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Nancy Glades

© 2001

Action Research

Do Boys and Girls Learn Differently in Challenge Writing Groups?

I was one of an early wave of feminists in college, sure that the negative effects of gender differences were largely the results of sexist child rearing and educational practices. I vowed that I would practice non-sexist language, expose both boys and girls to the same mind-expanding experiences in the classroom, as well as counteracting some of the more toxic effects of the surrounding culture on their expectations and world views. I would model non-sexist attitudes and my students would follow suit.

As a high school teacher I tried! Though I taught at-risk students, I did my best to expose them to the evils of sexism and reform their attitudes so that they would live a richer life, male and female both. It was, of course, harder than I thought it would be.

As a parent, taking what turned out to be an extended child rearing leave with my own three children, I dutifully bought sturdy and nonsexist clothes and toys, books with gender-neutral or gender-expanding views of the world, and tried to treat my daughters and son alike. I found that children are who they want to be, before they come to us. My power over them was certainly limited by their natures, as well as by the surrounding society. And I learned to love their uniqueness and to mistrust any attempt to squelch it.

As a teacher of gifted and high ability students in an elementary school for the last 13 years, I have also found that boys and girls as groups are certainly different from each other, though individual variation is remarkable. They often learn differently, prefer different learning activities, approach tasks differently, and have a hard time accepting the same books. Their parents certainly have different expectations, whether conscious or unconscious. The school's expectations are often different. How to teach effectively becomes more and more of a challenge.

On a whim (or was it a hunch?) I grouped my 5th grade writing groups by sex this year; boys came for an hour on Tuesdays and girls for an hour on Thursdays. I knew the boys' group would be more difficult. (One of my pet peeves where girls are concerned is when they are used as dividers to keep rowdy boys apart.) The girls are easier because they like to write, see themselves as writers, and are happy to share and respond to each other's writing. I wanted the same for my boys but despaired of achieving that group trust with this particular outspoken group. As I had expected, the boy's group liked being together but initially fought the idea of group support for writing tooth and nail. They did not especially want to be writers; they certainly didn't want to share anything remotely personal; and they didn't want to revise anything that would take play time! Only after the first trimester did the atmosphere change, after a few well-chosen deletions and additions to the class, and some serious work on appreciating each other's thinking. As it turned out, both classes were very successful, though very different.

I was delighted to find a book on exactly this topic, Boys and Girls Learn Differently, by Michael Gurian. Using the fairly new brain research as well as the experiences of many teachers recruited through an institute in Kansas City, the author delves deeply into this topic and helps teachers make sense of how to optimize the learning experience for both boys and girls. I also found a variety of journal articles exploring the differences between girls and boys, especially in language-related learning tasks. Since this is a writing institute, I focused mostly on gender effects on teaching writing and literacy skills.

What I want to know is what strategies I can build into my Challenge classes, especially in writing. (Math has been more often explored and we have strategies for helping girls achieve in math.) I wanted to see how well they work for me. I do not have the resources to provide control groups for each time I modify a lesson for a group, but I would like to track what I try and how it works in this setting.

Book Source:
Gurian, Michael. Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A guide for teachers and parents (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
This book reviews brain research as it relates to gender and then goes through developmental stages using "The Ultimate Classroom" for preschool/kindergarten, elementary, middle level, and high school. Suggestions are from teachers involved in the Gurian Institute in Kansas City, which trains teachers to pilot strategies to maximize learning for both boys and girls in the classroom.

Journal Sources:
Barrs, Myra. "Gendered Literacy?" Language Arts, Vol. 77, n. 4, March, 2000.
Boys are less apt to empathize with characters different from themselves, and less comfortable discussing emotional content, which requires cross-brain thinking. Boys' writing has strengths in pace and action, less so in characterization. Girls empathize with male main characters more than the reverse is true. Interesting division of students into "can/do", "can/don't" and "can't/don't" groups; boys particularly evident in can/don't where literacy is concerned.

Fleming, Susan. "Whose Stories Are Validated?" Language Arts, Vol. 72, n. 8, p. 590 - 596. Dec, 1995.
Fleming raises concerns about teacher tendency to overvalue problem-solving or action stories in which boys excel, rather than context-rich, social relationship, interior, quieter stories of girls.

Gray-Schlegel, Mary Ann and Thomas. "An Investigation of Gender Stereotypes as Revealed through Children's Creative Writing," Reading Research and Instruction, 1995-6, v.35, n.2, p. 160-170.
Authors found more sex-role flexibility in girls' writing and more male-dominated plots in both boys' and girls' stories. Girls' stories focus on community and boys' on contest. Girls' heroes solve problems together and boys more independently. Boys' writing is far more violent.

Hallden, Gunilla. "To Be, or Not To Be: Absurd and Humoristic Descriptions as a Strategy to Avoid Idyllic Life Stories: Boys Write about Family Life," Gender and Education, Vol. 11, n. 4, p. 469 - 479, 1999.
The author examines the writings of a significant minority of boys (20%) who chose to write absurd or humorous depictions of themselves in response to an assignment to write about "My Future Family." No girls chose this approach. The author extrapolates that the boys are interested in distancing themselves from the world of girls and women (teachers included) and maintaining a safe distance by portraying themselves as anti-heroes or with irony or self-parody.

