Looking back on the first week

This week marks the beginning of the second phase of my career.  After spending more than a decade at the middle school where I began teaching, I was given the opportunity to open a new kind of public school.

I’ve written before about the unique characteristics of this Leadership Academy, but those words were written in the abstract: before there was a building, a faculty, or any classes.  After five days of teaching in this special place, I have discovered some important facts about myself and about teaching.

First, it’s clear that starting a new school is not an experience that you can anticipate well.  The challenges I expected never materialized, while unseen details rose up from the shadows to offer some resistance.  In the end, we defeated all obstacles that presented themselves, but we know that more lie ahead.

Second, in the debate surrounding single-gender education there are those who see separation of the sexes as a way to teach boys and girls differently and those who see this as sexism and reinforcement of stereotypes.  What I have witnessed this week is that, while there may be real differences in the ways that boys and girls learn, in the end all middle schoolers are the same.  They are precocious, impulsive, curious, socially awkward, and yet eager to please.  We don’t need to customize how we teach to the needs of boys–we need to customize it to the needs of our unique students.

And, that brings me to the most important point of all.  Not surprisingly, the biggest factor that has made this first week so successful for me and my students is that I have “only” 25 of them in each Science class.  I have just enough to be able to see the struggles and successes of each young man.  There are not too many for me to differentiate regularly.  Their numbers are not sufficiently large to create behavioral, logistical, or workflow nightmares.  On the contrary, my class sizes (although still above what has been scientifically proven to be most effective) are just right for creating a student-centered learning community.  They are perfect for developing teamwork skills and providing small-group instruction.  Classes of this size provide the interaction and diversity that students crave, yet allow me to facilitate meaningful educational experiences for each of them.

While there is still a lot of the school year left, I can rest easy this weekend.  I can enjoy this short break because I walked out of my darkened classroom on Friday evening with the sense that we are on the cusp of something great for the future of education.

Or, at least for me.

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photo pin cc


Boys are Different

Last month I made the decision to follow my principal to startup a new school.  I’ve spent my entire eleven-year career at one amazing year-round middle school, so this will obviously be a huge change.  There are bound to be significant challenges and rewarding surprises, which is just the right fodder for blog posts.  As a result, you should expect to see lots more about the change in this space over the next year.

One of the most interesting challenges that comes with this new school is that it represents a bit of an experiment by our superintendent.  The new school will be a single-sex leadership academy dedicated to educating sixth- through twelfth-grade boys in an environment that promotes scholarship and service.

Although the single-sex environment wasn’t the biggest factor that affected my decision, it is the one that I find myself thinking about the most right now.  I’ve taken to carrying around a small red notebook in which I jot down ideas related to the new school.  When I think of a club or extra-curricular activity that would appeal to the boys in this new school, I write it down.  When an idea for how I might teach science in a new way for this unique setting occurs to me, I write it down.  I’ve found this sort of “analog capture” method to work well for this particular task since I never know when I’ll think of something I need to remember later.

As part of my preparation for the new position, I’ve been reading Leonard Sax’s “Boys Adrift“.  Dr. Sax has written this boy-specific follow-up to “Why Gender Matters” to build on the idea that boys and girls learn differently.  He uses the book to make a provocative point: many American boys are becoming isolated and neglected by a series of factors that include ADHD medications and video game playing.

While my optimistic side cringes at the depressing tone of much of the book, the good doctor also provides some advice.  He announces early on that he sees this tome as a clarion call to educators and parents about the growing problem of lost motivation.  I find his warning to be a bit overstated, but not so much that it can be ignored.

We are dropping the ball when it comes to educating adolescent boys.  But, focusing on intelligent unmotivated boys while simultaneously closing the achievement gap between boys from wealthy and poor homes, and pushing 21st century learning is a significant challenge.  Some may say that this is just the “wheel of priorities” spinning again and that if you wait long enough the focus will be elsewhere.

This may be true, but the bigger issue is that we must continue to innovate in the way we educate boys and girls.  It is essential that we create more unique learning environments so that each child can find a successful educational experience.

What do you think of single-sex education?  Is it unnecessary or long overdue?