Boys and Classical Christian Education: It Starts Early

What are little boys made of, made of? What are little boys made of?”1 This is not only an old nursery rhyme, but also a very current question. Talk with teachers and administrators in all kinds of schools and peruse the internet for countless articles, forums and blogs, and all are bemoaning the state of education for boys and how we are failing to reach them. If you read the statistics, you would have to agree because multiple sources say boys are diagnosed with ADHD and learning disorders seven times more often than girls, the drop-out rate among boys is higher, teachers are more likely to say it’s the boys that can’t sit still or pay attention, boys tend to be more physically aggressive and destructive and, if asked, they will tell you their favorite subjects are PE, recess, and lunch. But what is the best education for boys?

In my personal experience as a female growing up with all male siblings, in a neighborhood where boys outnumbered girls 6:1, I was immersed in the boy culture to the point that my mother, armed with hosiery, high- heels, and a razor, told me I had to stop playing football at age 15. In that environment I observed a few things about boys. For example, pushing someone, hitting, or a playful knock upside the head meant “I like you”. The guys loved competition and could make any experience into a game, the rules of which were dependent on whether or not you or your team, were losing. This competition continued in spite of many injuries. There were declarations of “I’ll show you!” or “If you think that’s bad, try this,” to say nothing
of, “I can go twice as fast as you,” as the home-built go-cart went careening down the hill completely out of control. Based on what I have read and observed in the subsequent years, not much has changed.

In 1928, Thomas Maude from Oxford University pondered this question of appropriate education for boys. This opinion piece, “An Apology for the System of Public and Classical Education”, was a defense of classical education as opposed to home education in respect to instructing boys. In the article he says, “I maintain, moreover, the simple plan of education pursued in our great school is more adapted to a boy’s intellectual advancement…I advocate on the main, that system of classical instruction.”2 But the classical educational system of today seems to be non-boy friendly, so the focus of the remainder of this article is exploring ways to capture the imagination and intellect of very young boys between 4 and 8 years old so that we give them a strong learning foundation, on which to build a classical education.

A human being is a very intricate and complicated creation. Understanding all of the intricacy is beyond knowing completely. We tend to make little boxes and expect every person to fit neatly in those boxes and most never do. As you read the generalizations of this article, remember to look for the unique ways God put together each boy-child you know. Remember too, “…male and female he (God) created them.”3 but He also made them all individuals.

A Boy’s Brain

In his book Boys and Girls Learn Differently, Michael Gurian takes a very detailed and extensive look at the differences between the male and female brain that is worth the read, but here are a few highlights. The brain has three layers with three different functions that constantly interact. The brain stem is the center of the “flight or fight” response and survival system; it is on the bottom. In the middle of the brain is the limbic system where sensory input and emotions are processed. Thinking occurs at the top of the brain, which is divided into two hemispheres (hence, right- brain, left-brain). The left side is associated with verbal skills and the right is associated with spatial skills.4 Blood flow in a boy’s brain runs down the right side of the brain and flows to the brain stem. Gurian says, “When we tell a child to ‘think before you act,’ we are actually saying, ‘Redirect your blood flow from the limbic system and even from the brain stem, to the top of the brain before you act.’”5 Sounds funny, particularly for boys; because of the way blood flows, action will almost always take place before thinking. Male hormones play into this as well. Serotonin, which keeps a person calm, is lower in males resulting in more impulsivity and fidgeting behavior. The aggression hormone, testosterone is higher and that is the reason some boys tend to be more aggressive, muscular, and socially ambitious.6 Those three characteristics are the reasons many little boys will run to the top of the play-scape and before considering how high up he is, he will try to jump off often resulting in broken arms, legs or what have you, but from his perspective it was fun and, yes, he will probably try it again.

