Single Sex Classrooms: Is what’s old new again?

In a “what’s old is new again” type of teaching thrust, some schools are going old school and dividing kids by gender in the classroom. Here’s an article from the L.A. Times about an academy in our city that seems to be happy with the results of separating kids in this manner.

Me, I am not really sure how I feel about this.

Now first, let me say that I was able to teach an all-girls English class and and all-boys English class two years ago in an attempt to see if breaking kids into this type gender-based class alignment actually offered any benefits. (NOTE: we had a teacher that had been doing it for almost 30 years — a woman I greatly respected; an educator who swore by it — and she was retiring so I decided to take over the idea for just two of my sections.)

For me, it worked out really well… for the girls. That class blazed. Really, the girls were just on fire that year. It was amazing! I mean I never had so many kids do homework… so consistently.

And do the reading. WOW! We blazed through so many books it was remarkable. We did projects, had debates, almost NEVER had classroom management problems… the girls just tore it up.

The boys… not so much.

Now I am of the opinion that, in general, today’s girls are very often kicking the butt of today’s boys in school. I see it with my own eyes every day. More boys drop out. More girls go to college. More girls are at the top of the class whereby more boys seem to be barely scraping by. Of course, these are generalizations but if you’ll allow me to speak in generalizations, I’d say it’s pretty clear that the efforts of the women’s rights movement, feminism, birth control, call it what you want… have not only brought a healthier degree of equity to the role of gender in education, but the scales have actually been tipped in favor of the young ladies.

Girls today are leading the charge in our schools and personally, I have no problem with this. (BTW, this phenomenon is also part of the subplot of my book The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez. Having a proactive, strong female protagonist who valued her own schooling and was determined not to become “dependent” on a man plays a solid role in the novel and hits, I believe, a very true note with today’s teenage, girl readers.)

Yet, I didn’t teach all boys/girls classes again the next year. And why? I think it’s because I discovered that the boys needed the girls… much more so than the girls needed the boys. I mean we are definitely having “issues” with boys in our schools today — especially in Title 1 schools like mine — so for all the benefits I found the girls were getting, well… a part of it felt like they were coming at the expense of the boys. The boys found a pecking order. There were leaders, there were followers and there were wallflowers… and for sure there was a bit of the Lord of the Flies aspect to their interactions. But most troubling was that boys, once they found their pecking order, didn’t seem to feel any drive to break out of their roles once they had settled into them. It was as if once they all became socialized to a certain means of operating, they stayed within those confines no matter what I did to shake it up.

The girls perpetually pushed one another… and they supported one another (for the most part) as well. But the boys… well, like I said. The class was kind of like a kite that never really took off and flew the way I had hoped and the reason why – at least to me it seemed, the reason why was, in part, due to an absence of girls in the class.

Maybe it makes sense to divide kids up by gender? Maybe there is a bunch more I need to learn about teaching in a single-sex class? Either way, it’ll be interesting to see if this type of gender-based classroom assignment will catch on more in the future, that’s for sure.

The tragedy of sexual molestation

I am not sure if sexual molestation by school personnel against students is on the rise or if the explosion of web-based media has simply drawn more attention and awareness to the problem. Either way, it’s absolutely tragic when this stuff happens.

And it devastates lives.

As this story in the L.A. Times shows, the victims, the kids, suffer in ways that color their existence and worldview for the rest of their life… and what scares me is how numb I think we in our society have become to the crime because of the frequency with which it is being reported these days.

Having had students confess to me their victimhood over and over (it’s so much more common than I ever realized — like SO MUCH MORE!) is what drove me to want to do more. And the fact is, an incident right out of my own classroom (the tale a female student told me about her uncle) was the original spark for my latest book of fiction, The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez.

In some ways, I am just amazed how SONIA has hit a nerve with so many kids. Especially girls. And even more especially, with Latina girls. This novel hasn’t become breakout big like TWILIGHT or anything like that but it does have a very strong group of kids and teachers that really support it extremely well and it’s being brought into classrooms all around the country. (And oh the emails they send to me.) For that I am honored.

