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How to Create a Boy-Friendly School

Todays guest blog is written by Kelley King, an international speaker, educational consultant, author and a 27-year veteran of the public school system.

Who Am I? I am more likely to dislike school and to believe that school dislikes me. I am more likely to be below grade level in reading and to never catch up. I am more likely to be labeled mentally retarded and less likely to be labeled gifted. I am more likely to be on medication to get me to sit still. I am more likely to be checked out, dropped out or kicked out. My literacy scores are depressing the rankings of every school where I attend. You will find me in every racial, linguistic and economic subgroup. Who Am I?


Answer: a boy. He is sitting in your classroom, in your school, in your district. As every day goes by, more boys are disengaging, becoming apathetic. Boys are at risk. The statistics bear it out and, despite a decade of talking about it, the trend continues downward. Parents are wringing their hands and teachers are frustrated. It's time we ask the question: Why isn't school a better fit for so many of our boys?

"When I ask teachers who they are struggling with the most in class, the virtually unanimous answer is: 'Boys.'"

I travel all over the US and around the world to work with educators on the issue of helping both boys and girls reach their full academic potential. When I ask teachers who they are struggling with the most in class, the virtually unanimous answer is: "Boys." Yet teachers don't express a dislike of teaching boys! They are quick to say that boys bring humor, spontaneity, and fun into the teaching day. Yes, sometimes that goes too far - plenty of boys turn "crossing the line" into a sport. Nevertheless, teachers acknowledge that, if you are energetic enough to keep up with them, boys can be a whole lot of fun to teach. Admittedly, what makes boys so challenging is what we also tend to like about them. They can be simultaneously frustrating and fabulous. Interestingly, of the thousands of educators with whom I've worked, the vast majority say that they would rather teach an all-boys class than an all-girls class.

"If we want to change the outcomes for boys, we need to first come to grips with this reality: School is a better fit for girls than for boys."

So here we are - We've got data. We've got teachers asking for help. And we've got a big chunk of our student population who challenge the status quo. What now? The first step is very simple, yet it is profound. It's about an awareness that needs to emerge within and amongst every group of educators. Perhaps it is something that educators have sensed, but haven't articulated. The perception of many must be wrestled with by all. And here it is: The traditional school system is a better fit for girls than it is for boys. Ask yourself and ask others. Do they agree with this statement? After seven years of criss-crossing the country and 26 years in the profession, I have yet to meet a single educator who doesn't agree.

"This perceptual shift, in the hands of a motivated faculty, can unleash a tidal wave of momentum for school improvement."

Once we truly acknowledge this reality, a monumental shift starts to happen in terms of how we view the challenge of boys' under-performance and how we go about turning things around. Instead of focusing on getting the boys to act more like the girls, we start looking to the boys themselves as our guides. Their risk-taking, creativity, outside-the-box thinking, energy, sense of humor and edginess are celebrated, not squelched; capitalized on, not criminalized. This perceptual shift, in the hands of a motivated faculty, can unleash a tidal wave of momentum for school improvement. Equip that same faculty with a game plan that brings together the science of boys' learning and best practice and you have a recipe for a profound and lasting reversal of boys' downward slide.

"No longer can we have conversations about achievement gaps and not talk about what's going on for boys."

The combination of the well-established problems for boys in the K-12 system and the enormous untapped potential for schools to improve in helping boys is what makes a "boy-friendly school" initiative such an important leverage point in any school's improvement planning. Add this to the fact that your teachers can embrace this initiative in a way that is personally relatable. Everyone in your organization can probably identify a boy or man in their own life who has struggled in school - a son, a nephew, a brother, a grandson. I have an 18-year-old son of my own. We all "get it." Couple that with the fact that every one of us experiences gender every day. Most educators, on the other hand, have never lived in poverty or learned English as a second language. With over 83% of teachers in the US being white, most can't relate to being a racial minority either. We can, however, relate to being males and females in a gendered world. And the hard truth is that you will fare much better as a female of color in the school system than you will as a male of color. Gender matters. No longer can we have conversations about race to the exclusion of gender; about any achievement gap, for that matter, without a conversation about boys.

"We need a game plan. Because not a single boy can afford to wait."

I was compelled to write my upcoming book, Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner's Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School, because of a desire to give school leaders a game plan for helping boys that brings together the science and best practice into one place, while taking out a lot of the guess work. I also personally know the reality of a leader's day-to-day work - sometimes the short-range work gets done, but not always within the context of a fully-developed long-range plan. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that it's not for lack of desire. It's just the reality of all the things in a school that compete for a piece of our leadership brain. And frankly - why should we all re-invent the same wheels when we can take someone else's very effective wheel and customize it to make it our own? Hence, the book.

"I challenge you: Put on a 'boy perspective' and take a hard look at your school - from the curriculum, to the d├ęcor, to the policies and procedures. What is turning boys off and tuning them out?"

Transforming a school to be more learner-focused certainly places classroom instruction at the center of the initiative. But that's not enough. We have to look at all levels and layers of the organization with a critical eye for "what works" and "what doesn't work" when it comes to serving boys. Too often boys run aground or bump up against age-old institutional practices that were never created with an eye for how they will affect boys versus girls. Start with an open and honest dialogue with staff that focuses on some key school-wide questions:

• When your school staff describes the "ideal student," does that description sound more like a girl than a boy?
• Do teachers take away recess as a form of punishment? What is the nature of the zero tolerance policy?
• Who is being referred to special education and what are the primary reasons?
• What percentage of class time is dedicated to lecture as opposed to more active approaches to learning? If you use a block schedule, do teachers teach differently during the block periods?
• Does your school respond to missed homework with zeroes in the gradebook or insist that the work gets done, even if it's late?
• What percent of grades are based on compliance versus content mastery?
• To what extent are students allowed to direct their own learning and/or to incorporate their out-of-school interests?
• How might the physical environment of the classrooms and common areas be made more conducive for boys?
• What does your school do to increase students' exposure to positive male role models?
• In what ways do teachers create personal connections with boys - especially the disengaged, angry or resistant boy?
• How might your school's time-honored ways of doing things be getting in the way of boys' success?

"Responding to the learning styles of boys will help a school become more effective in meeting the needs of all students - including the girls."

In grappling with these questions, a faculty can become more aware of boys' needs and, at the same time, start to figure out how to make their own school more boy-friendly. If it is the boys who push the envelope and challenge the status quo, then good! Use that momentum to fuel a boy-friendly school initiative in your organization for the betterment of all of your students. With permission to respond differently, teachers will see boys in a new light and have more fun teaching. And those parents who have been wringing their hands? They will thank you for creating a school where being a boy is a good thing, not just another risk factor.

Kelley King is an international speaker, educational consultant, author and a 27-year veteran of the public school system. As a school principal, she led a successful initiative to close the gender achievement gap in literacy for which she and her school have been featured in Newsweek and Educational Leadership,as well as on the Today Show and NPR. Kelley's third book, Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner's Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School, will be released in April 2013 by Corwin Press.

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