Andrew Hanagan, left, and John Robinson, both 15, prepare to buzz in during a contest in English class May 9 at Canton High. The contest is aimed at helping boys learn grammar by turning it into a game. Schools in the Plymouth Canton district are trying new ways to teach boys.
Boys can make the grade, if they're not bored
May 21, 2007
There's a big difference in Pamela Dean's English 9 class at Salem High School when Grammar Bowl begins.
The boys clamber over desks and race for the chairs, sitting with shoulders hunched forward, buzzers clutched in hand. On a recent day, the boys beat the girls to the buzzer for 42 out of 45 questions.
That level of engagement doesn't usually happen in English classes, where girls typically far outperform boys on testing. But turn it into a sport, and suddenly the boys get it.
Plymouth Canton Community Schools is one of the few districts in the metro area making a dramatic effort to change how boys are taught in response to research showing they learn differently than girls.
"You can teach boys anything as long as you don't do it in a boring way," said Sharon Strean, assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at the district.
The district is encouraging more competition in the classroom and finding ways to make lessons more hands-on, all rooted in studies that suggest physiological differences in the brains of boys and girls are the main reason an acheivement gap between genders exists in some subjects.
"This isn't about boys versus girls. It's about identifying who the students are and identifying their strengths and potential," said Richard Weinfeld, an educational consultant and the author of "Helping Boys Succeed in School." "As we're able to do more brain research, we see more differences between male and female brains."
Right brain, left brain
The research Strean cites shows that boys tend to be right-brain dominant, making them better able to deal with spatial thinking and more mechanically inclined. Testosterone tends to make them more aggressive and competitive.
In girls, the left brain, which deals with verbal skills, tends to be dominant. Physiological differences, research shows, also make girls' brains more inclined to regulate anger and aggression and more involved with emotion and memory.
A 2006 Vanderbilt University study found girls had an advantage over boys when tests and tasks were timed, something that's common in classrooms. The study showed boys fared better when studying interesting or challenging material in smaller chunks, and without hard and fast time limits.
In addition, female teachers outnumber male teachers about 3 to 1, according to the Michigan Education Association. The ratio is roughly the same in Plymouth Canton's secondary schools. And women, with the best of intentions, teach classes in ways that are compatible with their learning styles, Strean said.
The result? "School might not be as friendly a place for boys," Strean said.
Bring on the action
The solution, Strean said, was to add elements to the classroom that would engage boys' learning styles, such as more physical activity tied to lessons and less reliance on the lecture-recite mode. Programs such as Grammar Bowl were born out of that effort.
Frankie Dinicola, 15, a Salem 10th-grader and a member of last year's winning Grammar Bowl team, said he had little interest in grammar before the program began.
"When it was just a work sheet, just a lecture, yeah, it's boring," Frankie said. "To be honest, I didn't know much grammar."
Once grammar became a competition, his attitude and his learning curve shot way up.
"It kind of turned into a sport when we did our first competition," Frankie said. "Now every time someone says, 'You're doing good,' I'm like, 'No, you're doing well.' It annoys me now."
Jeffrey Blakeslee uses boy-friendly techniques in his advanced literature class on science fiction at Salem High. The course is always full -- and almost all the students are boys.
"When you assign something you can read, and you do it in the traditional style, the kids kind of fight it. It comes as a task," Blakeslee said. "Basically I open it up to any way they want."
Instead of writing papers, Blakeslee's students are more likely to be making movies, writing stories or playing trivia games about the books they read. The projects are not only creative, they're often more extensive than book reports.
"It's the fun stuff," said Brad Lawrence, 17, of Canton, adding Blakeslee's lectures were typically no more than 10 or 15 minutes long. "This class is really a shared activity English class."
Don't forget girls
Strean and other experts caution that while most girls and boys fall into these classifications, there are plenty of exceptions. And no one's talking about forgetting about girls -- it's important to mix teaching styles for both genders.
The gap is of concern because high-stakes tests, such as the MEAP, require more reading and writing, two female strengths, Weinfeld said.
"The skills we want kids to have at an earlier and earlier age, girls naturally have," Weinfeld said.
"People are concerned. Boys are dropping out more than girls, fewer boys are graduating from high school than girls, fewer boys are going to college than girls."
All kids could benefit from adding a little more movement in classrooms, said Cheryl Somers, assistant professor of educational psychology at Wayne State University.
There are no differences in intelligence between boys and girls, she said. While research shows some differences between male and female brains, research also shows that boys and girls are treated differently, from infancy on. Boys are bounced, girls are coddled. Boys fall down, girls are more protected, Somers said.
"I think a lot more of it has to do with temperament," Somers said.
"Boys are a lot more active. So if you're not doing something to stimulate them, they're going to tune out more, because they need more activity level."
"Kids come to school with these differences," Somers said. "No matter whether their parents are creating it or their biology is creating it, they come to school like this. So let's figure it out."
Contact PEGGY WALSH-SARNECKI at 586-469-4681 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.
Understanding different learning styles
Falling behind girls
Ways to encourage boys to read more
• Use audiobooks and text-to-speech software.
• Provide outlines, graphic organizers and other visual aids.
• Let them see males in their own family reading.
• Leave books and other reading material that might appeal to them lying around.
• Encourage reading online.
• Allow reading to be private.
• Subscribe to a magazine that might interest them.
• Give books as a gift, alone or in combination with a related gift -- for example, a soccer ball and soccer book.
• Let them make choices at the library or bookstore. Don't criticize their interests.
• Let them pick books that are too hard or too easy.
• Look for books with lists, facts, action, and humor and about the sciences.
• Read aloud to them about a topic that they want to learn more about.
• Do an activity or project and then read to find out more information about the topic.
Source: "Helping Boys Succeed in School" by Richard Weinfeld (Prufrock, 2007)