Friday, April 28, 2017

Boys' Anti-Violence Rap

One of the most powerful ways boys can change the world is by pledging to be against violence, and committing themselves to standing up for victims. This song, produced by BYDS, highlights a group of boys learning the importance of respecting women and girls, and by doing such, becoming empowered to be a positive influence to combat violence. Remember, boys and men don't have to be the villains of the story. Workshops like this teach boys how to be true heroes by respecting girls and standing up for victims of violence. 

"Throughout 2016, BYDS’ Craig Taunton & Zainab Kadhim ran weekly workshops with a group of years 5 & 6 boys at Georges Hall Public School. The workshops resulted in a song that reflected the boys' new understanding of gender violence and how men and boys can take a part in ending that in Australia. The boys performed this song at the FACS Domestic Violence Conference in Sydney and also at their school on White Ribbon Day 2016.

This original song, “Boys & Girls Are Equal” encapsulates the anti-violence philosophy behind the RESPECT program and has led to a huge growth in awareness and performance skills in the participating boys as well as a great public outcome."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Can a Boy Be #FailingMasculinity?

We often don't think masculinity pertains to boys. It's thought of as something that boys somehow grow into rather than something they are born with. Because of this, our cultural standards dictate that they can "fail" to live up to it. So for many men, many a childhood has been spent attempting to traverse standards of masculinity that are entirely arbitrary and even unattainable or simply inhuman. Failure though literally meant a boy somehow "ceased being male." Can you believe that? So, remember boys, football and baseball is for boys, singing and dancing is for girls. Huh? Or how about this: short hair is for boys, long hair is for girls. Why? Or what about this: crying and hugging is for girls, boys are supposed to just tough it! Failure to comply makes you no longer a dude. Whaat? Does any of this make sense? 

The point is it doesn't make any sense, and can even be psychologically damaging. But thankfully people of all stripes are starting to get wise to it. Most likely, no boy ever lived up to every arbitrary standard there was (and still is) proscribed for him, and that may be why so many men are now taking to Twitter under the hashtag #Failingmasculinity to express that these silly cultural standards should not be conceived of as defaults a boy or man can "fail" to live up to, but that perhaps it's culture's unattainable or arbitrary expectations of masculinity that have failed them. It all started when one man, a writer for Huffington Post, tweeted a perplexing childhood memory of his:

What's interesting about this is that girls' clothing lines often catch flack for being too skimpy, but for boys, it's the opposite problem. Clothing that is too revealing (even to the point of shorts being above the knee) is often considered un-masculine, and therefore "unfit" for a boy to wear. Why would that be? You can agree or disagree about clothing style or what ought to be in fashion or not in fashion, but why should different standards about something as trivial as "length of shorts" apply to the sexes either way, and why to the point where we need to forcibly regulate and stigmatize the offenders? Shouldn't it just, you know... not matter?

Obviously there's more pressing issues in the world than the length of shorts for boys, which is why this conversation quickly grew to become a lot more personal, emotional, and even tragic at times, as men came forward to express how they, as children, (supposedly) failed culture's view of masculinity. Now, no one is claiming that the world is coming to an end just because a boy may be barred from wearing pink or putting on lipstick, but that's part of the point. Are these (mostly) trivial, arbitrary standards any reason to emotionally scar a kid over? After all, if girls can be "tomboys" why can't boys be "tamgirls"? 

Here's a good sampling of tweets depicting what it has meant to grow up as a boy in recent decades, and some examples of changes we need to make in our expectations of masculinity:

Friday, April 21, 2017

Word Twister!: Making Reading a Game

The most pervasive educational gap the world over is the one that boys have with girls in reading. So why don't you hear that much about it if reading is such an important skill? Well, unlike the gaps that can exist favoring boys over girls in math, which are more often than not culturally created by teacher bias, the reading gaps boys have with girls appear to be mostly genetic, and due to differences in language processing that girls are more biologically adept in.

But "boys will be boys" need not be the final word on the matter! Even if these reading gaps often refused to be closed between girls and boys the world over, regardless of intervention, that doesn't mean new strategies for helping boys to find reading fun shouldn't be embraced. Quite the contrary! It's just as true that boys still lack an interest in reading compared to girls, and that may be something that we can do something about! The task at hand is to help boys get excited about reading, and therefore read to the best of their ability anyways, regardless of whether their averages can ever match with girls.

But when it comes to teaching reading skills to boys, all methods are not created equal. It's long been known that boys learn better when they can be active, goal-oriented, and when learning can be turned into more of a competition or a game. Here's one idea that can help bolster their enthusiasm and hone their skills at reading, both in and out of the classroom. It's called "Twister with Sight Words", an idea coming from the excellent A Mom With a Lesson Plan blog.

This game caught our eyes for the ways it seems particularly suited to how boys actually learn (being physical, games..etc), and for just what it can be used to teach them (reading skills, in this case). 

