Monday #27: Boys Will Be Boys

I have two teenaged sons.  Aside from one of the two dogs, I am the only female in the house and, you know what?  This suits me just fine.  Both times I was pregnant, I wished hard for boys.  When I am feeling sappy, smarmy and squishy sweet, I tell my two little angels that they made all my wishes come true.  Then I scream at them to put their dirty dishes in the sink, pick up their wet towels off the bathroom floor and do their homework.  They say, yeah, mom, crack a joke or cut a fart.  Boys often annoy the hell out of me but they make me laugh.

And, as for the two, I have one easy and one hard.  Truthfully, they are both just right, but my oldest put me (and a few teachers) through some paces and that was hard for all of us, but especially for him.  Even before intermediate school, he began to hate school and a vicious cycle was underway.  Fourth and fifth grade were especially tough and I have described one of his teachers in a previous post about what boys like to draw or, more aptly, what teachers don’t like boys to draw (or write, by the way).  He was a live wire, to that I will admit, but he was a child and was full of energy, jokes, giggles, wiggles, questions, and comments.  And he was frustrated by being asked to sit still and quiet all day long and tormented by his sense of humor, albeit quirky, being constantly (mis)interpreted as disrespect.

Before I understood what I was dealing with when it came to the phone calls and meetings with school personnel, I would be reduced to a pathetic, bawling mess of a mother who left each encounter to go home and yell at my son about how terrible he was.  These rigged “meetings” were set up like a firing squad and everyone in the room was put on the same page before I even arrived.  I never had a chance to “discuss” anything.  What were the meetings about?  Talking out of turn, getting out of his seat during class, jumping off a set of bleachers once during gym, singing loudly in the bathroom, being too excited and then being too sullen, drawing gross comics, questioning a teacher about a grade or an assignment, tossing an apple out the school bus window, and on and on.  In about the craziest meeting I ever had, the vice principal called me in after he’d done one of those basketball jump-shots to the trashcan with an apple core in the lunchroom.  I swear to you that he told me “it could have hit someone in the eye.”  Then, when I tried to bring him back to reality he got huffy and said, “Mrs. Hosta, one day it’s apple cores and the next thing you know he’ll be taken away in handcuffs.”  What?!  Wow, that’s a leap.  He’d get detentions for these things and then, when asked to stare at the back of a room for 45 minutes, doing nothing, would get into more trouble.  But, no drugs, no vandalism, no violence.  He wasn’t a bully, he didn’t pull the legs off spiders or exhibit antisocial behavior, he had many nice friends, and he made A’s and B’s.  Now a high school freshman, he plays saxophone in the jazz band, is becoming bilingual in Spanish and, one day, hopes to join the Peace Corps.  He has settled down considerably but he still likes to draw gross comics.  I think they’re actually pretty good.

Somewhere in the middle of the difficult years I discovered Thomas Newkirk and Ralph Fletcher.  Newkirk wrote a wonderful book called Misreading Masculinity, which should be required reading for every school teacher in the country.  Fletcher, father of three boys and now a friend of mine, wrote Boy Writers Reclaiming Their Voices, and presents thoughts on, and solutions for, the creative writing that happens in schools, which isn’t always boy-friendly enough for boys.  His book should also be required reading for anyone who feels they have those “reluctant” writers–or readers– in their classroom.

In Misreading Masculinity, Newkirk tells the story of his fourth grade teacher, Miss Rickenbrood, who approached a young and particularly restless Thomas during a lesson and whispered to him a question: “Would you like to go outside and run?”  Newkirk was shocked and surprised and then, later, describes the the typical school boy who would pretty much never be offered this type of intervention by a teacher:

The trick was always to bring the “outside” back into the school building, to run in the hall, to jump and try to touch the light fixtures or door jambs, and to find any excuse to generate a throwing game–alertness to suddenly pitch a book to a friend with the split-second warning “Catch.”  The mundane routines of schooling were in this way transformed into tests of physical skill, to the exasperation of our teachers.  But we were also bringing recess in with us.  The challenge was to take our behavior right up to the line of serious trouble and escape punishment.  We disapproved of the kids who went too far, just as we looked down on those too timid to contest any part of school, those who didn’t go far enough. (Newkirk, Misreading Masculinity, p.28).

I have heard many teachers complain to me, a teaching writer, that they are sick of the things that “boys want to write about”–monsters, battles, superheroes and video games.  Ralph Fletcher relates the difficulties that boys have when it comes to writing and how these difficulties spring from the very essences of their boyness:

What is the impact on a boy when his teacher tells him, subtly or explicitly, that what he wants to write about is not welcome in the writing workshop?  First he gets angry, resentful.  Then he turns off and gives you that “Whatever” look.  He glances around the classroom and says to himself:  “This writing stuff isn’t for me.”  At the very least he recognizes:  “This is not where I can do the real writing.”  Writing becomes one more example of school’s necessary evils, something you have to do even though it doesn’t have much value or contain much pleasure.  (Fletcher, Boy Writers Reclaiming Their Voices, p. 43).

