There's a perception among a lot of late elementary and middle school boys that school is "girl-y." And they use that perception as a reason (or an excuse) to disengage.
I know. I know. As adults, most of us have a more nuanced view of both education and gender. And it can seem like an odd way of looking at the classroom experience. But from an eleven-year-old boy's point of view, it makes some sense. I think it is useful to keep a sharp eye out for that attitude and come up with ways to counteract it.
So why do boys think this way? For starters, most of the classroom teachers they'll encounter in elementary and middle school will be women. So, if your idea of gender difference is as stark as those graphics on the doors of public restrooms (you know the ones: white outlines that show women with long hair and dresses and men have close cropped hair and pants)-which is the case for most kids, school can seem like a women-led enterprise. So, Moms: hand this page to your husband. Dads: this is for you. If you want your son to be engaged in education, you've got to take a big interest in your son's schooling. That means reading to him and then with him. And attending parent-teacher night. That means checking homework along with your wife. That means showing up for some of the concerts, conference, show and tells, and all that. Make sure your son sees that taking school seriously is part of what it means to be a man.
How else do you fight back against the school-is-girly attitude-and keep your son on track to achieve academically? In some classrooms, there are a lot of reading assignments that seem geared to girls-lots of pink book covers and girl-in-jeopardy stories. And for the same reason that girls will go to action movies but boys will avoid the latest Rom-Com, boys tend not to like girl-centered books. (Seems unfair to me, too.) The thing to remember is that almost all boys-even boys who aren't such good readers-say they like to read. But when polled, boys they say they like to read non-fiction, fiction with a lot of action and preferably death and dismemberment, biographies, books about science and of course, a book that women don't even think of as a book: The Guinness Book of World Records. They also like to read comic books. (Note: I understand that not all boys are the same. And yes, I know there are some young male Jane Austen fans. I've met all three of them.)
So, make sure your son's school library is stocked full of books that boys like to read-and that their reading choices are validated. Don't think of comic books as a sign of the coarsening of culture but as a gateway to the classics. Remember this: In order for your son to learn to read well, he has to read. And reading about the world's tallest man with the longest beard (where do the Guinness people come up with the things?) counts. Turn off the TV and make sure your son is getting access to the kinds of books he likes.
Now let's talk about writing. By nearly every measure, boys do much less well in writing than girls. And it hurts them later on because in order to get a job, to communicate on the job, you need to be able to write clearly and succinctly. But when it comes to writing instruction, teachers often stress the personal narrative -and encourage students to learn to write by "sharing their feelings." Now, think about this: just about everything in our culture tells little boys not to share their feelings. (I'm not saying that's right; I'm just saying that's how it is now.) And then English teachers reward students (girls) who are able to open up and reflect their deepest emotions in their writing. An instructor I know who teaches remedial writing at community college says her male students call this "points for wounds." In my view, that kind of writing instruction really handicaps boys and can put them off the whole enterprise. So, as a parent, you may need to step in. If you want to make sure your son learns to write well, make sure he has been taught the fundamentals of good writing: how to write a simple sentence, how to take a simple sentence and add detail, how to take and divide up a compound sentence, how to order his ideas into a paragraph, and then an essay. And if he's not getting it, teach him yourself or get him a tutor. Somewhere along the line, encourage him to keep a log-not a diary (which is pretty girly) but a log, like a captain's log-and write down jokes, sports scores, overheard conversations, the super-powers he would like to have. Like reading, writing proficiency comes with practice. Make sure your son gets plenty of it.
Peg Tyre (B.A. Brown University; Spencer Fellow, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism) is director of Strategy at The Edwin Gould Foundation. A nationally renowned writer and thinker about education, she is the author of The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School and What Parents & Educators Must Do.