Over the last few weeks, the gender based learning that’s been happening at our school has been under the spotlight with an article in our local paper and now the TV news story above from the ‘Today Tonight’ program. This isn’t something that I’m particularly comfortable doing! But, I believe in the work we are doing in this area and am glad that we can be a part of the discussion.
My co-teacher in this program, Aimee Aparicio, and I both worked in a single gender program in my last school, Hackham East Primary. After attending a workshop with Ian Lillico, an Australian expert in boys education, another colleague, Rebecca Hepworth and I started trialling some of our new learning. Drawing heavily on Lillico’s work and that of Michael Gurian, we were supported by our school leadership to build a strong single gender program that still exists there today. At our peak, we had single gender and mixed class options from year 2 to year 7.
In our new roles at Woodend Primary school, Aimee and I can see that the needs of boys and girls at Hackham East aren’t unique. in fact, world wide data suggests that programs like these would have value in any school anywhere.
The program that we are running now is a great start. We have been able to tackle some topics around gender stereotypes and masculinity. An important part of this for us is that we are seeing the students becoming the drivers of this learning. They want to spread the message within the school community. This post from a student last night is a great example of that.
This is great to see. Students empowered to make a difference in their communities. What we are doing isn’t difficult. It just takes a willingness to try something different. The conversation around the individual needs of boys and girls in schools is happening and we look forward to seeing where it goes.
At the end of each school year we take a moment to reflect on the year gone by. This year feels a little different as it’s the last time that I’ll do this at Hackham East Primary School. I started here in 2005 as a student teacher and in 2006 started teaching with my first ever class. It was a huge learning experience for me and one that has continued to this day. There have been many fantastic experiences and many things that I’m proud of from my time here. I am also grateful to many people for the opportunities and challenges I have been given.
To be honest, this year has been a tough one. I started the year full to the brim with 32 students and some interesting behaviours in the classroom meant that I had my work cut out for me. When we feel stressed it is really easy to fall back into our ‘default mode’ and our practice can suffer. I was lucky enough this year to work with an enthusiastic team that helped to make sure that this didn’t happen. As a team, we worked hard to build on our schools single sex program, we set up flexible learning spaces and really tried to keep improving what we do for kids learning by collaborating on a much greater level. Without the support of this team it could’ve gone very differently.
Along with the difficulties, it was a year filled with lots of positive challenges and fantastic professional learning that have made me a better teacher. I feel like I have left Hackham East having achieved a lot in my time and will miss it very much.
The year ahead…
This year is set to be a challenging one. I have won a position as ‘Senior Leader’ at Woodend Primary school and am looking forward to tackling my first leadership position. Part of my job is to support innovation, particularly around the use of mobile technologies. This is an exciting role and provides an opportunity to use what I’ve learned up ’til now to support other teachers to find their feet with mobile technologies, blogging and learning spaces (among other things) with a focus on our AITSL Standards for Teachers.
This year will also provide an opportunity to present my first Keynote speech. I will be presenting about my journey in taking on the AITSL Standards with a focus on the work I have been doing with our boys classes and using digital technologies to improve learning. This is something that terrifies me completely, and that’s a big part of why I said yes to the opportunity. As soon as we stop challenging ourselves, it’s time to go.
Home will also be challenge with new routines for all of us. My son, Matthew is starting high school and my daughter, Alyssa is moving to the new school with me. They will both be pushing their new schools toward learning with technology as well. Challenge is what keeps life interesting, and we are all looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead… after holidays of course!
I remember watching a miniseries a couple of years ago featuring Gareth Malone called ‘Boys Can Sing’. I loved the idea of challenging boys to step outside their comfort zones and do things that they normally wouldn’t put themselves out there to do. This is something that we try and do regularly in our class and single sex program at Hackham East. For the last few weeks we’ve been working on our school concert performance where my boys class will be dancing. I was determined that we would also create our own vocal track. This took a bit of convincing, but today we managed to create this! I’m very proud of all of the boys that had a go at some singing. Have a listen.
We’ve known for a long time that part of offering the best education to our students means involving parents and families. We have also known for a long time that this isn’t always an easy thing to do! School hours and parent availability don’t always line up. We live in a time where most parents are working and are not always available in the way that they were a generation ago. This is not anybody’s fault. It’s just the way it is. Having said this, keeping everyone on the same page is just as important as it ever was.
To solve this problem in my class I have tried many things. Blogging, Edmodo, more regular notes home, regular ‘just checking in’ phone calls after hours. All of these were successful for awhile, but none of them have proven to be long lasting. The thing that all of these have in common is that they have to be ‘fit in’ to someone’s day. Either the teacher or the parent has to make specific time in their day for this to happen.
Earlier this year I launched a Facebook group to communicate with the parents in my class. I realised that the answer was literally sitting right in front of me. I have Facebook access on my phone, my iPad, my laptop and it was also a space that I knew that most parents were already in. Instead of asking parents to come to our spaces, we went to theirs. This has been hugely successful.
Facebook is still a space that seems to scare us in the education system (at least here in Australia). We are worried about keeping professional boundaries with students and keeping some of our personal lives private from our students and their families. Personally, this is not really an issue for me. As we know, there really isn’t a ‘private’ space when it comes to being online. There is only ‘offline’ and ‘online’. When entering these spaces I made the decision that I wouldn’t post anything that I wouldn’t be happy for students, parents or my Grandma to see. I do understand, however, that not everyone feels the same way. Using a Facebook group is still a good option for these people. When starting a Facebook group you don’t need to be ‘friends’ with the members of that group. In my class group, I have no interaction with parents on my or their timelines. All communications happen within that group.