As with regular twister the object is to be touching 4 spaces at the same time. We started out using cards that told which body part to use… that was way too much. So I let the kids decide what part to put where. 
I showed Big M the word to find, then read it to him. 
We did four words each… then switched players.
What a nifty idea. Often all boys need are creative solutions like this. And who said reading had to be a "sit still and pay attention" activity anyway? Pfft! This looks a lot funner.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Movement Improves Boys' Reading Scores

Quiz time. What are the two most common educational observations about boys? Answer: (1) they like to move, and (2) "they don't read good." Boys are zooming through hallways, jumping on chairs, and running in circles in classrooms the world over, and anyone who's spent time in a kindergarten knows this. Another thing they know is, just as boys seem to embody the "hyperactive" trope, they also reign as the perennial princes of the "poor reader" one too. 

But the more boys move, the more boys seem to thrive. So what's going on here? It would seem that when boys are being deprived opportunities to move around during their day, they are being set up to fail more where it (literally) counts, and especially in reading. It shouldn't be surprising then that a new study has found that boys who move more do better at reading than those who spend too much of their time at school "parkin' it." Perhaps a new rhyme for educators should be: "too much time sitting makes a boy feel like quitting."

In the study, researchers analyzed findings of 153 kids aged six to eight using heart rate and movement sensors to track their activity levels and tested them for gains on their reading and math skills. It turned out that the more the boys spent sitting (and the less active they are), the less likely they are to show gains on their reading (and math) abilities. And just so we know how much of a "boy thing" this is, the performance of girls in the study didn't seem to be affected as much by their activity level. Movement or no movement, they more often made the grade, but not by as much when activity was structured into their days. Afterwards, the study confirmed something we've probably known all along, that boys aren't getting the kind of education best suited to their strengths. 
"We found that lower levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity, higher levels of sedentary time, and particularly their combination, were related to poorer reading skills in boys," the study says.
Unfortunately, in most schools, phys-ed and recess are more often accounted as optional extras unrelated to "core" subjects like reading and math. Most U.S. schools don't require phys-ed or recess, which hurts both boys and girls. So if anything, these studies show there may be many more natural benefits to recess than it just being regarded as a "break" during the school day. One thing is for sure, too much sedentary learning isn't doing boys much good in particular. The study goes on to show that boys who are forced to spend too much time being sedentary in Grade 1 don't carry their gains over in reading or math to Grade 2 and 3 as well. The researchers aren't sure why the same wasn't true for girls, but their faster cognitive maturation rates may have something to do with it. The reason girls tend to be better readers than boys doesn't seem to have as much to do with motivation, since the prevalence of reading disorders is higher for boys even among those who enjoy reading

A higher activity level among boys (of course not taking into account ADHD) may simply be untapped energies that boys need to utilize to apply what they have learned and stimulate their brains through the activity. If their activity level could therefore bolster the learning they've absorbed, then it could be used to help them in their performance rather than hurt them, as nature intended. Along with giving boys more humor and non-fiction, modeling behavior, and turning reading into a game or goal, boys may also simply need to be given time and place to run it out and get their neurons firing. Once again we find that the reading gap is not so much a "problem" with boys, but just that their boyish ways are not being catered to in school. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Boys Think "Girls Rule" at School

New research suggests the troubling finding that girls as young as six are less likely than boys to view their gender as smart, and less likely to remain interested in activities supposedly reserved for "really really smart" kids. The study has generated a lot of media attention, from the BBC to Newsweek to The Washington Post. What hasn't made as many headlines is the fact that the research also found that boys are less likely to say their own gender "gets good grades" in school. Self-fulfilling prophesy anyone?

Often this gets overlooked precisely because it's the norm, because boys really do tend to get worse grades than girls, despite the fact that girls struggle when it comes to standardized tests. A lot of research has looked into the stereotypes that may keep girls from thinking they're smart, but just what is keeping boys from thinking they can do as well in school as girls has been largely overlooked. A 2013 experiment once showed that telling kids that “girls do better than boys” in school harmed the boys' performance, and that telling the kids that "boys and girls can perform the same" improved the scores of both, but that's about it. Regardless, it's quite clear that stereotypes don't help anyone—boys included. 

So girls are less confident about being as smart as we now know girls are, and boys are less confident about doing as well as those girls in school. These two things imply that girls doubt their own abilities but have faith in the school system to help them, while boys have faith in their abilities and doubt if school can help them. The problem is, these ideas persist long past the "cooties" phase. For example, fifth grade boys and girls alike were found to say that girls work harder at school, want to learn more, listen better, follow instructions better, are more polite, are liked by teachers more, and perform better in school as a result. Unfortunately, their opinions mirror reality to a degree, so these expectations can become self-fulfilling prophesies. For example, girls have gotten better school grades in all subject areas for nearly a century, from elementary to college, and all over the world. Girls get better grades even in math and science, and now earn more bachelor’s degrees. Meanwhile boys are... more often running around, which negatively impacts their grades.