Sitting Seems Impossible

Many teachers are frustrated with the activity level of little boys. They want this male-child to sit down and pay attention. But that is a lot harder than it looks. Just the act of sitting in a chair, relays multiple messages from many body systems to the brain all at once. The tactile system seeks stimulation while trying to remain seated, the vestibular system gives messages of balance and position, the proprioceptive system sends messages about muscles and joints, so that the body stays in the chair in
the appropriate position, and there are various messages coming from the visual and auditory systems. At the same time these young and immature bodies are being asked to pay attention and perform additional complex skills, like handwriting. The physical and mental are interdependent. You don’t have one without the other. According to Athena Oden P.T., author of Ready Bodies, Learning Minds, “children will continue to develop and grow even if their vestibular or reflex response is inadequate. But with inadequate, faulty backgrounds to build new skills on, their success is limited and their frustration escalates….Pushing children to perform academic tasks, especially pencil and paper tasks, at a young age will increase the likelihood that they will build these skills on immature, faulty backgrounds. Give them time to grow, develop and learn about their bodies. Provide them with experiences to increase the likelihood of their success by developing their sensory and motor systems to their fullest.”7 Unfortunately for little boys, Kindergarten is no longer preparing them for first grade, giving them time to develop those immature bodies,— Kindergarten is too often the old first grade.

To Move or Not to Move, That is the Question!

It is obvious that little boys need movement and they love it. Recess becomes the punishment target for unacceptable active behavior. In PBS’s article on “Understanding and Raising Boys”, Joseph Tobin states, “Eliminating recess only heightens boys’ active and aggressive impulses. The very boys who tend to be punished are the ones who most need physical release from their tension. If we take away their only opportunity to deal with stress, they may become more tense and then find it even more difficult to sit still and focus.”8 A boy’s brain needs movement, breaks, and varying stimuli to help him control what we consider impulsive behavior, but which is truly normal for young boys. Movement also keeps them from becoming bored, because once boys are bored, they disengage and stop trying9.

Change your mind about the old “learning position” — feet flat on the floor, sitting up straight in your chair, with your eyes to the front of the room and your hands folded on your desk; does that position work for you as a learner? The best learning position for some may be standing, or leaning, or better yet stretched out on the floor. Even as a girl, I had difficulty sitting still in chairs in early grades. I not only wanted but needed to move. I still remember the day I discovered I could move my toes inside my shoes and the teacher never knew.

The average attention span for a young boy is less than 15 minutes, less than 10 for preschool or kindergarten and the average attention span of that boy’s body is less than 10 minutes. In addition eye fatigue sets in during the same time period. I observed a Kindergarten teacher who must have understood that. The class was reviewing the sounds of the alphabet and playing a game she called “Jump Up”. This game generated anticipation, excitement and movement while learning pre-reading skills. The children sat in assigned spots on the floor. The teacher wrote a letter or phonogram on the board, then said “(Child’s name) jump up, turn around, tell me this letter’s sounds.” She didn’t go in order and might call on a child more than once, so they eagerly waited to take their turns.

What Kind of Lessons Work Best?

Dr. Michael Reichert and Dr. Richard Hawley conducted a study called “Teaching Boys: A Global Study of Effective Practices.” Based on 2,500 responses they grouped the most effective teaching/learning practices into these categories: Lessons 1) with end products, like drawings, poems, personally built projects, 2) constructed as competitive games, 3) requiring motor activity, 4) requiring a response to open-ended questions, 5) that combined competition with teamwork, 6) containing novelty or surprise to gain attention.10 Keep those in mind while planning lessons.

Give little boys more physical space, opportunities for movement and breaks. They work well with more light and most of the time noise doesn’t bother them. You create the environment for growth and they will bloom.

Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

Curiosity is to be cultivated. This is where the “snips and snails”11 come in. Young boys are notorious collectors. Their pockets are full of “snips”, little pieces of things and, yes, sometimes they may have snails. These collectibles could be playground pebbles, bark off the trees, playing pieces from games, and sometimes special treasures from home that should have stayed home. Their pockets are great pictures of their curiosity. One teacher saw pocket contents as treasure and provided a little box for each boy to keep his “find”. She said many times contents lead to great conversations with first grade boys. She found that her interest in their collections improved their interest in her lessons. Another teacher made a game of searching
for different kinds of pebbles then made pebble hearts on Mother’s Day cards.