At the moment, there is a lot of commentary out there about the plight of boys in America’s public school system.  Just google “boys and education” to get a taste.  New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, wrote last year about the new gender gap and how our country’s boys are falling behind, particularly in reading and writing–urban boys are falling behind even faster and urban, black boys are at the back of the line.  Kristof consults reports, statistics and Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, and says:

The basic problem is an increased emphasis on verbal skills, often taught in sedate ways that bore boys. “The world has gotten more verbal,” he (Whitmire) writes. “Boys haven’t.”  The upshot, he (Whitmire) writes, is that boys get frustrated, act out, and learn to dislike school. “Poor reading skills snowball through the grades,” he (Whitmire) writes. “By fifth grade, a child at the bottom of the class reads only about 60,000 words a year in and out of school, compared to a child in the middle of the class who reads about 800,000 words a year.”

I would have liked to see Whitmire go on to comment on why boys haven’t become more verbal because I think Newkirk and Fletcher (and I) would point to a learning environment that is predominantly taught by middle aged white women, doesn’t always embrace a more boy-friendly teaching outlook and jumps to irrational and reactionary disciplinary measures in a post-Columbine world.  Like apple core jump shots and handcuffs, for example.

So, what about gender separated classrooms?  Since 2003, I have visited hundreds of classrooms and only last week did I teach a residency program at an all-boys school.  I presented an assembly to a rollicking group of PreK through fourth grade gentlemen and then had a series of hands-on writing and art workshops with second graders.  Wow.  Here’s what I can tell you… when all-boys is done right, it is an amazing thing for this mother of XY’s to behold.  Princeton Academy (yes, it’s a private school) is full of energetic boys who are curious, active and happy.  The classrooms are filled with projects–huge replicas of medieval castles made of cardboard tubes and other recycled pieces of garbage, a model of the Nile River, as long as the classroom, filled with water with actual dirt on each side (the “crops” I was told had just started sprouting that day!).

Animals reside in several of the rooms, a chinchilla and a tank full of really big fish, and artwork is everywhere.  The boys have two recesses and go out in all types of weather, even when it is cold.  When they return, every hallway is tracked with mud but no one shouts at them for getting dirty or running through a wet field.  Inside the classrooms, boys bounce in their seats, hum and tap while they work, even take their shoes off.  When you draw, you can draw weapons and have blood dripping off them and no one will send you to the guidance office.  We painted, we wrote, and we made amazing art together.

A grumpy, gassy gorilla grabs gigantic German grapes from the garden-master's goalpost in Galapogos.

The first impression of this kind of all-boys school is a little startling if you’ve only ever experienced the more quiet and regimented environment of most public school classrooms, but I quickly felt right at home.  The principal, Suzanne Kazi, told me she can tell if a teacher applicant is ready for an all-boys position within minutes of the interview.  I was worried that my presentation was too gross, too edgy for a parochial school.  I tell some pretty disgusting stories about my dogs–their eating and chewing habits and their doggish bodily functions.  You would have thought these boys were at a rock concert when I showed a clip of my GIRL-dog, Ruby, burping loudly.  Kazi laughed at my worries and told me they “let boys be boys” and that they don’t have to worry so much about the fear that grown-ups in the public schools have over blood and guts, Captain Underpants and the like.  Like I said, these boys all looked happy and engaged to me but it was more than that.  The administration and the staff has been able to blend their boyishness with caring, friendship and a tenderness for others and the world that was evident in every moment I spent at the school.  Each day they end with an “Assembly,” which is a moment of thanksgiving and acknowledgement.  On my last day, they graciously thanked me for being a part of their school days that week.  The boys cheered for me and it was really touching.  I insisted on a picture with Ms. Kazi.  It was a quick photo op, no more than 15 seconds, but be sure to spot the boy who got his silly, and very boyish, self in on the gig.

What I find ironic and unfortunate is that we relish and reward boyishness when these young guys grow up and get out of our classrooms.  The recent Oscars are a testament to boys being boys… True Grit, The Fighter, 127 Hours. Our country loves a soldier, a cowboy, a pirate, a comedian and a star athlete.  It’s too bad that we want them to be still and quiet on their way there.

TRY THIS WEEK: Notice how you view young boys.  Try to find them funny instead of annoying.

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About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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10 Responses to Monday #27: Boys Will Be Boys

  1. Alisa Novak says:

    Interesting read as always Dar; one that I can relate to for sure! Zach has been in trouble for being too chatty since 1st grade. I would rather have a son who expressed himself a little too much than one who sat in silence! It’s probably a good thing Zach and Ehtan didn’t attend school together because they came from similar molds. BTW At first glance, I thought the boy in the picture was Caleb!