Henkin, Roxanne. "Insiders and Outsiders in First-Grade Writing Workshops: Gender and Equity Issues." Language Arts, Vol. 72, Oct., 1995.
The author explores the gender roles (as well as racial and outsider roles of some children) in the context of writing workshops. Both boys and girls prefer same sex groups but girls are aware that boys will not conference with them if asked. The are encouraged to try to articulate reasons and seem to grasp some basic sexist attitudes. Boys have a very hierarchical group, run by one leader, secretly reject conferencing, and exclude non-white and low-status males.

Newkirk, Thomas. "Misreading Masculinity: Speculations on the Great Gender Gap in Writing". Language Arts, Vol. 77, n. 4, March, 2000.
Girls outperform boys on writing tasks. The author deals with the why. He says boys want action, not talk. English classes are perceived by boys as negating their preferences in literature. They prefer physical contests, more violent story lines, and are less apt to be evaluated highly on the "significance" of their stories. The author has suggestions including using drama and performances, as well as other social contexts, to engage boys.

Peterson, Shelley and Bainbridge, Joyce. "Teachers' Gendered Expectations and Their Evaluation of Student Writing". Reading Research and Instruction, Vol. 38, n.3, p. 255 - 271, Spring, 1999,
Elementary teachers do attribute gender to blind papers, and give higher grades to papers they think are written by girls. They determine the sex of the author by linguistic, psychoanalytic, and cultural cues. Secondary teachers give preference in evaluating writing that is perceived as male.

Reeves, LaVona L. "Minimizing Writing Apprehension in the Learner-Centered Classroom," English Journal , Vol. 86, n. 6, Oct. 1997.
The author suggests ways to engage apprehensive writers and give them the "ordinary courage" to write. She suggests lots of talk before writing, de-emphasizing inconsequential details that discourage writers, many drafts, collaborative criteria, positive self-talk. She says women block more and longer, can lose their voice. Boys prefer informative writing; girls emotive.

Styslinger, Mary E. "Mars and Venus in My Classroom: Men Go to Their Caves and Women Talk during Peer Revision," English Journal, Vol. 88, n. 3, January, 1999.
Author notes that both sexes prefer same-sex peer revision groups. Girls give more and more substantive feedback, take more ownership in the stories from their groups. Boys concentrate on minor punctuation or grammar issues. They need more help through modeling and direction about giving and receiving feedback, as well as help with trust building.

Sumida, Anna Y. "Reading a Child's Writing as a Social Text". Language Arts, Vol. 77, n. 4, March, 2000.
The author uses post-structural analysis to dissect the story of one 3rd grade Hawaiian girl, finding indicators of the surrounding economic issues, gender roles and expectations, mythology and culture. She concludes that even one 7 year old has learned a great deal about her surrounding context and expresses it through one story.

Thomas, Peter. "Writing, Reading and Gender", Gifted Education International, Vol. 9, n. 3, p. 154 - 158.
The author worked with gifted 13 and 14-year-old writers in England. He cites differences in the books each gender prefers and how they approach reading and writing. Boys choose focus where girls choose depth of field. Both sexes need to learn from the other's strength areas.

These are some of the strategies I would like to try:

* same sex groupings, either for whole class or working groups
* more options for movement during class time in boy groups
* more use of science fiction, action adventure, or humor/parody as writing samples in boy groups (more popular with boys)
* more built-in think time where emotional processing is required in a task; more directed processing to help the slower male brain process emotional issues
* more possibilities of stress release for high-movement boys during class discussions/writing times
* emphasis on building a trusting climate that would help boys attend and achieve in writing, an area in which many are not comfortable and do not necessarily want to excel.

I will keep anecdotal records of my attempts and their effects, certainly in my 5th grade writing class (where I know I can group by sex) and in any other Challenge Reading groups that have a writing component.


Creative Writing

Elledge's Rules

Sixth grade was the first year I had a male teacher, ever. Mr. Elledge. He was, as I recall, the only male teacher at Airport Heights Elementary, one of three men in the building. Besides Mr. Elledge, the men included Mr. Guffy, the principal, who taught "Nature abhors a vacuum" to our two-person gifted class, which consisted of me and Johnny Lang. We were sent now and then to Mr. Guffy's office, even though we were not in trouble, to discuss whatever he wanted to talk about.

There was also the custodian. I don't remember his name, only that he looked sort of dusty and old and had challenged me once about bringing my little brother with me when I came early to shelve books in the small library. He asked, "Why is he here?" when I knocked to get into the locked door from outside. And I answered, "I don't know." It was the only time I denied my brother and I still think of it with shame. My first grade brother had to wait until school started out on the playground by himself. It was a cold winter morning; we lived in Alaska, after all. I got in trouble for that desertion of family. The getting in trouble was a rare occurrence, but betraying a family member was unheard-of.

