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When I first stepped into the classroom back in 1971, my classes were "girls only." In 1975, for the first time, two boys enrolled in my class. By 1977, about a fourth of my students were male.
These days, the composition of my class has changed even further. This year, in my 8th grade classes, I will see 72 students—29 girls and 43 boys. There will be boys who have severe cognitive limitations, boys who have parole officers, boys who make straight As, and boys who aren't particularly excited about school. Many of these boys tell me my class is the best part of their day.
I teach family and consumer science (formerly known as home economics), and parents are often surprised that their sons, as well as their daughters, choose it as one of their two semester electives. They can see value in the consumer skills and decision-making aspects of the curriculum. And although they understand the attraction of food preparation, sometimes parents have a hard time understanding why their sons want to invest several weeks behind a sewing machine making a sweatshirt. Since it may be the only garment that student will ever construct, why waste time that could be invested in a "serious" college preparation course?
The terms "machine" and "construct" provide insight into why my boys like to sew. At the risk of stereotyping by gender, boys are more likely to be kinesthetic learners; they are concrete, independent learners who are much more interested in solving problems than in absorbing content. Most students are more motivated when they "do" rather than when they are told, but a 13-year-old boy often really needs hands-on experiences at school. A sewing project requires students to read and follow sequential instructions and translate words on a page into a three-dimensional object. A boy who is resistant to literature often finds technical reading more engaging and more aligned to his long-term literacy needs. The mechanics of the sewing machine are a real-life lesson in the physics of interconnected simple machines.
However, workplace readiness skills are the core of my curriculum, and workplace readiness skills seem particularly appropriate for middle school boys. Although the adolescent transition of middle school girls may be dramatic, it is usually gradual. But middle school boys frequently explode into young adulthood in a period of months rather than years. They are impatient to be men, but they retain the impetuousness of childhood. Their enthusiasm to test their newfound skills and ideas is too often perceived as defiance or disruption.
They want control and independence, but rather than providing opportunities to develop responsibility and personal accountability, these boys are held to expectations that reflect values, priorities, and goals set by adults who never ask the boys what they thought was important. Adolescent boys tend to have more self-confidence than judgment, and they need to learn to assess their own level of competency. Working independently or in a small group to produce food or clothing is about as personal and immediate as learning can get. And performance is measurable when it goes in your mouth or on your back.
As our world's knowledge base expands at warp speed, we ask our students to attend to and master an enormous amount of academic content. To expect our young people to spend their first 20 years preparing for life before they receive any real support or encouragement to start doing meaningful work is unrealistic. And academic achievement to prepare for higher education is an admirable goal, but it does not reflect the reality of high school graduation, college enrollment, and degree completion, especially for males. Somewhere along the way, too many of them disconnect from school, often during the middle school years.
Young people, especially middle school boys, are not content to be told what they are expected to know. They demand to know why the content matters and how they can use that information in their own lives. Stakeholders put a high value on academic content mastery, but they sometimes forget that those concepts are nothing more than the codification of our predecessors' solutions to real-life problems and that those concepts have limited value unless used as a scaffold for solving our own real-life problems.
When adults lose this focus on the true purpose of learning, our students lose interest. My success with boys comes from teaching at the intersection of academic knowledge and real-life application because that is where those boys take ownership of what they know, understand why what they have learned matters, and figure out how they can use their education to meet their own personal needs and goals.
Susan Graham teaches family and consumer science and hosts the blog A Place at the Table in Teacher Magazine online.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 4. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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