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Teaching Secrets: Bridging the Gender Gap

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The long-term substitute teacher ushered the 22 rowdy 3rd graders into the computer lab. Barely taller than some of them, she raised her voice over the clamor saying, “Remember, I said sit boy-girl-boy-girl.”

I started a slow burn. I’ve been working on gender equity and equal technology access for over 14 years. I’ve published and presented on improving girls’ attitudes toward math, science, and technology, and I’ve founded after-school GEMS clubs to engage their interest with robotics, rocket launches, bridge-building, strategy games, and chromatography.

I’ve also been a new-teacher mentor, so I know not to publicly comment or criticize a novice’s decisions. But I had to ask.

“Tell me why you gave that direction,” I said quietly after the class started to settle down. She looked puzzled. “To sit boy-girl-boy-girl,” I added.

“Oh,” she laughed. “The girls make the boys behave.”

I wanted to say, “You know something? Girls are not response-cost behavior management variables!” I wanted to say, “I did not send my daughters to school to control boys!” And I wanted to say, “Well, it doesn’t look like they’re doing a very good job!”

But I didn’t. I held my tongue and listened to the rising noise level. And then I said, “Why don’t we talk later?”

Making Your Classroom More Equitable

No matter what the pundits say, girls and boys get different educations in the same classroom. And separate is not equal. But there are strategies you can use to make your classroom a more equitable place, so that everyone wins, both boys and girls.

Take a look at how you sort or divide children. Do you group or line up by gender? Would you ever divide by ethnicity or native language or intelligence level or race or by who owns an iPod? Of course not! Then, you shouldn't group by gender either.

Try some innovative approaches to division instead:

● If you are studying the calendar, line up or group by birth month.
● If you are working on dictionary skills, line up alphabetically, first by last name, and then by first name.
● If you are working on planets, group by astrological sign.
● Group by color of shirts, or type of shoe.

Let the kids come up with creative possibilities and use their choices each week. Mondays might be a little chaotic while they figure it out, but they will catch on well for the rest of the week. It mixes things up and makes for many teachable moments.

Observe or listen to your interactions with all students. If you don’t feel you can do this objectively, set up a tape recorder or video camera to capture what you can. Then review it carefully by yourself or with a partner. What do you see or hear?

Do you call on the first, loudest person to respond to a question? Chances are very good that person is a boy, and he has done this often because he has been rewarded by your attention. The most important thing a student can receive in a classroom is the teacher’s attention, and he has learned how to get yours.

Did any of the quiet boys or any of the girls even bother to raise their hands? If this is the middle of the year, they may have learned that it doesn’t do any good to try. They may have learned that once the shouters and hand-wavers have answered, you will get around to calling on other children, but until then, there is really no point.

If you are secretly cringing as you read this, don’t worry. We have all fallen victim to these attention traps. But here are some ways to get all students’ participation, and encourage those quiet boys and hesitant girls.

Wait Time for Students

You are probably nodding your head at this. You learned about wait time in your training, and you are sure you use it. But go back and listen to your tape or watch your video. Do you really use it? Do you really wait 4-5 seconds until you call on someone? Do you look around to get eye contact with almost everyone before you make a choice? This gives you time to think about whom to select, and more importantly, gives all students time to formulate answers and volunteer. Research shows that this technique is particularly valuable for girls and students who are learning English, more than half the students in all of our classrooms.

Wait Time for You

This is probably a new one. I know I didn’t think about this in college. But after a student has responded, wait 4-5 seconds to reply. This gives you time to process the student’s answer and think about how to respond most effectively. This also shows students that you value their responses. It models the kind of behavior you want them to emulate. Waiting to reply helps both you and students.

Move Kids Around

After observing your own teaching, ask youself, which kids got your attention on your recording? Was it the ones who sit in the front rows, the ones who sit in the middle of the room? I know that when I watch videos of myself teaching or presenting, I see that I tend to look to the right side of the room—probably because I am right-handed. When I am sitting on the floor with children, it is excruciatingly obvious. I have had to make a concerted effort to turn my body to face and talk to the people on my left side.

Do you stay in one place? If you do, you may notice that you tend to talk to kids who are closer to you. Remember, the most important thing you can give your students is your time and attention, even if it is negative attention. The child who misbehaves has gotten your attention, and the quiet students lose out. Simple as that. So shuffle yourself or your students to compensate for your natural tendencies.

Listen to Your Responses

Many teachers have been observed giving different kinds of feedback to boys and girls. Boys tend to receive correction, help, and criticism. Most follow-up questions and suggestions for improvement are directed at boys. But girls tend to receive comments on the appearance of their work, rather than the academic content. We want all children to dig deeper into academic understanding, and we can foster this by providing constructive thoughtful feedback to all children.

Pay attention to the kinds of informal interactions you have with students. Do you ask the boys about the weekend soccer game and tell the girls how pretty they look? Do you acknowledge the hard work that all students do, thereby helping them understand that effort produces improvement, or do you just grade the work?

Research shows that many girls seem to grow up feeling that they get good grades or perform well due to luck, not skill or effort. By feeling this way, they also feel that any failure is internal and due to their lack of intelligence or ability. They personalize it. Boys seem to feel that failure is due to illness, poor instruction—external factors. These two different approaches lead to girls downplaying success and boys taking credit.

Cringing again? Me, too. In all my life, I don’t think I have ever taken credit for an achievement by saying, even to myself, “I earned that. I worked hard for that and I deserve it.” All children need to see that hard work and perseverance pay off.

Now, Back to the Substitute Teacher. . .

I can only control so much. I went up to her room later that day and just leaned against the door, saying, “It looks like you have a tough class.”

“Yes, I do,” she sighed.

“How can I help?” I asked.

After a little discussion, we came up with a plan. I visited her students a half hour before their next trip to the lab. We talked about school-wide behavior expectations, and I reviewed the rules for the computer lab, and also acknowledged their excitement about the upcoming science project we had planned. We chose computer partners, focusing on pairing students who were very comfortable with students who might need a little extra help. I emphasized that everyone can learn to use computers—it’s just a matter of time and practice. And then together we went down to what was the first of many successful visits to my lab.

As the school year begins, give some thought to the girls and the boys in your class. Look carefully to see that they are truly getting the same education and opportunity from you. Give them the attention they need and deserve. All children will benefit, and you’ll be a better teacher for it.

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