Our Facebook group is used for a few purposes. I will post reminders about homework and events (the boring stuff) and also post photos and information about what we’ve been up to in class (much more interesting). Having this regular communication helps to build better relationships with families and allows MUCH easier communication in both directions. When I post something, a notification appears for all members. The same happens for me when a parent comments. Having the ability to communicate freely in this way has made life in the classroom much easier and relationships with parents much stronger. I highly recommend giving it a go.
I recently read this article by Lise Eliot titled “Should Single Sex Schooling Be Eliminated?”. It was an interesting read. The article was written in response to a debate (see video below) but was approached in a very one sided way. The article put forward arguments against single sex education, stating that there is no evidence to support benefits for academic outcomes, brain and cognitive development or even social development.
My initial response was to just yell things about this being ridiculous (ok.. maybe a little more colourful version of this) or to argue against each point individually. Not being a neuroscientist or even a researcher of any real depth I figure that my opinions don’t really bring anything credible to that conversation. All I can do is speak from my experiences at the classroom face of single sex education.
Over the last seven years I have worked to establish and develop a single gender program at our school. Starting with some initial small trials, the success of the program has seen us expand so that we now have a single sex class option, for both boys and girls, for students from year 2 through to year 7. Being involved in this process has been a highlight of my teaching. I totally and wholly believe in this program and feel lucky to be involved in something that has made a big difference in the way our school runs.
Our single sex classes are designed around the work of Michael Gurian, a gender education expert from the USA and also the work of Ian Lillico, an Australian expert in boys education. Among his extensive work, Ian Lillico has developed 52 recommendations for boys in schools. These recommendations are at the heart of our single sex classes.
We have based our program on data and research, but as one speaker in this debate said:
“When looking at enough data, advocates of either side can find vindication in the research.”
and she is right. When looking at the research you will find academic opinions on both sides of the discussion. The research isn’t enough to definitively state that single sex classes do or do not work. I think debate is healthy. As educators, it’s not ok to be so single minded about your practice that you aren’t willing to at least consider other opinions. We learn best by having our ideas challenged. In this vein, the hour long debate was worth watching. It challenged my thinking and made me consider what was being said and how that related to my classroom. The statement that bothered me however was this:
“It is a well-proven finding in social psychology that segregation of boys and girls in schools promotes and even exacerbates stereotyping and prejudice.”
I couldn’t disagree more. A big part of our single sex program at Hackham East is about challenging stereotypes. We explicitly look at what the stereotypes are and spend dedicated time challenging these. We work intensively with our boys to identify how boys and men are seen by society. We look at which parts of this are positive and which parts are not. We then take this information and look at what we can do to challenge the negatives and nurture a more positive view of boys in our local and wider community as well as the ideas that they have about themselves as young men.
The implication of this article is that single sex classes somehow promote the ‘boof head’ behaviours of boys rather than combatting it. Although I can only speak for our school I strongly disagree with this assumption. Our girls classes also look at stereotypes and challenge these on a daily basis.
Time and time again, we see the results of this around our school. In our school’s AFL football team we have 5 girls, all of whom are from our single sex girls class. Only two students from our school have ever been involved in the dance troupe for our local music festival. Both of them boys and both from our single sex boys classes. Our boys take on nurturing roles with our new reception students and in the past have worked closely with residents at our local nursing home that don’t get regular visitors. Our single sex boys class runs an annual charity event in an effort to play a positive part in the community. In this event where students shave their heads to raise money only a few girls are involved and, you guessed it, they are from our single sex girls classes. There are many more examples of this and will be many more examples created in the future.
“The argument that “boys will be boys” carries the ‘anti-male’ implication that we should expect bad behaviour from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow not capable of acting appropriately or treating girls and women with respect.”
In the end, the idea that “Single Sex Schooling Should Be Eliminated” is ridiculous. I firmly believe that they benefit students in many ways and should continue to an option that is available for parents to consider when choosing their child’s education.
Among the usual ups and downs of a school day I told my class that this would be my last year at Hackham East Primary School. Yesterday I got the official call that I have won a position as a Senior Leader at Woodend Primary School. This is an exciting opportunity to take on a new challenge in an area that I am passionate about. Part of my new role is to help establish a connected learning environment. My job will be to help build a culture of connected learning among staff and to introduce new learning technologies and pedagogies to around 700 students across the school. It is a challenge that I’m looking forward to and one that I feel is the right ‘next step’ for me.
Telling my students that I would be leaving at the end of the year was a hard thing to do. My year 6 students had assumed that they would continue in my class for year 7 and I know that they felt at least some sense of being ‘left behind’. It’s not a feeling that I liked, but I know that there is never an ‘ideal’ time to make this type of move. After some questions and discussion, by the end of the day we were back to business as usual and I am looking forward to the rest of our busy year ahead with a great bunch of boys.
My time at Hackham East has been fantastic. It has been the place that I have learned everything I know about being a teacher. I have been lucky enough to work with a great team of staff and students that have allowed my to take risks in my teaching and to introduce programs that I felt were important.
One of these programs is our school’s single sex program. I flagged the idea for this program along with Rebecca Hepworth, another teacher at our school and it has been by far the highlight of my teaching life. This program has given me the opportunity to work with some fantastic young men and build relationships with them and their families that I wouldn’t have done in a ‘normal’ classroom. I have had the chance to teach boys in ways that suit their learning and a chance to challenge stereotypes and gender roles. I feel lucky to have had this opportunity and I will miss it very much.
I am looking forward to the rest of my year and am grateful for the opportunities that I have been given.