Some teachers complain that students, particularly the boys, don’t seem to be curious about anything. Solution–a nature walk with the theme of “I wonder…”, the perfect opportunity to show students how to “wonder”. A nature table in the classroom is a great way to spawn curiosity. Just be prepared to accept things that might make you a little uncomfortable, like the huge hairy tarantula or the green snake that was a part of my nature table, both of which were brought by boys.

Encourage boys’ creativity: don’t feed the “And the answer is….” In the early years when we are using imitation there is the temptation to say that it has to be this way or it is not right. Creativity can be lost when restrictions are too rigid. Allow exploration to take place in their thinking and as John Milton Gregory said, “…and as a rule tell him nothing that he can learn himself.”12 Encourage them to try their ideas. Maybe the creation doesn’t look like the picture on the box or maybe he solved a math problem in a new way; celebrate creativity. The first grade was learning about Benjamin Franklin and had an invention day; that’s a dream for little boys. One young inventor made a spanking machine, with a plastic spoon connected to a two-direction motor that went in a circle and spanked his little stuffed puppy. I was impressed, but that wasn’t
all; he reversed the direction and the spoon fed the puppy instead of spanking it—who would have thought?

It is important to teach little boys about appropriate time and place for ideas, but sometimes the most creative or profound thoughts are blurted out before they think about appropriateness. Correct them, but don’t squelch the exuberance. The teacher was telling the Bible story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. She said, “And Andrew said, ‘But, Jesus, how can we feed so many with just five loaves and two fishes?’” Immediately, without hesitation, a first grade boy, blurts out, “Come on guy, just trust Jesus. He can do it.”

Making Guns out of Pretzels Does Not Create Serial Killers

Normal little boys and big boys draw pictures of war, play war games and make weapons out of various things. They express violence in many different ways, and mothers’ shudder. One young boy ate his sandwich into the shape of a gun and was expelled from school. In PBS’s article “Understanding and Raising Boys”, Jane Katch is quoted, “If a boy is playing a game about super heroes, you might see it as violent. But the way he sees it, he’s making the world safe from the bad guys. This is normal and doesn’t indicate that anything is wrong unless he repeatedly hurts or tries to dominate the friends he plays with.”13 The problem is not the playing, it is our overreaction to the seeming violence. Yes, there are students who are aggressive and violent and they need to be helped, but the majority of our little boys are learning to be strong husbands and fathers. Prohibition often makes the urge to play violently more enticing and it escalates. We must use common sense in working through the issues of war, violence, guns, as well as the themes of war and killing in the Bible. These things can be addressed as we teach children about relationships, friendships, and the harmfulness of bullying. The younger those conversations begin the more impact there is later.

The Key is Relationships

A teacher can have the perfect lesson plan with the snazzy attention-getting opener, use every technique that is meant to work with boys, have impeccable classroom management skills, and be the envy of every other teacher in the building but without a solid “I care about you and will still like you, no matter what” attitude, all the other will be for naught. The key to teaching is exactly what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:5 (ESV) “…but [if I] have not love, I gain nothing.”14 This is the kind of love that doesn’t have to control or manipulate in order to reach these future men. This kind of love is honest and says, “This is going
to be hard, but I am going through this with you and I know you can do it.” It is not your personality that makes a difference, it is your love and every boy needs someone to love him to manhood. Let’s start with the youngest among us.

Understanding and Using the CTP-4 by ER

Many schools who use the Achievement Test CTP from ERB will look at the test results with a “smile” and then left them away, never to be seen again. By doing that schools are losing valuable information that can help them improve instruction for children, improve teaching by teachers, and improve an administrator’s standing before boards and parents. I propose that there are treasures in the ERB reports we can access; we just have to know what we are looking at and how to use it to help us. This workshop would be specifically for schools who use ERB testing for their achievement tests.

Doreen Howell

Doreen Howell has been a part of Classical and Christian education at Regents School of Austin for 20 years. She is Regents “Ambassador” to schools all over the United States o ering consultations and teacher training services in a wide variety of areas. Doreen received her undergraduate degree from Southwest Texas State University and her graduate degree in Education from the University of Tennessee. She and her husband Ron are the parents of one adult daughter who graduated from Regents.

