Thursday, June 27, 2013

Reaching our active learners

June has moved surprisingly quickly, and my promise to myself to blog twice monthly has already been abandoned - at least professionally.  I've been writing for myself personally, but that wasn't my original intent for the summer.  Thankfully, I have some friends and family members who are heavy thinkers and debaters, and I have had two very interesting articles shared with me within the last few weeks that I figured would make excellent blog topics.  Both, in fact, align nicely with the classes I am taking this summer and with my experience with Project CRISS.

The first article was posted by my cousin, a naturalist, certified nurse, and set to start her doctoral degree in nursing this fall.  I have a lot of respect for her as a mom, a nurse, and a friend.  Our connection to the article stems from our experience with highly energetic sons who currently attend Waldorf and Montessori schools.  The 2013 article is entitled, "Stop Penalizing Boys for not Being Able to Sit Still in School."  The end.  

Just kidding.  But the title does kind of sum up the article, doesn't it?  Jessica Lahey, author of the article, begins with a narrative reflection on her pile of discipline slips from this last school year, noting that the names on the slips were heavily male and generally written due to little success in grabbing the attention of the boys, not due to lack of effort (in other words, they were doing something other than pay attention).  Lahey connects her discovery with reports in a book called Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies that Work and Why.  Basically, the book discusses that our current education system is failing boys.  An over-generalized statement, but I'd say a fairly accurate one when you compare the number of boys versus girls who find themselves sitting in student services or struggling academically.  

I remember a few years back when I read Engaging Tweens and Teens: a Brain Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students by Raleigh Philp (2007).  This book was one of the most refreshing books I have ever read on how to hit middle schoolers because it explained WHY we needed to use certain strategies, not just "strategies that work".   For those of us who need the full equasion, this book fills in those gaps left wide open by other works that just present a collection of ideas.  My Project CRISS  manual plays a similar role.  The manual presents a wide variety of strategies and examples under philosophy umbrellas with brief narratives that discuss brain research, whereas Philp's book fully explains the brain during adolescence with a few general ideas for teaching.  Both books compliment each other, making it easy to work with a combination of ideas from both.
Lahey's article continues with a set of disturbing statistics taken from the Journal of Human Resources (see below).
Now, let me just throw out a disclaimer right now before I get a bunch of hate mail from my respected colleagues.  I feel like this report is over-generalized and a little over-the-top.  However, the truth is, friends, that when I walk into student services on many days, I see a higher percentage of boys.  When I walk into our classes designed to support our struggling readers, I see lots of boys.  When I see our detention go-ers gathered outside the office after school?  Boys.  Higher percentage of suspension?  You guessed it.  Boys.  Most of the conferences I attended this year for students whose teachers were struggling to motivate them to do much of anything?  Boys. 
Boys. Boys. Boys.
Philp quotes multiple studies that report glaring differences between male and female brains.  In his chapter on brain mapping he touches on testosterone levels in males and although he never says, "This is why you may have trouble grabbing the attention of boys," the evidence is pretty clear.  "Men have as much as twenty times more testosterone in their systems than do women" (Kastleman as quoted in Philp, 2007).  "Testosterone levels correlate several behaviors such as competition, self-assertion, and self-reliance. This makes men typcially more aggressive . . . "  Philp goes on to discuss the idea that men rely more on their sense of doing to help them learn and don't necessarily put much emphasis on their sense of hearing (which he goes on later to say is more of a female trait). 
Take this information and line it up to Lahey's article on our boys' behavior and academics, and do you see where the problems lie?  Not to mention that our teaching staff is heavily-female!  This is like a morphed Venus & Mars nightmare!  What can we do to figure this out and get our tough-to-reach population of kiddos on track for this coming year?
Lahey asked this question also.  What she found was a study performed by Dr. Michael Reichert and Dr. Richard Hawley in 2009, called Teaching Boys: A Global Study of Effective Practices.  One of the end products of this study was a composite list of guidelines for lesson creation that over 2500 surveys showed as being effective strategies for reaching boys.  After looking at this list, my first response is, "Well, that's just good teaching," but I have to remind myself that every teacher needs reminders and thought-provoking challenges.  And our staff is no different.  But I'm also looking at this list and smiling widely because Project CRISS oozes from each line. 
The Project CRISS manual and training includes ideas such as transforming information into visuals, organized writing, pattern puzzles requiring motor activity, group work, problem solving organizers, metacognition, and discovery.  Cracking open that manual when planning each lesson may encourage students (especially boys!) to participate more than we realized - and the strategies aren't earth-shattering or difficult to implement.  They're just good teaching!
What's really nice about all of this is that we now see why some boys struggle with our system of education.  We see that even though we'd like to point fingers at outside circumstances, the fact remains that these students are ours to educate.  What are we going to do?  Recreate the wheel?  I hope not!  But throwing in some fully-engaging activities daily will keep your difficult-to-reach students more engaged.  If they're more engaged, the chance of a struggle becomes less.  How many behavior problems do you have when 100% of your students are engaged in a project or activity?  Very few compared to when students are required to listen to a lecture or instructions, participate in a teacher-directed question session, or watch a documentary video.  When total engagement happens, trouble decreases, teacher-student relationships change from negative to positive, and teaching becomes more effective. 

So as you are resisting thinking about the 2013-2014 school year, consider some of those highly engaging strategies that you can recall.  Consider how you can include reading, writing, discussion, and reflection in every lesson.  And when you're stuck, look to your colleagues for support.  I know for a fact that we have some hefty thinkers and problem solvers on our staff with creative minds and the drive to reach every student.  I'm certain we can pull together to create a more motivating environment for our kiddos this coming school year. 

Happy 4th of July, all!