Monday, April 27, 2015

Are We Dumbing Down Our Girls?

Are We Dumbing Down Our Girls?



The following is an actual account of one of my students from the beginning of my teaching career.  Her name has been changed, but her story is true.  Rather than being prescriptive about what actions to take, I simply reflect on an event in my teaching career that had a big impact on me and questions that it raises. 


Jess was a cute, petite, blonde haired eighth grader, with bright blue eyes and suntanned skin.  All of the boys in her gifted class were enamored by her.  She, however, was not enamored with her classwork.  My team of teachers worked together to create a rigorous and engaging interdisciplinary curriculum and really pushed the gifted class to achieve.  Jess did just enough to get by, prompting one of the teachers on the team to suggest that we move her to one of the “lower” classes.  This, from a man who was an experienced gifted teacher and strove to see the potential in every student; he simply did not believe that this student had what it took to be in his gifted class.  He put it quite bluntly one day saying that, “she had no business being in a gifted class!”  Since Jess had qualified for gifted services in elementary school, she was required to continue in the program, much to his annoyance. 


Jess didn’t do much better in my class.  She seemed to like to read and write topics that interested her, but would produce less on topics that she was not interested in.  She didn’t participate in class, and when she was called on, she answered in a high falsetto voice, claiming that she did not “get it”.  She seemed to get a kick out of the exasperated reaction from her classmates.  I tried my best to encourage her and help her “get it”.  Then one day, I saw her in a completely different light…


The class was working on a challenging project.  Jess announced loudly “I don’t get it!”  All of a sudden there was a swarm boys surrounding her, all vying for her attention to explain it to her practically fighting over the change to help her.  Annoyed, I said, “Boys, sit down!  She doesn’t need your help, in fact, I bet she can teach all of you how to do it!” 

As they went back to their seats, I noticed the expression on Jess’s face change---there was a flash of surprise, then she appeared to size me up and a slight smirk appeared on her face.  From that day on, Jess did all of my assignments, earning among the highest grades, though she still did “average” in the rest of her classes.  I continued to hear her other teachers complain that she did not belong in the gifted program, and they were quite surprised to hear how well she was doing in my class.


At the end of the school year, the standardized test results came in.  The class as a whole did very well, but one student in particular earned a perfect 5 on each test.  Everyone-the students and teachers- were shocked at who it was, expect for me…


I call it the “Pretty, Dumb Girl Effect”.   It seems to happen around seventh or eighth grade when girls are starting to become interested in getting attention from boys.  They quickly see that raising their hands and asserting themselves in class is not the way to get the attention they crave.   Instead, they withdraw or, as Jess did, adopt a new persona.  Jess did not want her teachers to know how smart she really was.  She did not want to be “gifted” any more.   She wanted to fit in.  


Since I “caught on” to Jess, she rewarded me by performing in my class (but not enough to blow her “cover”).  It has been over a decade since Jess was in my class and I have met many more girls like her.  They hide their intelligence to fit in.  Their teachers are “tricked”.  Instead of being assigned to classes based on their actual ability, they get placed by their teacher recommendation into less rigorous classes because they “don’t have what it takes”.  


What can be done to “outsmart” the Pretty, Dumb Girl Effect?  While teachers do not have the power to change society’s expectations, we can change our own expectations. As an aside, I used to hate the character, Penny, on the television show, The Big Bang Theory, for perpetuating the Pretty Dumb Girl Effect, but over the years her character has become much more multifaceted. 


How do we recognize those students who may be hiding their intelligence?  It is not about recognizing those particular students, but having high expectations and encouraging ALL students.  In this post, I specified a gifted girl-a demographic that many believe is the highest risk of underperforming.  Minority gifted girls are considered even more at risk.  It is widely documented that there is a gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) classes and jobs. One could argue that there is not a gender gap, but perhaps an expectations gap.  In the book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg provides a vivid example of this as she tells of the store, Gymboree, selling baby clothing that read, “I am smart, like Daddy” for boys and, “I am pretty, like Mommy” for girls.   


I hope that the story of Jess will prompt teachers and parents to reflect on their interactions with their girls in effort to reduce the expectations gap.  Often it is just seeing the student in a new light that can make all the difference. 


