Moving Into the Red: Boys and Education
It was the call I’d been expecting.
Yesterday, not even one month into the school year, I got my first call from my son’s first grade teacher.
“Sam’s behavior moved into the red zone today,” she told me.
His elementary school uses a color-coded behavior tracking scale, similar to the one the United States government uses to track the terrorist threat level. All students start the day at Green. If they misbehave, they have to move their clip down a notch, to Yellow. Another incident of misbehavior moves the clip to Orange – and results in No Recess. Continue to misbehave, the clip moves to Red and the teacher calls your parents.
My son reached Red. Not because he’s done anything outrageously horrible, like going into a rage and hurting another student or school property, but because he’d steadily accumulated a list of misdemeanors. He squirmed on the rug. Visited with his classmates when he should have been listening. Ran in the hall when he should have walked. And ran again when sent back to re-try. (“Fast walked, Mom!” my son insists. “I fast-walked!”)
Because he was squirmy and wiggly and sociable and active, he lost recess, moved his clip to Red and had his teacher talk to his parents.
I knew this call was coming.
Boys Move – and are Penalized
My son is a smart, self-motivated kid. He’s a kid who loves farms and machinery, who will spend hours cultivating and maintaining pretend fields in the sandbox or on the living room floor. He’s the kind of kid who lights up when working on a project of his own imagination – and some of his projects have been pretty large and ambitious. Using scrap wood, he designed and built a toy boat, all by himself. Lately, he’s been exploring electrical circuits with our Snap Circuits kit. He enjoys playing board games (and video games), and is becoming quite comfortable with numbers and basic addition. He loves to hear stories, is obsessed with the Titanic and really, really wants to learn to read so he can read chapter books independently.
He’s the kind of kid who learns best through movement, through touching and feeling, and through projects. And guess what? First grade doesn’t work like that. First grade, today, involves a lot of sitting still, either in a plastic chair, at a desk, or on a rug. First grade involves a lot of “sit down and be quiet” and very little free exploration. First graders today get to do very little that is interesting, because the current educational system expects kids to read and write proficiently before letting them explore higher concepts. So little brains (and bodies) who want to physically explore higher concepts are instead told to sit still, follow directions and stay between the lines.
That’s not how my son learns right now. It’s not how most young boys learn. Heck, most girls would do better in learning environments that encourage active engagement! But because the entire school system revolves around desks and passive learning, boys like mine get in trouble – often many times a day – for acting like boys.
For the record, I don’t believe that “boys will be boys” is valid excuse for bad behavior. But why are we asking little boys to adapt to a system that doesn’t meet their needs, instead of realigning the system to meet the needs of the learners? And why oh why are we taking away recess from kids who are already having trouble sitting still in class?
Early Education Sets the Tone
Is it any wonder, then, that boys tune out? That boys very quickly conclude that school is “not for them?” Any surprise that boys’ reading and writing scores are less than girls, that boys drop out and are suspended from school at rates far greater than girls?
Not even one month into the school year, my son got in trouble – major, Red-level trouble – for moving, talking and socializing. The school gets into no trouble whatsoever for failing to provide my son with a learning environment that engages him, that takes into account his needs and knowledge and learning style.
We blame little boys, and then, quietly bemoan the outcomes: low literacy levels. Low high school graduation rates. Decreased college enrollment.
Perhaps, instead of blaming little boys, we should take a long hard look at our boys and their educational needs and desires. Perhaps we should talk to – and listen to! – our boys. It’s not a co-incidence that most boys name “Recess,” “Gym” and “Lunch” as their favorite subjects. Our boys are trying to tell us something.
I think it’s time to listen.
Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer and the mother of four boys. Her blog, Blogging ‘Bout Boys, is All About Boys – Raising Them, Educating Them and Learning with Them.