Is An All-Boys School The Right Answer For My Son?
“Boys learn differently than girls. They just do. It’s something that we should embrace, not shy away from.” - Christopher J. Post, Boys’ Latin School of Maryland Headmaster; International Boys School Coalition Chairman
Together, as educators, parents, friends, and students, we’ve long faced a scholastic achievement gap between boys and girls. Co-educational schools cannot help but be handcuffed due to the nature of their classroom constituency. As one of a handful of all-boys schools in New England, Avon Old Farms understands that every aspect of our teaching needs to be filtered by one question: “How do boys learn?”
To better help our teachers fulfill their commitment to each boy as he discovers his learning style, we have developed a teaching ideology built upon three specific pillars tailored to how boys learn.
It is essential to institute an academic environment that promotes and nurtures relationships between teachers and students. During my sophomore year, my Spanish teacher, Señora Leis was going on her 21st year working at Avon Old Farms, the historic New England boarding school. Señora knew boys were relational learners. Many lessons somehow became a story about her bulldog, Chopper, an animal may fellow students and I came to love dearly. Sometimes, she would tell a story about Chopper's antics as he tried to jump onto her bed, resulting in a torn ACL. We would also frequently encounter Chopper references on our tests and quizzes.
Señora Leis integrated Chopper into her curriculum as a vehicle to relate to us and engage us in the content of her class. We looked forward to Spanish because we knew that we would be entertained by Señora Leis and her funny anecdotes about Chopper. After my sophomore year of Spanish, I had the freedom to drop the subject for a free-block. However, because of Señora Leis' teaching style, I decided to take Spanish all four of my years at Avon.
One way to encourage genuine connections between students and teachers is a multi-dimensional approach to the faculty role. At Avon, faculty typically interact with boys on several levels, including teaching, administrating, coaching, dorm parenting, and advising.
Teachers focus on constructing effective working alliances with the boys and adopt this responsibility in their roles as relationship managers. For example, when boys are tasked with research projects, their work input will be much greater if they know and can relate to the teacher who assigns the task. Due to the open environment built on connection, boys also naturally relate to one another in the classroom.
Mobile, invigorating, and energetic lessons are the key to creating a vibrant learning environment for boys. For instance, you may just stumble upon Dean Custer’s Civil War camp as you stroll through the wooded oases of the Oak Grove amidst the New England foliage. Here, history classes can visit the Union-clad bearded historian one-by-one as he entreats the boys to experience firsthand what it was like to be a soldier from the north during the 1860s.
Or, perhaps you walk into the Adams Theater and stumble upon Mr. Davey’s freshman English class acting out Lady Macbeth’s famous “out, damn’d spot!” passage with props, while following the stage directions.
These are examples of active learning at its finest. Boys need a learning environment that engages more than just the mind: they need to be involved and moving.
The classroom environment at Avon Old Farms is far from traditional. Our teachers are tasked with finding new and innovative ways to capture the boys’ attention, even when teaching the most rote grammar concepts. Michael Reichart and Richard Hawley explain that, “the motor activity or the adrenal boost of competing or the power of a dramatic surprise in the classroom does not merely engage or delight; it is transitive to—that is, attaches to and carries along—highly specific learning outcomes.” At Avon, you may not even have to enter a classroom in order to witness active learning.
We practice what the experts say to do and emphasize: active, project-centered learning: boys on their feet and moving about, working individually, in pairs, and in teams to solve problems, create products, compose presentations to their classmates who are held accountable for the material presented. We’ve found that incorporating active learning into daily lessons enhances the boys’ learning experiences by teaching through a medium that demands their full attention and engagement with the course material, thus enabling them to better understand and retain it.
Whether it be participating in class or auditioning for a musical, trying something new is never an easy feat ...especially for a teenage boy. However, in an all-boys environment, it takes just one simple moment of willingness for a young man to step outside of his comfort zone and reap the benefits that a boy’s school can offer.
Kerry Brennan, Headmaster at the Roxbury Latin School in Massachusetts, identifies that, “at a good boys’ school, there are many ways to be a boy. There is also the absence of cross-gender posturing and a prevailing sense that it is cool to be part of something that aspires consistently to be excellent.”
We have all heard of these labels: jock, theater kid, science geek and so on. However, the barriers separating these stigmatized identifiers are torn down in an all-boys environment. How? By empowering each boy to find his own true voice through a variety of methods built into his everyday school experience. Some of the key avenues Avon provides its boys to speak openly are through poetry contests, morning meeting announcements,
One story: During a Monday Morning Meeting in mid-October I was sitting next to my advisee, a new freshman from Pennsylvania. His JV Soccer coach sitting behind him tapped my advisee on his shoulder. The coach leaned over and asked my advisee to announce the score of the JV Soccer game from the past Saturday, as other upper classmen were announcing the scores of their respective teams. My advisee’s face turned beet-red as he raised his hand to be called upon by the morning meeting leader. He stood up and quickly said, “JV soccer won 3-2 on Saturday.” After sitting down, I turned to him and said, “How nervous were you?” He responded, “Oh man, I was about to throw up!” But, he went on to announce the score for the JV Soccer team for the rest of the season! Come springtime, his inner confidence was released as he was elected to be the captain of his thirds lacrosse team.
Emphasis on Group Presentations
Boys find themselves working on group projects in classes all across our curriculum frequently. Most of the time, the project culminates in a group presentation. The boys must find their voices within their groups, while also being tasked with presenting in front of their classes. In fact, throughout each year, the boys present with their intersession classes in front of the school community at morning meetings.
So, is there one specific recipe for effectively teaching boys? No, every boy is different, and we know that. However, at Avon, we offer a diverse palette of ways through which we engage every boy in the classroom and in the community, so that they are free to confidently discover their true, multifaceted selves. The top scholar from last year’s graduating class was also a tri-varsity athlete. Also, we have a sophomore, three-season actor, who is a leader in our “Avon Army” spirit club. At an Avon, students can find solace in stepping outside of their comfort zone with the strong support of students, faculty and staff behind them.
"Teaching boys effectively can be likened to a dance, an intricate partnership: although someone leads and another follows, this is a partnership of both people united in common purpose.” - Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys
- I Can Learn From You: Boys as Relational Learners by Michael Reichert & Richard Hawley
- Boys and Singing
- Reaching Boys Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work--and Why By Michael Reichert & Richard Hawley
- International Boys’ School Coalition Website
- Face it: Boys learn differently than girls, and that's OK
About the Author
Avon Old Farms Class of 2011