Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School: Part One

I began reading Kathleen Palmer Cleveland’s book Teaching Boys Who Struggle In School: Strategies That Turn Underachievers into Successful Learners because a good friend of mine knew of my studies regarding boys and learning.  

Cleveland opens the book giving the reader the dual perspectives that exist regarding why boys don’t achieve.  One perspective is that because there was such a fixation on catching up girls, boys were left behind and are now suffering from this crisis.  The other perspective suggests that boys brains are hardwired differently and therefore need to be taught differently. The one perspective all points agree on is that boys in ethnic minorities struggle the most especially if they live in low socio-economic areas. Rather than focusing on probable reasons of why boys struggle, Cleveland focus on finding solutions for boys’ underachievement.

Cleveland found that there are four key areas affecting boys underachievement:
1. Influence of non-academic factors on academic success: social confidence, attitudes about self and learning,  and access to support systems.
2. Factors contributing to the “experience” of school: relationships kids have with friends and their teachers at school.
3. How competence can enhance persistence: lack of literacy skills affect boys the most
4. How a classroom’s physical arrangement impacts a learner’s success within it: lighting, seating, room arrangement affect boys

Cleveland that suggest her goals to help boys become more successful in school:
  • Replace his negative attitudes about learning with productive perspectives about the role  of risk ( and even failure) as a necessary and valued part of the learning process
  • Reconnect him with school, with learning, and with a belief in himself as a competent learner who is capable, valued and respected
  • Rebuild his life skills and learning skills that lead to academic success and also lay the groundwork for success in life
  • Reduce his need to use unproductive and distracting behaviors as a means of self-exploration

To begin her journey towards achieving her 4 goals, Cleveland spends time dissecting the learning styles of most boys who are underachievers. Surprisingly, 63% are Sensing/Feeling and 24% are Intuitive/Feeling.  This means that over 87% of underachievers fall into these two categories.  So, how do we meet the needs of these boys?  With the SF, we need to create learning environments that are non-competitive, but rather collaborative environments.  We need to allow boys to express themselves verbally using their own words, and connect personally to his learning.  With the NF learner, we need to create learning environments that are focused on larger issues, appreciate creativity, and create emotional connections to others. These students also like to work in groups and personally connect to their learning.  As Cleveland comments regarding why these particular groups conflict with traditional school is “learner’s need to connect with what he is learning before he learns so that he can learn it, a process that takes extra time for both the student to do and the teacher to accommodate.”  How can we do this in our classrooms?  
  1. Work interactively with others
  2. Forge a personal connection to the information
  3. Engage with the information in a creative manner and that allows a personal expression of the learning.
Too often as teachers, we teach to the style we are comfortable with rather than creating a classroom that fosters all learning and type styles. This contributes to considerable negativity and lack of success with boys since their needs are not being met.  But, this is not the only contributing factor to boys struggles in school. Cleveland devotes an entire chapter to exploring the issue of the cultural expectations we place on boys.  Boys have a huge fear of failure  which connects to their lack of trying new things because they do not want to be seen as unsuccessful.  Cleveland breaks down these concerns into three factors:
1. The boy code:boys are supposed to behave like superheroes and hide their emotions, they also do not want to be seen as smart, boys don’t want to talk through conflicts, and do not like to read and write.  
  • This boy code, “negatively affects his attitudes and willingness to engage in learning on many levels: by labeling literacy or being smart as feminine and , thus, something to be avoided at all costs; by emphasizing being tough and uncommunicative; and by convincing boys to adopt a host of counterproductive hyper-masculine behaviors and defensive maneuvering, including the willingness to fail in order to secure a sense of belonging.
2. The code and emotional fragility: boys that suppress their emotions and do not learn to deal with their emotions appropriately end up with life long problems:
  • boys will be less able to deal with conflicts, problems, and changes
  • less able to interpret and respond to others, thus unable to develop deep relationships with others
  • boys will tend to turn inward since he can’t get help from others or turn outward and act cruelly
  • ultimately, because he can’t deal with emotions, he can’t read emotions or feel empathetic which puts him at a disadvantage to understanding literature
3. The code and the Lack of Positive Male Role Models: the negative impact of the code increases when boys do not have positive male role models to demonstrate the importance of being a man goes far beyond adhering to a code

Cleveland then goes on to create a multifaceted approach to re-connecting and re-engaging boys.  She creates six pathways to re-engagement: support, guide, reinforce, adjust, ignite, empower. She breaks down the pathways as overarching focuses.  The access points that follow allow the teacher to narrow your focus to a course of action. Finally, the tools give the teacher the means to respond to the students. In subsequent blog posts, I will break down the six pathways.

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