But still, I want to do more.

I guess the question is, how can we better protect our kids? And what more can we do to help them when this stuff happens?

BTW, was it always so prevalent and yet under-reported, or is society so much more sexualized that seeing more and more of this type of abhorrent behavior is simply inevitable?

Yet, this still brings me back to the bigger point: what can be done?

I do know that banning books like Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK is not the answer. Books open conversations in a way that few other forms of media can do. Read Laurie’s answer as to how she feels about banning books right here… you go Laurie!

The tragedy of sexual molestation is a plague on teens today and yet so many folks are sweeping it under the rug pretending it’s not happening in their school, their community, their world.

As Mark Twain once quipped, “Denial ain’t a river in Egypt.”

Why We Need Fart Jokes

Today is my first day of summer vacation. My school was one of the last to close in the state of California which means that I am fried, frazzled and freakin’ spent.

On one hand that’s good because to me it means I left it all on the table. I gave sweat, blood and tears this year. I also laughed a lot. And as I reflect upon my recent blog posts, I realize far too much of the joy of what I do day in and day out is NOT evident in my writing.

That’s sad. Therefore, I decided to insert a fart joke right here.

Fart joke.

See, they always work. (I really shouldn’t be giving away the keys to my writing techniques but hey, I have more… like booger picking references and belly button lint allusions.)

But alas, I digress.

It’s SO HARD to keep a sense of joy about things these days when so much of the news about schools is so raw and salty. Though I am still pretty young (I graduated high school in 1985… you do the math) I have never seen the mood so dour. And it’s cause of our finances.

The economic meltdown has come to town. I mean no one has ever really held up the city of Los Angeles as a pillar of educational excellence (pockets, yes — on a large scale, no.) But when I see headlines like these in the L.A. Times, I just want to bury my head under the covers and pretend that the implications of this decimation to our school funding isn’t going to screw over tens of thousands of kids in the next few years. Not just a few, but tens of thousands of students are going to be negatively impacted in a very direct, very severe manner.

So trying to put a smile on my face — and the face of others — feels a little Pollyannish.

On the other hand, I am supremely optimistic because our schools are long overdue for immense change and I think that this destruction of the dysfunctional status quo can be the impetus to bringing in a host of new ideas, new energy and new opportunities. People are going to be forced to do things differently — and that excites me. And there are very few sacred cows right now that aren’t being severely scrutinized. From the Dept. of Ed having a “rename NCLB” contest because of its abject failure in so many regards to the Governator showing the hangman’s noose to the dead tree textbook publishers to unions having their feet held to the fire for trying so hard to protest the weakest links in the teaching chain at the expense of the professional reputation of the rest of us, so much good stuff is happening under foot right now.

And so, summer begins. Maybe I’ll take a break. A break from blogging. A break from writing new books. A break from developing new curriculum materials to help reinvent some of the fossilized, static, outdated materials currently being peddled to us in our modern-day classrooms. Maybe I’ll take a break from thinking of ways I can be of service to this field I so dearly love.

Then again, maybe not. When you avocation and your vocation are the same thing, you’re a lucky son of a gun.

And that’s why I have no problem making — and smiling at — fart jokes. We need them, now more than ever.


How to Cook the Data to Make Your School Look Rosy

Everyone on the internet has a perspective to sell. Simply put, I don’t believe that there is anything remotely related to objective data being published about our schools right now.

Look too closely at any aspect of things and you are almost assured of detecting bias For example…

Charter schools are the big buzz these days. But are they the magic pill that’s being sold? Of course not. Yet are they commendable in a variety of ways. For sure.

To that end Stanford just put out a report on charters, a pretty sweeping one that is well-summarized in this L.A. Times article.

Now as I state all the time, I think the assessments for all these studies are flawed (i.e. have you heard me holla about bubble tests before?) so I don’t put all that much stock into much of the data I am fed. But it’s certainly interesting to see how people are viewing — and informing others — about what’s going on.