So are these kids right, or are their opinions self-fulfilling prophesies? If girls doubt their intelligence, do they avoid activities they regard as "smart"? On the flip side, if boys are convinced of their academic inferiority or poor reading ability, could that dissuade them from trying hard at school, cause them to drop out in higher numbers, and avoid college? The answer may be yes, since it's been found that teachers' beliefs that "girls are better readers" tend to predict declines in boys' estimation of their reading abilities and interest. Stereotypes that insist boys as being "lazy, disruptive, unfocused, and lacking motivation" have been shown to negatively influence teachers' perceptions of boys and their learning. 

In any case, it's time to remind boys that they can "rule at school" too. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Boy Scouts: "Be Prepared" for Transgender Boys

Make some room boys, because the Boy Scouts of America has decided to officially accept transgender boys into its programs. The century-old organization has marked an end to the equally-old penis requirement for admittance, and will now register any youngster who identifies as a boy, regardless of genital shape. Why is this being done? For the same reason the BSA opened its doors to gay youth: because the times they are a-changin':

Chief scout Michael Surbaugh said in a recorded statement published Monday to the organization's website: "After weeks of significant conversations at all levels of our organization, we realize that referring to birth certificates as the reference point is no longer sufficient. Communities and state laws are now interpreting gender identity differently, and these new laws vary widely from state to state. I hope you'll join with me in embracing the opportunity to bring scouting to more families and children."

Joe Maldonado, the first transgender
of the Boy Scouts of America.
The move of course is bound to be controversial to some who don't want the biggest boys'-only club to be "goin' to the girls," but for others, it's a change necessary if scouting is going to continue at all. The Girl Scouts has already embraced transgender "girls" and has benefited from the cultural rebranding, so the BSA now stands poised to follow the trajectory. As for the inevitable controversy, it exposes just how regimented traditionalists are at defining "boys" by a particular genital shape rather than by the positive masculine character traits that the BSA has always tried to instill in its young members.

When you come right down to it, the move only "changes the definition of what it means to be a boy" if we define "boy" by a certain genital shape. If indeed there's more to being a boy than that, then it doesn't change anything. The organization has as its mission to help boys become men of resourcefulness, valor, integrity, and responsibility by providing them opportunities for personal growth and pro-social expression both in nature and in the community. Males are not the only ones who can benefit from masculine-oriented outreach. And as for whether these kids can bond with each other, regardless of the shapes of their genitals, it was never an official BSA practice that a young member's genitals played any significant role anyways, so who's to know? The organization will do what it's always done, which is foster pro-social masculine development among youths. That's not going ff change. It's just now going to be the case, within the BSA, that their necessary pro-social outreach will no longer be restricted to those with a penis.

Some say that it's not just "much ado about genitalia," but that the very "nature" of transgender boys will somehow be different from the so-called "normal boys," preventing unity and bonding. But once again, unless there are merit badges for peeing contests (and last we checked, there aren't), who's going to know who's a "trans-boy" and who's a "normal boy," and what difference would it make? Unless you're admitting that bodily exposure is essential to scouting, there's no reason to suspect the quality of the experience will change. All things being equal, there's enough temperamental diversity among boys within the organization already. Some "normal boys" already choose to wear their hair long, and that doesn't make them "girly." Some are fidgety and outdoorsy. Some are calm and indoorsy. There's no reason to inherently suspect that the natural variation present among transgender boys and "normal boys" will be any different from the natural variation already present among the membership. 

There is always a potential for bullying and harassment, which is why such things are already not tolerated, and the suggestion that transgender boys shouldn't be involved because the "normal boys" can't be expected to handle themselves around them really shortchanges not only the boys but also the organization's lofty purpose. To suggest that "boys can't conduct themselves respectfully and shouldn't be expected to" really undermines the whole purpose of the scouts to begin with. In fact, the only danger in rolling out this change comes not from the scouts themselves but with their den leaders and the cultures they set within their packs. It will be up to the adults in the organization to expect the high standards of personal conduct from their young members that the BSA prides itself on. We don't think the boys themselves will have much trouble with it. They're Boy Scouts. They're prepared for anything.

After all, it's not like those "normal girls" will be wanting in next... Oops! Spoke too soon!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Are Girls Really Better Readers than Boys?

"Girls rule and boys drool" at reading, right? Well, maybe not so. It could just be that many reading tests inadvertently give girls the advantage (similar to how boys tend to get the math test advantage). The fact is, boys have a longstanding, ubiquitous, and consistent reading gap with girls, and it's probably the biggest hurdle they face in their education worldwide. After all, you need to be able to read to learn. Fortunately for them these gaps seem to disappear in adulthood despite this rocky start, but then this begs the question: are these gaps for real? 

