Monday, June 24, 2013

Something Else I've Found To Be True

Several years ago, we had a Pre-K class comprised of eight girls and one boy, the kind of demographic quirk that happens in a small school like ours. I like to really go with the flow with this small class of oldest kids, following their energy and interests, letting thing ramble and rumble from one thing to the next. It was getting near the end of our day, when I noticed Sam sitting on the corner of the rug on which we tend to convene for discussions. His body was twisted into a sort of awkward pretzel, muscles tense with the effort, his face clenched in concentration, although he wasn't focused on what we were doing, but rather, it dawned on me, on the effort of staying seated on the rug.

Holy crap! I realized, we'd been more or less sitting on the damn rug all day. As the girls intensely engaged whatever process in which we where involved, Sam was engaged in willing his body to sit quietly. I forced a wrap-up of the discussion and we spent the final 30 minutes basically running in circles, an activity that Sam engaged with the joy of a freed prisoner.

I was reminded of Sam yesterday as I was taking part in dismantling, disposing, recycling and reusing the floats that were part of the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade on Saturday. I was chatting with a guy who asked, "How many of your students would you say have ADHD or something like that?"

I answered, "None I know of. Of course, the way our school operates it would be impossible to tell because the kids almost always have the option to be on their feet and the freedom to pretty much do and go where their interests taking them."

He said, "I'm just asking because I read that something like 10 percent of kids have ADHD and for boys it's closer to 15 percent." (I've checked and these numbers are more or less accurate, although some studies have the percentages being higher.)

"Oh, I'm sure there are some at our school, but since the symptomatic behaviors don't show up as problems, there's no way for me to know."

He grumbled, "You know ADHD is adaptive for the human species. It's part of our past as hunters. If we didn't have ADHD, we probably wouldn't have survived."

I've heard this before. In fact, it's an hypothesis first proposed by author and radio host Thom Hartmann in which he suggests that the hyper-focus, distractibility, and other aspects of the condition were necessary traits in the hunter societies that preceded agrarian ones, a theory that has a growing body of scientific support. In many aspects of our lives, such as the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool, these traits don't turn up as problematic, although they are maladaptive in some contemporary environments such as traditional schools. The fact that the incidence of ADHD is higher in boys, according to this theory, is linked to the tendency in most of these ancient societies for the males to be the hunters.

I was reminded of Sam not because I think he has ADHD, but because he is a boy, and boys tend to need to move their bodies more when they are learning. I use the word "tend" here purposefully. Of course, girls need to move their bodies too, and of course there are boys who would have had no problem with hanging out on our rug for most of the day. We're all on a continuum when it comes to all human behaviors, but there is no denying that there is something going on with boys when it comes to traditional schools:

Boys get expelled from preschool nearly five times more often than girls. Boys are diagnosed with learning disorders and attention problems at nearly four times the rate of girls. They do less homework and get a greater proportion of the low grades. Boys are more likely to drop out of school, and make up only 43 percent of college students. Furthermore, boys are nearly three times as likely as girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Considering 11 percent of US children -- 6.4 million in all -- have been diagnosed with a ADHD, that's a lot of boys bouncing around US classrooms.

I was reminded of Sam simply because he was a boy amongst girls in a preschool environment in which ADHD behaviors don't usually show up as problems; where it's impossible to tell the difference between a typical 5-year-old boy and one with a learning disorder.

Last year was my first teaching our new 5's class, which, as is true of almost every 5's program of which I'm aware, was "boy heavy." By design, we were almost constantly on our feet, spending more than half our days outdoors even in the depths of winter. Yes, we did sit down together at least once each day for circle time, but it became clear from the start that no one was going to sit still for a teacher-lead approach. If this was going to work, it would have to be a collaborative effort, one that involved us doing something together, often with a common objective of some sort. Our daily "Show and Tell" sessions, which was not something I had ever planned on, was an idea that came from the kids (one of the girls actually). As it evolved (becoming known, alternatively, as "Show and Smell" or "Show and Yell") all I had to do was make sure there was a big box by the door and the kids took care of the rest. Together, they would carry the box down the hallway and onto the rug, usually chanting, "Make way for the Show and Tell box." Together, they came up with conventions such as "The Demonstration Zone," which was a strip of un-carpeted floor better suited for showing off things like wheeled vehicles; "Everybody to the borders!" which meant that we needed to leave the center of the rug clear for a performance of some kind; limiting each child to one show and tell item per week, an innovation that came about when our daily sessions were getting far too long for our attention spans; and, for the same reason, saying, "You're losing your audience," by way of letting someone know it was time to wrap things up.

We figured out many other things we liked to do while sitting on the rug such as "going on adventures," which involved me managing stories we created together by raising our hands and taking turns coming up with plot twists. We enjoyed taking turns using our karaoke machine to "top" each other with made-up jokes. We could spend a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy on debating our classroom rules or discussing classroom problems like when we were trying to figure out what to do about our burglar. When there was something about which I wanted to instruct them, such as when we were dissecting squid, I had to leave lots of space for them to share their own knowledge about the topic. And believe it or not, I would often look at the clock and realize that this roomful of mostly 5-year-old boys had been "sitting" on our rug (which for this class I interpreted as simply remaining on the rug) for 45 minutes. I want to repeat that: 45 minutes! That's as long as most of my college lectures.

The Atlantic article from which I quoted above provides a nice list of ideas for how to structure "lessons" so as to be more successful with teaching boys, all of which I can say are true from my own experience. I encourage you to take a look at it. The conclusion of the piece is a call to teachers:

Educators should strive to teach all children, both girls and boys by acknowledging, rather than dismissing, their particular and distinctive educational needs.

Here's the thing with which I quibble about the article, which is mostly spot on: this is not about girls v. boys. As David Katz, then the director of the alternative Giddens School here in Seattle, once said to me, "Most progressive schools have a waiting list of boys, but not for girls. It's a real prejudice that only boys need this kind of education. Girls tend to look like they're sitting down and doing the work wherever they are, but that's just because they don't fidget around so much. Girls just tend to be better at behaving -- that doesn't mean that they learn better by sitting in chairs, shutting up, and facing forward." This is something else I've found to be true.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Again i praise you for everything you do and all educators whom look outside the box when it comes to teaching children. You are a true inspiration to all. your teaching styles and your discipline technique is all exceptional.

I must say i went from reading daily news to only reading your articles. Thanks for all that you do and i know you sacrifice a lot but you are clearly a natural and someone to look up to. I wish all education was based on your ideas and philosophies.

I have friend s with kids always suffering with the traditional teaching method.

Keep up the good work.