As written, the Los Angeles Times article says, “California charter schools stronger in reading than math.”

But it also could have said…

“Statistics prove charter schools outperform traditional schools.”

Or it could have said…

“For all the hoopla, charter schools only negligibly better.”

Or it could have said…

“Over 33% of charters deliver worse results than traditional schools.

And each and every headline would have been acceptable (based on the information in the article).

The point is, how the news is framed matters immensely — it’s an activity I do with my students all the time to demonstrate bias in the media — and while this reporter seems to have worked hard to be fair, there is no doubt that through the examples above we can all see that if there’s an axe to grind, data can be easily manipulated to do it.

It’s why Fox News and MSNBC can report on the same story and see two totally different things.

You think our schools don’t do this stuff? Our politicians? NCLB policy wonks? Voucher advocates? Union heads? The ACLU? The NEA?

It’s just amazing the ways in which headlines can be written. So how important is the manner by which information is framed to the perception we take away from the information? I’d suggest it might even be more important than the information itself!

Next time you see numbers on education, see how they’ve been set up and presented. Remember, it matters. It matters a lot.

(NOTE: This post was inspired by a good friend of mine, Dr. Jerry Harvey, who turned me on to a winner of a book called, How to Lie with Statistics.)

Near Desperation for Reform

Now I know that I am a bit of a hot-blooded alarmist. Quick to fire off emotionally charged diatribes and even quicker to flame tomfoolery where it rears its ugly, almost omnipresent head in public education today.

However, this morning I read this line from an article in the Los Angeles Times in regards to re-making one of our city’s high schools. The line said — and this is a direct quote…

What is happening there reflects a near desperation for reform that is seizing many schools.

See, I know why I am so quick with a trigger to roast education-policy idiocy. Because I see firsthand how the foolishness negatively impacts real kids in real ways. I mean my students don’t have time for “committees” to meet so that self-evident issues can be “studied” in think tank halls that are politically influenced by re-election contributions and impacted by the nuances of allegiances that one must have with certain like-minded factions (i.e. cronies) in order to remain viable as a “player” in the elections of the future.

My kids need this off-course ship to be re-aligned now!!

This is why I sort of view my approach to this profession from a take-the-bull-by-the-horns mentality. If we don’t act — and act now — things simply will not get done and stuff will remain the same for years, with people looking back on this day and age with an, “Oh what a shame we didn’t do something a few years ago” mentality.

Well, these are the days that in a few years will be a few years ago! That’s why I am such a fire-alarm pulling flamethrower by nature.

Yet the line from the L.A. Times article uses this language: What is happening there reflects a near desperation for reform that is seizing many schools.

Thems is strong words!
And so I wonder, does everyone else in this country work in a school that smacks of being in “near desperation for reform”?

Are there folks working at schools that simply sorta need mild change (because nothing’s perfect) but for the most part, scrapping the entire configuration of the school as it currently exists and then reinventing itself wholesale is not a best case thing to do because in reality, that would be overkill?

As the article points out, Birmingham High is talking about a wholesale re-imagination of itself, stemming from a sense of near desperation. Personally, I see scores and scores of schools that also fit this description. Elementary schools in this country seem to be functioning better than middle and secondary — that’s my own take on the matter — but at the higher levels I wonder whether we even have 10% of our nations middle and high schools not viewing themselves through a lens of being in “near desperation for reform”.

Do Enough Bad Apples Not Spoil the Perception…

It’s rare that I feel ashamed to be a teacher but after reading this article it makes me feel like I am a no good lout who is living off the fat of the tenured land idling away my time at the great expense of our nation’s kids.

Good work, L.A. TImes. Another form of “If it bleeds, it leads,” I guess.

I mean I want these people out of the class as well. But how I come this article makes me feel as if my whole profession is filled with nothing but louts and scumbags? And just in time for the statewide California election in a few weeks when people are going to vote on school funding. Only like 9 billion dollars on the line.

Do enough bad apples not spoil the perception of the whole bunch?