Early report cards give an A’ to single-sex classes in Janesville
Teachers don’t call the girls “Miss,” however. They use the girls’ first names.
The sexes are treated differently in The Academy, Marshall Middle School’s experiment in all-boy and all-girl classes.
About one-third of the sixth and eighth grades—more than 200 students—are assigned to all-boy or all-girl classes this year. Teachers and their bosses hope the change will mean better grades, better behavior and better attendance.
Teachers are working on a theory that boys are different from girls at this age, different in their interests, maturity and in what teaching techniques will help them learn.
Here’s a warm-up exercise in Deb Fanning’s math class:
“When I say ‘median,’ you say ‘middle,’” Fanning called out.
“When I say ‘average,’ you say ‘mean!’
That was for the boys. Fanning and co-teacher Stefanie Murray spoke loudly and boisterously as they led the boys through their lesson.
For the same lesson in her girls class, Fanning spoke softly: “Does anybody remember the other word for ‘mean’?”
“Boys don’t hear as well, so you have to shout it out,” Fanning said. “Girls get anxious when people have loud voices.”
Feeling the change
One month into the experiment, teachers seemed excited and proud of their work. But it’s much too early to offer statistical proof of success.
Teachers and students say they feel a difference. Murray said the arrangement has certainly has cut down on the flatulence problem, but more on that later.
Most eighth-graders seemed to like it, or at least they don’t object.
Nick Mowers said he’s getting better grades than last year.
“It seems like when there’s girls around, there’s a lot more drama,” Mowers said.
“Yeah, they always have to argue about things,” added Nick Johnson.
Brittany Peck said she likes it more than she thought she would, “because we don’t have boys interrupting the whole class.”
“They’re really noisy,” agreed Brittany Guild.
Peck said she’s getting better grades without boys interrupting classes; “I think you can learn more.”
“I think it’s really nice because you’re not as self-conscious,” added McKenzie Larson.
Girls and boys both said they can talk about “girls stuff” or “boy stuff” in class—things they would have been too embarrassed to express in co-ed classes.
Special-ed teacher Carrie Schuman said students with learning disabilities are more willing to speak up and participate, “especially the girls.”
Murray said putting boys and girls together is a recipe for class disruptions as social interactions gobble up class time.
For example, Murray said boys would pass gas as they entered a classroom in an obvious attempt to get a response from the girls, and then everyone wasted time expressing their disgust or mirth.
Boys seem to feel more at ease and less shy about wanting to learn, Fanning has noticed. On the second day of classes, she actually had boys who asked to move to the front of the room, something that was unheard of in a mixed classroom, she said.
Murray told of two boys who admitted in front of their peers that they weren’t very good at math, something she has never heard before.
“It was like they wanted to get better,’ she said.
Girls versus boys
“I absolutely love it,” said parent Shelly Homan, a clerk at Marshall. “She’s a little more focused on her school work than worrying about boys.”
One girl said she finds school boring, adding that her favorite class is a co-ed one, because she sits near a “hot guy.”
Teacher Greg Smith drew from youth culture to explain degrees of longitude in a social studies class.
If a skate boarder makes one complete revolution, what’s that called? Smith asked.
“A 360,” was the instant response from several boys.
And it’s called a 360 because a circle has 360 degrees, he noted.
When Smith taught the same lesson to girls, he changed his example to a dancer’s pirouette.
When Smith told his classes to draw a diagram showing the differences between the U.S. Pacific Coast and Midwest, he divided the boys into groups with sports-team names. The boys were pumped about competing to get the required number of items on their charts before another team beat them.
Competition motivates boys to get the required number of responses, Smith said.
“For the girls, I don’t do that at all. They will naturally strive to do more,” he added.
Sure enough, the girls hopped to it, but some of them also decorated their projects with hearts and multi-colored polka dots.
What if they had to do it with a boy in their group?
“He wouldn’t do any work,” said Lauren Zillman.
“Probably talk about sports,” said Chelsie Hardenstine. “… He wouldn’t let us decorate our paper.”
Jury is out
It’s early in the process, but the teachers say they’re happy with how it’s going, and they’re still learning.
“We’re trying it. It’s truly trial and error,” Fanning said.
They also say they feel energized by the experiment and are working hard to make it succeed.
The eighth-grade teachers, who all are experienced educators as well as being parents, say they’ve seen the social and emotional difficulties that kids encounter in middle school. They say it makes sense to them to divide boys and girls.
They can’t prove what they’re doing works, “but in our gut, it feels good. It feels right at the end of the day,” Smith said.
Response has been so good all around that Principal Steve Salerno is sending a group of seventh-grade teachers to training so the program can be expanded to that grade level a year from now.
As for calling the boys, “Mr.”:
“The boys seem to respond when you treat them like young gentlemen,” Murray said.
And the girls seem to like the personal touch.
Teacher Jennifer Donahue said boys’ brains shut down if they sit still for too long, but that’s not the same for girls.
“Before a test, for girl class, you want to set a comfortable emotional climate: ‘How you doin’, ladies?’ you know, ‘How was your evening? Tell me how you studied.’
“But with the guys, I mean, I have ’em doing jumping jacks.”