We know that girls cognitively peek earlier than boys and that boys don't necessarily "catch up" later, so could it be that these tests are simply playing to those earlier developmental strengths of girls? It turns out that a number of factors involved with these and other reading tests may be plotting against the Y chromosome, thus explaining their overall poorer performance early on and then surprising "rebound" later. That was the recent finding of PIRLS and PISA, two international reading tests. The tests were administered to students of multiple age groups and adults in multiple countries and measured whether students could extract information from text, interpret and make conclusions based on it, compare information, and pick out literary devices. In all these skills, girls proved to be more competent early on, but later, between 16-24 year olds, these gender differences decreased to almost nothing. This raises the question of whether girls are indeed objectively better readers, or if these tests are simply disadvantaging the younger boys in some way. 

Literacy researchers Oddny Judith Solheim and Kjersti Lundetræ, of the Norwegian Reading Centre, University of Stavanger, compared the tests, and here's what they had to say about them: 
"Based on earlier research, it appears that PIRLS and PISA -- i.e. the tests used in schools - are designed in a way that may favour girls. PIAAC is designed differently. This could be one explanation as to why we are seeing gender differences in the results," says Solheim.
One of the issues with the tests that may advantage girls is the fact that more boys go into "TL;DR" mode, owing to their shorter attention spans and motion-activated brain wiring. There are a preponderance of 'continuous texts' on these tests, or long blocks of description, story, or explanation that previous research shows girls are generally better at directing their attention through. On the flip side, boys tend to be better at extracting information from 'non-continuous text', things like graphs, charts, forms, and ads. Also, boys tend to be better at extracting information from factual texts over fictional ones, which means boys may be very prone to focus on non-fiction while girls tend to be able to focus more on fiction and narrative. 
"Since we know that it is an advantage for girls to read long, fictional texts, it could be giving them an advantage to provide them with this type of text in the reading tests, which could affect the results in terms of measuring pupils' skills," says Solheim.
Also complicating things for boys taking these tests is the large amount of writing that accompanies them. Studies have found that boys don't do as well at long-form, open-ended questions, but at repeating facts in the form of multiple-choice questions. The majority of these tests rely on open-ended essay writing as a means to display information acquired from a text, but boys may not be able to remember it as well when being forced to write it (relying more on long-term memory, a girl strength) out as they would if they were being forced to pick the right answer from a list (relying more on short-term memory, something boys tend to be better at). 
Some of the questions in PISA and PIRLS are multiple-choice. However, in recent years more of the questions are open-ended and require a written answer. This gives girls an advantage. In PISA, where the difference between girls and boys is greatest, 65 per cent of the exercises involve writing. Several studies have shown that the gender differences are greater in written exercises than in multiple-choice questions and that boys have a greater tendency to skip the written questions.
Boys also need better motivation. We already know from other research in fact that boys can do just as well or even better than girls at reading when they're told the tests are a form of "competition" or "game" than they do when they're told they're just boring old "tests of their skills." The more they are sucked into something they are reading, the more they are likely to draw information from it and recall it. For a boy to effectively be "sucked into" what he's reading appears to be more condition than it is for girls. The subject, the protagonist, the pacing, and such, all either help or hurt boys' performance. Texts that focus more on issues and stories related to "the boy experience" (fill in the blank) naturally tend to be of higher interest to boys than topics that they don't have as much personal experience with. Girls are also more likely to perform to the expectations of teachers while boys are more likely to want to see some "point" to doing what they're assigned. They want to see if there's some benefit in it for them besides just getting on the "teacher's good side." 
"Since we know that boys are more critical about doing things that have no direct significance for them, it is conceivable that they are more likely to avoid expending energy on a test that will not affect their qualifications. Motivation could also explain part of the reason why the differences are greater at lower secondary school than primary school, since it is well known that teenagers are more likely to question authority, such as the school, than younger children," says Solheim.
In the end, the researchers stress the importance of rooting out potential advantageous biases that may be hard-wired into these tests (whether they benefit any demographic more than another), since such can skew results and then skew our thinking about where schools need to focus their attention when it comes to the vital skill of reading comprehension.
"Reading is described as a skill, which we have the potential to achieve. We may question whether the various tests, in their current design, give boys and girls, and men and women, an equal basis for achieving their potential as readers. We now know that reading tests in schools are designed in a way that affects girls positively. We also have to question whether PIAAC reflects men's reading skills more accurately than PIRLS and PISA, or whether the adult tests may be giving the men an advantage. This means that the challenge now is to find out how we can create reading tests that accurately demonstrate the actual skills of all boys and girls, and men and women, in terms of reading. That would give us a better basis for saying whether there really is reason to be concerned about boys' reading skills," says Solheim.