Pay attention and make sure your eyes are on me.”  I’ve loosened my expectations on requiring students to be stationery. The bottom line is that they get their work done.

Give boys books that appeal to their interests. I used to pride myself on the range of books in my classroom library that represented a variety of genres, ethnicities, and cultures. Then I realized I needed books that would grab boys’ attention. I’ve expanded my collection to include more animal and “How To” books, as well as titles like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Adventures of Captain Underpants. This is not to say that girls aren’t interested in these books as well, just that I’m more conscious of titles when I select books.

Create hands-on learning activities. When I assign special projects, I provide my students with more “boy-friendly” options, such as a “biography box” in lieu of a book report. Students bring in a box with 10 objects connected to the person they’ve been researching, then write a list of the objects and a brief explanation of how the object is connected to the person. My boys prefer this option as opposed to just writing a paragraph. Collecting the objects (or even making them) permits them to be more active.

Stop eliminating recess as a punishment. When boys don’t have a chance to work off their energy, they can end up acting worse. A Harvard study stated that by school age, the average boy in a classroom is more active than the girls. Furthermore, most active girls don’t seem to express their energy in the unrestrained way characteristic of most boys. Instead of taking away their entire recess, I choose an alternative consequence that doesn’t end up punishing me and the student—such as running two laps around the blacktop or picking up 10 pieces of trash before going to play.

Reduce out-of-school suspensions. According to the Schott Report, Black boys in elementary and secondary schools are punished far more harshly for the same infractions as their peers. Also troubling, Black and Hispanic youth are disproportionately suspended from school, increasing their chances of falling behind in class and disengaging from school altogether. When appropriate, let’s replace out-of-school suspensions with disciplinary strategies less disruptive to learning.

America’s schools would benefit from rethinking the ways we educate all boys—and in particular, ethnic-minority males, who are disciplined, suspended, and drop out at far greater rates than their peers. Equipping educators with training and resources on male behavior and learning patterns would give us a powerful tool in closing the achievement gaps that exist in our priority schools.

Dionna Ricks teaches at Jackson Road Elementary School in Maryland.