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Poetry Pair: "I Hope You Dance" by Lee Ann Womack and "If" by Rudyard Kipling

I was just in the car listening to music and one of my favorites came on, "I Hope You Dance", by Lee Ann Womack. I am not usually into Country music, but her song transcends all genres. Such a lovely song and filled with advice for young people. As I pondered the lyrics I was reminded of another favorite: The poem "If", by Rudyard Kipling. A poem about advice to a young man growing into manhood. If I am ever lucky enough to have a son, this poem will be framed above his... bed. So, I am feeling another Poetry Pair Lesson coming on! Look for it soon at LiteracyLightbulb! Until then, enjoy my other best-selling poetry pairs!

Tupac's "Dear Momma" and "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes
"Superwoman" by Alicia Keys and "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou
"Firework" by Katie Perry and "George Gray" by Edgar Lee Masters

My lessons are frequently inspired by music and current events all around us.  I love to tie in something that is close to the lives of teenagers with something they normally think is not relevant to their lives.  The result:  I love hearing students say that they actually like the poem better than the song---usually from the students who were the loudest saying "I hate poetry!"  :)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Desk Warmers

Go into any school, walk down any hallway, and peer into the classrooms—you are sure to see at least a few of them:  The Desk Warmers.  Students curled up half awake or snoring on their desk doing nothing except warming desks.


Part of being a good teacher is developing your “teacher senses”.  As a master teacher conducts a lesson, his or her teacher senses start to tingle as they scan the room for students who don’t understand or are tuning out and Bam!  Pow! The master teacher jumps into action.  Desk Warmers are a red alert need immediate attention from teachers.  Exactly what needs to be done, however, is not immediately obvious.  There are at least four different reasons why ordinary students turn into Desk Warmers.


1.        Lack of Sleep:  Yes, this obvious cause is why some students become Desk Warmer.  Though, it too needs to be delved into.  Why, exactly is the student so sleepy?  Is there something going on at home that is keeping Johnny awake?  Is the student spending too much time at night playing video games or texting?  Or is the student overwhelmed with after school activities or work demands?  Each one needs to be addressed differently.

2.       Sickness:  The rare instance that I let a Desk Warmer do their thing is if he or she is evidently sick and has no means to go home.  Otherwise, off the nurse they go!  A gentle, “I know you aren’t feeling good, but try your best to participate” usually works wonders for those who have minor ailments that do not need medical attention.

3.       Boredom:    There are two sub varieties of this category.  One is boredom because the task is too easy and the other is boredom because of tedium or lack of activity.  The latter is in epidemic proportions in secondary schools, but it is also the easiest to address and can even be prevented.  By varying the activity every 15-20 minutes, teachers can ward off the Desk Warmers.  Pausing in the middle of a lecture for students to turn and talk to a neighbor about a salient point, engaging in a class discussion, or building a model—anything that gets the students doing something to engage with the content is vital. 

4.       Withdrawal:  This is by far the most complex and difficult to deal with and where even some of the most talented teachers give in.  These students have turned into Desk Warmers because they have given up.  These are usually found in upper middle school and high school, are struggling learners, and often behavior problems that teachers would rather just fall asleep instead of causing a disruption.  If a student is resistant to the strategies above that address boredom, then that student has become withdrawn.  Letting these Desk Warmers continue to warm their desk is the same as telling them that you have given up too and have lowered your expectations of them.  Take the long view with these students—it took years of low test scores, disappointing grades, and lack of attention to get them to this point and it will take a long time to develop their confidence and academic skills.  Don’t give up on them, they already gave up on themselves—they need you the most!


Desk Warmers are my biggest pet peeve as a teacher, I do not allow students to stay in my class just warming up their desks.  As soon as I get that red alert, I take action.  If multiple students start lowering in their seats with heavy eyelids I know that I need to change things up in the classroom and turn the activity into a group interaction or get them moving in some way.  It is one student in particular, I need to talk to that student to see what is going on.  It is important not to assume that the Desk Warmer is being defiant.  I always ask the student if they are ok first in a sincere tone of voice.  Often just having a person that is caring talk to them in enough.  Having strong relationships with your students is important, but they do not develop overnight.  If you ask a student “What is wrong?” they might not feel comfortable telling your, but the fact that you asked is helping to develop that relationship further.  Don’t stop asking in the future just because they didn’t want to talk today---eventually they may feel comfortable enough and started to trust you enough to let you in. 


So, the next time your teacher senses start tingling, before your jump into action (and possibly jump to conclusions) dig a little deeper so you can respond more effectively.  That Desk Warmer in front of you might need your guidance to adjust their schedule to get more sleep, might need to go to the nurse, might need to get more involved, or might need to be more encouraged.  In any case, the Desk Warmers need you.