  2. Kathleen says:

    I am new to your blog, but am enjoying your thoughtful essays. Today, you have really hit on a flaw in our education system. It just doesn’t allow for the expression of human nature in its daily structure. I’m not sure gender isolation is the answer, though. My kids were fortunate enough to attend Montessori schools through the 8th grade — and both boys and girls were able to learn together in all their crazy, wild, gross, inquisitive, human-ness. That should be every child’s birthright!

  3. Dar Hosta says:

    You make a good point, Kathleen. I’m not really advocating for gender isolation, however, as a mother of boys, I do see it as a option and, having experienced it, I see it as completely relevant to share what I saw. Neither of my sons, even my oldest, ever got to the point where this was anything more than a musing and we managed to make it through the most difficult years with lots of opportunities to learn and grow. We could have never afforded private schooling anyway.

    Public schools should be looking to all other types of schools–private, parochial, charter, Montessori, etc.–to glean what works and what doesn’t. One thing that would improve the situation enormously would be to keep recess through at least sixth grade. In our district here, it is over at the end of fourth.

  4. Amen! My little boys are all raised and growing their own families now, but how well I remember sitting in those parent/teacher or parent/principal meetings listening to how awful my boys were. THEY WERE NOT! And you are right, I was always out numbered, caught off guard and at a disadvantage. Being a single, overwhelmed mom did not help. And it keeps on going, my precious grandson struggles to be accepted for the bright, delightful person he is. Thanks for you observations and affirmation.

  5. kerri says:

    What a great article. And how blessed those little guys are to be a part of that school. I am in the midst of homeschooling 5 boys myself, one is 17 and doing mostly his own thing (art, mostly, and carpentry) and the rest are 10 down to 4 and ,my, some days they do make me a little nuts. But they are fun and wacky and important little people. I think I will take them to the park today.

  6. Rick Ackerly says:

    This is a marvelous piece thank you. I agree with Kathleen. What’s bad for boys has its own way of being bad for girls and there is plenty of girl-sypathetic work on how school is better for boys than girls. (e.g. even enlightened feminist teachers call on boys 3 times more than girls.) All this glances off the essence of the situation: schooling needs to change and there are a lots of canaries of all types dying. Why is school an exercise in raising hand, for instance? Beautiful piece. thank you.

    • Dar Hosta says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Rick. I think your point, ” schooling needs to change and there are a lots of canaries of all types dying,” is right on. This week, I just happen to be focusing on boys. I subscribed to your feed and your Dec. 30 topic on praise popped up on the listing after a long conversation this afternoon on this very issue with a headmaster of an independent school where I hope to begin a summer creativity institute for educators.

      Lots to talk about when it comes to kids and how they learn. I’m just grateful that there are so many passionate people out there who want to begin an honest dialogue. I look forward to exploring your web site.

  7. Crystal DiBetta says:

    Dear Dar,
    This was a very thoughtful and “on target” blog post. I agree that boys are different “beings,” and have different needs than girls when it comes to education. Sadly, there are still colleagues of mine who frown upon book series like “Captain Underpants,” “Neil Abercrombie Accidental Zombie,” and books about war and all things gross. They’ve actually told the boys to put them back as they are not acceptable things to list on their reading logs… I will tell you they are the most popular books I have, along with the Star Wars visual dictionaries.
    I ran a study group with my elementary school librarian colleagues on boys and reading a few years back, and it changed my perception greatly on what I must do to help boys be lifelong readers and writers. Boys NEED these types of books to validate that their experiences and interests are just as important as those of our female students.
    My favorite positive experience with my son and writing came in first grade. His teacher had them write an “I like” book. For an entire month, they had to write “I like” followed by something they liked, and then draw a picture to go with it. At the end if the year it was collated and published, and put out for all to see. Imagine my surprise when my son wrote, “I like dogs when they pee,” along with a very humorous picture to go along with it. I was shocked that the teacher actually “published” it, as in the district where I work that would have been forbidden. When I asked him about it he told me, “mom, have you ever seen a dog lift its leg and pee? It’s funny, don’t you think? It makes me laugh.” How could I disagree?? Kudos to that teacher for understanding my son and supporting him, even when his comment was a little “off color.”

    • Dar Hosta says:

      Thanks for the response, Crystal. I recently spoke with a true expert on gender education who is now an administrator of a school. He said that when his (generally) female teachers come to him and tell him that a boy is “disturbing the class,” he asks them, “Is he disturbing the class or is he disturbing you?” I’ve never heard of any principal saying that to a teacher but it certainly changes the entire vibe of a staff. It’s a top-down way in schools no matter how you look at things or what you look at. Whatever the attitude is at the top, that will be what is received by the children and the staff that embraces an alternate view unfortunately must stay under the radar.

  8. Pingback: Monday #52: The Finish Line? | Dar Hosta's Monday Blog

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