Boys vs. girls: Learning takes sides

Published 12:03 am Thursday, August 25, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Fraizer Primary’s Kalob Hill, 7, raises his hand to answer a question in a boys’ class Wednesday morning. Two classes are divided by gender at Frazier Primary, where girls’ and boys’ fascinations can be explored.

NATCHEZ — If it helps boys learn about African wildlife by describing the bloody guts of a cheetah’s prey after being mauled to death, then why not get gross?

At Frazier Primary School, two teachers and 43 students are trying something innovative by experimenting with classroom dynamics by piloting two single-gender classes.

Teacher Jonathan Pegues, 25, who teaches a class of 21 first-grade boys, proposed experimenting with single-gender classes after observing students’ behavior toward him during his first year on the job.

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“Last year, I noticed a lot of the boys, even those who misbehaved, look at me and wanted hugs and high fives,” he said.

He said it seemed the boys, even those he didn’t teach, were drawn to him, he guessed, because he was a man.

“And I’m tall, so I guess it helps,” he said.

Pegues said boys the age of his students weren’t used to seeing male role model figures at school, and he knew some of them did not have father figures at home. So he decided he wanted to reach as many boys as possible.

“I wanted to change their outlook,” Pegues said. “If school could become fun and cool, they would like (school).”

Pegues said he followed up his idea with research and discovered many schools are teaching single-gender classes and having success with them.

His principal, Vera Dunmore, embraced the idea and so did the Natchez-Adams School Board and first-grade teacher Jennifer Haile.

Haile now teaches a class made up of 22 girls.

“They love being with all girls,” Haile said, as she reviewed flash cards of sight words with six or seven girls.

Haile said the single-gender classes make a big difference when teaching character education, for example.

She can focus on teaching issues that apply to girls, such as speaking, Haile said, rather than focus attention on more behavioral issues more common to boys like hitting and pushing, Haile said.

“It’s fun being in an all girls class,” second grader Makayla Murray said. “Boys play rough.”

Haile said she has noticed in her all-girls class that her students are communicating and swapping ideas more than in mixed-gender classes.

“When we start on a discussion, I really see them think and talk more so than in past years,” Haile said. “They build on (each others) thoughts and ideas.”

Pegues said he discovered through research that single-gender education from a young age helps students get used to single-gender classrooms.

Single-gender classes also cut down on non-academic distractions, such as trying to impress or get attention from the opposite gender, he said.

“(Single-gender classes) may be a different way to look at bumping achievement,” Pegues said.

Many teachers from other local schools that teach the upper elementary grades are interested in the pilot classrooms and told Pegues they would be willing to try out his method after hearing feedback, he said.

Pegues said he looks forward to researching more about the specific way boys learn and applying it to his classroom.

For now, however, he’s focusing on teaching respect and responsibility in addition to reading and math.

“There’s no excuses,” he said.

And since there are no girls to gross out, he can indulge his students interests to hook them on learning.

When teaching his class about the cheetah Wednesday, Pegues said he knew how to get them into the lesson.

“They love the nasty stuff with the bite and the guts, and we don’t have to worry about the ‘ewws’” he said.

Pegues said the boys are as rowdy as he expected them to be, but he came up with ways to keep them in check.

Only a few weeks into the school year, on Wednesday, Pegues got the boys’ attention with a chant.

“My boys,” Pegues shouted.

“Yes, sir,” they said in unison, before he and the boys repeated the chant a second time.

Pegues said his hope is to reach those he hasn’t yet reached by the end of the year so that 100 percent of his students can go on to second and third grade with a positive attitude toward school.

Haile said she jumped on the opportunity to volunteer for the single-gender girls’ class, and thinks it is proving a successful pilot program so far this year.

“I like trying new things — anything a little new that research says might work to see a difference in our children,” Haile said.