Monday, January 7, 2013

Teaching Boys?

Checking up on my favourite web pages last month, I stumbled across an intriguing book: The Trouble With Boys, by Peg Tyre. The subtitle of the book elaborates on what exactly the 'trouble with boys' is: that boys, compared to girls, are under-performing academically from preschool to their senior year of college.

My interest was piqued. Though my classes have had their share of problem girls, many of the most memorably troublesome students from the last five years are in fact boys: the young man who held a public confrontation in the middle of class discussion, the ones who have sulked in the back of the room, and the ones who have simply walked out mid-lecture. Inspired by a few fresh memories of student confrontations in the past semester, I caved and purchased the Kindle. I grew up without brothers (my cousin Dan was the closest thing I got to a brother, and he spent more time beating me in Risk and Axis and Allies than pestering me or laughing at body humour or more stereotypical boy behaviour). Thus, I hoped the book would shed light on how to best relate to and engage the young men in my class.

In the week since I've had the book, I've read about half and been inspired to change my Intro to Literature syllabus. The chapter on reading stressed that boys read best when the novel is action-based or when it involves a male protagonist. If I were a 5th-grade teacher, I'd assign students to read Hatchet or perhaps The Eagle of the Ninth. I am, however, a college literature teacher who assigns poems in order to give students a breadth of literary experience, and action poems are relatively rare. So I did the best I could: I swapped out several of what I perceived to be flowery, girly poems and exchanged them for poems with more masculine topics. When a particular "girly" poem was too valuable for me to remove it, I tried to balance it with a poem designed to help the boys in my class become men.

Here's a sampling of some of the exchanges I've made:

  • "To Autumn," a rich poem about the beauties of fall, was dropped in favour of "The Destruction of Sennacharib," Byron's interpretation of the death of the Assyrian army attacking Israel. Much as I like "To Autumn," I worried that the men in my class would (at least subconsciously) conclude from the imagery (detailed nature description and a stanza describing Autumn as a woman with beautiful flowing hair) that poetry appeals to women. I had planned to open the semester with "To Autumn," and the last thing I want is half my class tuning out in the first week. The semester will now open with a poem that describes the preparations for war and the aftermath of the Angel of Death's visit, decidedly more gender-neutral (especially at a Bible college) than my original pick.
  • "The River-Merchant's Wife" is a letter from a woman to her husband, absent from her and traveling on business. The poem, with its straightforward language and touching themes, has long been a student favourite, and I was reluctant to jettison it entirely. Yet I was still worried that the men in my class would be turned off by an entire unit of texts like "The River-Merchant's Wife". Thus, I made some space in my "Love and Family" unit to emphasize aspects of family life that are important to young men. My syllabus now includes two poems about fathers and sons: "Those Winter Sundays," by Robert Hayden and "My Papa's Waltz," by Theodore Roethke. My hope is that all students, regardless of gender, will profit from a discussion of good parenting, especially good fathering.  
Obviously, this approach can be taken too far. Personal preferences are not divided hard-and-fast by gender; many men do like traditionally-feminine activities; I had a young man in my class last semester who loved to quilt! Attention to gender preferences must not become gender stereotyping. Also, I don't want to teach so many war- and father-related poems that I leave the girls feeling a disconnect to the texts we read. Yet I remember, as a girl, liking books for both boys and girls, so I figure the girls in my class will do just fine. Furthermore, I believe that it is the teacher's responsibility to, in the words of Bruce Wilkinson, "cause the student to learn" - in other words, do whatever is in my power to guarantee that students succeed in the class. If that means that I lose old favourites such as "To Autumn" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in favour of "The Destruction of Sennacharib" and "Those Winter Sundays", so be it. The latter poems are just as valuable and strong in terms of literary value, and perhaps stronger in terms of personal relevance to my students. 

My plan this semester is to tweak my teaching style as well to involve the men in my class: to call on them more, to build class assignments around competition as well as cooperation, to design assignments that go beyond arts and crafts and appeal to their more particular skills. My hope is that this class will both encourage the men to interact with the women and also teach them that literature can be a masculine activity, as well as a feminine

I'll let you know how it turns out. 

Apologies, by the way, for the long-delayed post. As a teacher, late November and December are to me what the first half of April is for accountants. Hopefully I will have time for a few months, at least, to keep you posted on a more regular basis.


  1. Great observations and decisions! I hope this is a productive move for you and I also hope that you report back with your findings!

  2. Mmm, oh, how I can understand, as I teach many middle school boys. :-) We're reading Tom Sawyer right now, and they are enjoying themselves!

    Blessings, friend.