Five things teachers and parents can do to engage boys

John Lorinc

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Aiden Anjema shoots a small basketball during a math lesson in teacher Daniel Rolo's Grade 5 class at Monsignor Uyen Catholic School in Chatham, Ont. —Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail

Whether they're marching around the school identifying shapes, or taking nature walks to explore the great outdoors, getting children to be physical goes a long way toward helping them to focus in the classroom. John Lorinc reports

When Lukrica Prugo wants to deliver lessons on workaday topics like geometry or grammar, she likes to haul her kids out of their desks and take them on what she calls her “gallery walks.”

Like a Pied Piper, the suburban Toronto teacher leads her Grade 7s around the school, getting them to identify shapes or rhyme off adjectives to describe what they see. Or she'll have them move around the class, ranking the assignments pinned to the wall, as if scrutinizing art in a museum. Sometimes she takes them on nature walks and asks them to write poems about what they observe.

“Getting them to be physical is huge,” she says. “They're focused for longer and they answer questions for the full 40 minutes.”

A growing number of educators have pushed themselves to develop innovative ways to engage boys and girls in the classroom. A sampling:

1. Recess:

Many teachers do it almost instinctively: when elementary school children step out of line, they forfeit recess. It's a practice that drives Toronto District School Board director of education Chris Spence crazy. Most boys (and girls) simply need to blow off the surplus energy that accumulates during class time. By missing recess, they may have a tougher time learning for the rest of the day. Alternative punishments could see transgressors running laps of the field, doing sit-ups, or helping with chores around the school.

At home: Talk a walk around the block before your child sits down to do his homework and use the time to brainstorm on big projects and discuss the assignments. (Boys are often more likely to work out their thoughts verbally with mom or dad, while doing an activity that doesn't require a face-to-face chat.)

2. Snowballs/Play fighting

Most school boards now live in fear of liability lawsuits, with the result that many administrators have imposed blanket bans on uncontrolled outdoor activities considered to be risky, such as snowball throwing and play fighting. At St. Andrew's College, a private boys school in Aurora, Ont., the administration took a different tack with winter highjinks: One part of the field has been designated as the snowball zone. Students who venture there may throw snowballs, and they also consent to be targets (the boys must wear goggles to prevent eye injuries). Those who prefer to avoid the mayhem simply stay off the field. At C.B. Stirling, a public middle school in Hamilton that has experimented with all-boys classes, one classroom has been retrofitted with mats for supervised play wrestling.

At home: While family wrestling bouts have been shown to reduce aggression in boys, if you aren't that keen on a pillow fight, encourage your child to take mini-breaks in homework – play a quick game of ball hockey.

3. Fidgeting

Many boys simply have trouble sitting still. They fiddle, tap their feet and squirm within the unyielding confines of a desk. It's less about naughtiness than about body chemistry. Some teachers have experimented with abandoning desks altogether, letting boys sit or lie on the floor. At Upper Canada College, exceptionally fidgety kids have the option of sitting on a Pilates ball instead of a standard-issue desk chair. The ball provides just enough bounce to help the boys work off surplus energy and therefore improve concentration.

At home: Accept that many boys fidget by nature. Read to your son, even if he gets restless. Most of the time he's still listening.

4. Corners

Teachers who know how to engage male students understand the value of encouraging them to debate ideas rather than just passively digest information. The reason: Many boys prefer to work out their thoughts verbally before putting pen to paper. One successful technique is an exercise called “corners.” The teacher puts up four signs – “agree,” “strongly agree,” “disagree” and “strongly disagree” – in each corner of the class and then throws out a deliberately controversial statement, e.g., “Homework is good for you.” The students then go to the corner that most closely represents their views and each group develops an argument for debate.

At home: Discuss the news over dinner, and encourage debate on the issues. Boys respond to assignments that seem practical. Take the time to talk about how schoolwork might relate to real life or future goals.

5. Confronting male stereotypes

For University of Western Ontario professor of education Wayne Martino, the conundrum in the boys education debate is the constant risk of stereotyping. In his view, the question isn't, “Whither boys?” but, “Which boys?” Case in point: the push to create boy-friendly reading curricula dominated by books or graphic novels about sports, technology and fantasy/science fiction. When he teaches male teens, he chooses non-traditional stories that confront dominant pop culture images about hyper-masculinity, homophobia and male relationships (e.g. Billy Elliot). Prof. Martino encourages his students to write their reactions in journals and debate provocative statements about the texts.

At home: Be mindful about projecting gender stereotypes, such as encouraging boys not to show their feelings. Encourage your son to hang around – instead of disappearing to his room – when you have company so he can observe social interaction. Special to The Globe and Mail

with a report from Erin Anderssen