By guest authors Hal and Melanie Young
There are days when we look at our sons and think, “If they were in school, they’d be on so many pills they’d rattle when they walked.” At one point before our oldest graduated, Melanie was teaching six boys aged 18 to six. Was it noisy? You bet. Active? Quite. Chaotic? Oh boy. It still is.
And guess what? They still learn, and they do quite well on outside measures like the SAT and ACT, AP exams, and other standardized tests. And our oldest moved comfortably into one of the most challenging colleges in the U.S.
It sure doesn’t look like a traditional classroom in operation here. The difference, we fully believe, is why we think homeschooling is generally the best option for educating boys.
Hal graduated from twelve years of public school and did pretty well academically, but then he’s always been an avid reader, a regular bookworm. Having a mom who was a librarian probably helped. But then, in the classroom he figured out how to fit in.
It’s not that easy for a lot of boys today. Many of the standout teachers Hal remembers were close to retirement when he knew them; they were from a different generation, trained to a different set of expectations.
Since then, classrooms have become much less friendly toward boys. Increasing emphasis on high-stakes testing — high stakes for the teacher as much as the student — is locking students to their desks, filling out worksheets and practice exams for many weeks of the year. Recess has been eliminated in some districts, and rough-and-tumble games have been banned in others.
What’s more, the diagnosis of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, has mushroomed. Even though there is controversy over the exact nature of the condition, the number of students and adults diagnosed with ADHD has continued to climb by 3% a year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2006 nearly 12% of American boys had been diagnosed — not suspected or labeled, but diagnosed — with ADHD. That’s separate from any learning disabilities they may have had. And a large percentage of them were on psychoactive medication to deal with it.
How about girls? The CDC found something less than 4.8% had been identified as suffering from ADHD.
We’re not medical professionals, and we’re not about to argue about the definition of the disorder or how it should be treated. However, it does raise the question of how one boy out of eight ends up “dysfunctional” and in need of medical intervention.
If nearly two-and-a-half times as many boys as girls are finding themselves out of sync with the culture, could it be that the standard of “functionality” may be playing against something which is commonly found in boys?
Has our culture “pathologized boyhood,” as some have suggested?
Making learning boy-friendly
What we’ve found in raising a houseful of active boys demonstrates to us why many of them may be struggling in the traditional classroom. Frankly, boys and girls respond to different things, whether social and emotional cues, educational techniques, or even the setting of the thermostat. No, really.
We had an illustration of this when our soon-to-graduate son visited Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male school in Virginia. John was invited to sit in on a freshman economics class. He came back completely charged up.
“Mom, it was great!” he crowed. “The professor yelled at them, he called them knuckleheads, they argued. It was awesome.” His mom, no stranger to vigorous debate, was still taken aback. He didn’t find that intimidating? No, and apparently the rest of the class ate it up as well.
Young men respond to louder voices, stronger statements, verbal challenge. It’s one reason that experimental single-sex classrooms are reporting great progress among students that were academic washouts and disciplinary problems the year before; instead of aiming for a calm, low-key enviroment, these teachers have found a way to fully engage male students and get them where they live.
A second fact is that boys are active — always. We used to have cats; if you watch them, they are rarely still. Even asleep, a tail is twitching or a paw flexing somewhere. Boys are the same way. Yes, it may distract the teacher if boys are drumming their pencils while they read, tapping a foot, or turning some random object while they listen. That’s natural. Give them something quiet to handle, a tennis ball to squeeze, or something like that.
Better yet, give them an opportunity to use large muscle groups. Instead of filling in worksheet blanks, maybe your son will work better on a whiteboard, or even large sheets of paper with a big marker instead of a sharp pencil.
As an engineer, if Hal had a really complex problem, he often found himself moving away from the computer and drawing oversized flowcharts on the back of blueprints, or sketching possible solutions on the blackboard. Somehow it helped him focus his thoughts when he could see the whole problem, BIG.
Or maybe he needs to be challenged to run up and down the stairs ten times when he just can’t focus on math. Using those big muscles and burning up that excess energy can make it easier to sit down and focus afterward.
A related idea is how your son sits. We’ve all read the recommendations for feet flat on the floor, light coming over the left shoulder, proper posture, and so forth. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson did much of his writing at a tall desk without a chair. Winston Churchill did the same, or else dictated his speeches and books to a secretary while he paced the room and made wide hand motions.
If your son is more comfortable doing his math with his feet propped higher than his head, can you live with that? Of course you can!
Oh, and the thermostat. Research has found that boys work best in a cool environment. Warm rooms (heated for the girls’ comfort) make them drowsy. If you’re teaching a mixed group, consider putting your daughter’s seat in a sunny spot, and your son in the cooler part of the room — maybe even give him a small fan!
Finally, don’t forget the value of active learning. Experiments, demonstrations, anything that will make the ideas on paper more concrete will help your sons absorb the concepts in the books. You can even turn mundane exercises into a competition — who can finish their math drills fastest and with the best accuracy? Who can read and report on the most books this month?
Field trips and visits with special people — veterans, professionals, specialists of any sort — are not only fun, but extremely valuable for connecting textbooks with the real world.
Is homeschooling the only way to educate a son? We won’t claim that it is. For our money, though, we can’t think of a better way to take a boy as God made him and help him become what God intends him to be — without forcing him through a mold for the convenience of an institutional program. And it can be very, very rewarding along the way.