Anyway, Mr. Elledge was famous enough that he had his own set of rules for four-square. Everyone on the playground knew them, whatever their grade or class. A dispute could be solved by just intoning those words, "Elledge's Rules". So there was a certain status in being in Elledge's class.

As a sixth grader, I was painfully shy. I'm sure some of it was hormonal, compounded by my own natural sensitivity and multiplied by my academic gifts. My periods had started the year before, in 5th grade. I had been in Mrs. Hansen's class and that year she was pregnant, ballooning up in front of our eyes. She was allowed to eat midmorning and mid afternoon snacks "for the baby's sake" and I watched her, bite by bite. Though I had always liked babies (at least until my brother came along), it was a lot to contemplate, this ballooning, this complacency, this privelege.

That year and in 6th grade, I had to sneak sanitary napkins to school pinned in my coat lining, since girls of that age did not carry purses and this was the pre-backpack era. I had even walked home at lunchtime a few times, which was quite far and not usually allowed, to a sunny, empty house, to deal with my embarrassingly out-of-control body. I sweated far more than I thought was normal, and saved my allowance to buy every brand of deodorant or antiperspirant known to Seventeen magazine, all without noticeable effect. As a result of all of this, Mr. Elledge was not someone to whom I would have said two private words, I was that intimidated. Of course, times were different. Confiding feelings was not something that was encouraged or really even tolerated in school. And yet, in retrospect, he did some nurturing and memorable things for me.

He taught the class to play chess and sometimes allowed us to stay in at recess (on cold days) to play it, a rare privilege. Johnny Lang and I actually had some good chess games, perched up on the warm radiator by the tall windows overlooking that frigid playground. I had never had a friend who was a boy before.

We had weekly spelling bees in Mr. Elledge's room, girls vs. boys. The winners were tallied so that by the end of the year, either girls or boys would win a special prize. Of course, the girls won most often, if not always, I don't remember. I do remember feeling a little sorry for Johnny Lang, who was a good speller for a boy, though not as good as me.

Miraculously, the prize for whichever team won was getting to wash Mr. Elledge's airplane! Anchorage was and is still the Small Plane Capital of the World. Much of Alaska has no roads, so the private ownership of small planes per capita is the highest of anywhere. Our school, Airport Heights Elementary, overlooked the small plane airport. And Mr. Elledge actually owned his own plane! He had taught us the basics of flight in science class, including the terms for the three directions you control in a plane: pitch, yaw and roll. (I guess he knew what the prize was!) Maybe it was part of the science curriculum. At any rate, he was very knowledgable teacher when it came to planes.

The plane itself, when we finally got out on the field at the airport that chilly spring day, was rather small. It was a dark green color that came off on our sudsy rags and sponges. Mr. Elledge warned us not to punch a hole in it, and I remember how fragile it seemed, like it was made of heavy canvas. When the plane was clean, we got to go up in it, by twos and threes since it was a four-seater. The rest of us waited on the ground as each group landed, in turn. Somehow we ran out of time or daylight and my turn was postponed. I don't know how the date was arranged, maybe by the weather or a phone call to my mother who after all had substitute taught at the school and must have known Mr. Elledge. But one afternoon as I walked home from school, he drove up beside me and asked if I was ready to go up. Of course I was!

When we got to the plane, he explained that the cardboard milk carton in the back of the seat was the barf bag. I was embarrassed to be reminded of such a crass thing, but I had ridden in a prop plane before, all the way from Seattle to Anchorage, and I remembered that it could come in handy. Then he reviewed the controls: one like a steering wheel, one a lever, one a pedal, and almost immediately, we took off. The engine was so loud I didn't need to speak, which was a relief to me, shy as I was.

The horizon tilted this way and that. It was cold, and loud, and very exhilarating. I felt a little queasy, but it was manageable. How horrible it would have been to need the barf bag! The plane seemed to go so fast on the ground, but when we were in the air, it seemed more calm, more peaceful, though still eardrum-vibrating. Mr. Elledge shouted to me, did I want to pilot? I must have nodded, since the next minute the controls were mine. I tentatively moved the steering mechanism. Sure enough, we turned! I experimented slightly with each of the controls, realizing that I was after all, driving, no piloting, this fragile, canvas toy. Far above the earth, mountains in the distance, city streets, marshes, roads below. I, for a few brief moments, was in charge.

We didn't do anything spectacular, and of course Mr. Elledge landed the plane later, but for those few moments I, Nancy Glades, 6th grader, excellent speller, almost a graduate of Airport Heights Elementary School, did actually fly the plane, myself. We didn't crash. Mr. Elledge trusted me. I think we disembarked on the ground without a word. I had not barfed. I had piloted. I had a lot to think about.

Before the end of the year, Mr. Elledge had us write our autobiographies, including our plans for the future. He also told us he wanted to hear from us when we turned thirty, (infinitely far in the future), to see what we had done. We were to write to him care of the Greater Anchorage Borough School District, and they would find him. I didn't, but I thought of him when I turned thirty. I have no idea how old he would be now, since I had no idea how old he was then. He was just an adult, a caring adult who valued a shy 11-year-old girl enough to let her fly.