The 1, 2, 3’s of Wondering: Developing a Curiosity for numbers

The day started like most other school days when I was in the first grade; Mrs. Schwartz instructed us to take out our Big Chief Tablet and, using our rulers, draw ten columns and then write the numbers from 0-100 with 10 numbers in each column. Now I am fairly certain that most of you probably don’t know what a Big Chief tablet is, and you probably never did this exercise daily for weeks on end. But, that doesn’t matter; the most important thing is that after weeks of writing the numbers I was about to make an amazing discovery that I was sure my teacher didn’t know. Much to my amazement, every number in the second column was just like the first column, but each of the numbers in the second column had a “1” in front of it, and the third column had a “2” in front of each number and so on. That was an amazing discovery for a six-year-old. I kept this secret to myself for a few days and played with a wide variety of ways to write all one hundred numbers, without going in order. But I thought I might be cheating, so I decided to tell Mrs. Schwartz about this mind-bending discovery. She seemed just as surprised as I was, and she responded with, “That’s interesting. I wonder what else numbers can do? I wonder what numbers after 100 might do.” That was all I needed to challenge my thinking in the first grade. This response prompted many questions and a curiosity about numbers that lasted for many years. Through the early years I found that numbers were always logical and orderly, but my questions and curiosity were sometimes illogical and random, yet amazingly I learned through those experiences as well.

Mrs. Schwartz could have crushed my curiosity by blowing me off, but she didn’t and I didn’t become one of those people who say, “I’m just not a math person,” which is such a sad thing to hear because numbers can really be fascinating. Many times a dislike for math comes from
the teacher or parent, who unwittingly makes a comment or cuts short a student’s natural curiosity for numbers. Students, particularly young students, need a “Mrs. Schwartz.”

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) once said, “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.” And if there was ever a need for “vigorous minds”, it is now, and if there was ever a subject that could offer so much about which to be curious, it is the subject of numbers. Here are four things you can do to develop vigorous minds in students for numbers.

Create an environment of curiosity.

To create an environment of curiosity, you must first be curious yourself. Spend some time dwelling on the character of the Creator of numbers. God must like numbers because He used them often and we see great patterns in His creation. Recently, I asked my Sunday morning Bible study group, “What is God’s favorite number?” That launched a lot of discussion and a list of questions that took the study beyond Sunday morning. There is no Scripture that says, “God’s favorite number is —,” but it has made all of us pay closer attention as we read and studied the Word together.

Look around you and see all the places you find numbers and what you need to know about those numbers. Can you estimate your total grocery bill before you get to the check-out? Is “tax-free” weekend really a good deal? Telephone numbers, ID numbers, speedometer, temperatures around the nation, speed limits, prices for new cars, or new clothes – numbers are everywhere and every day you have to calculate something. If you don’t believe it, keep a number diary for a week and see how often you do something with numbers.

Try to discover some of the characteristics of numbers and draw your own conclusions without depending on a book to tell you the answers. After you stimulate your own curiosity, you will probably have some questions and develop some ideas for letting students make some grand discoveries of their own. Think about the things related to numbers that might be problems for students.

Heighten curiosity in the classroom by showing the importance of numbers. I taught third grade for several years and noticed fairly early that third graders do not like to “guess” or “estimate”. They want a definite answer and will either not guess at all or be outlandishly silly in guessing. Knowing this and knowing that my class had just voted earlier that year to add blue to the M&M color mix, I took a very large glass jar and filled it with M&M candies (not peanut of course), but as I filled the jar, I counted the number of each color of the M&Ms. Day one, I placed the jar on a shelf all the students could see and asked them to answer this question on a sticky note, “How many blue M&M s are in this jar?” and as predicted the guesses verged on ridiculous, but when the person who was closest to the correct number received a baggie with the correct number of blue M&Ms in it, the class saw this was more than a silly guessing game and they got serious. Every day I removed the previous day’s color of candy from the jar and then asked the same question using a different color. The last day, when there were only brown candies left in the jar, I had to delay the presentation of the winner’s bag of M&Ms because three students had guessed 12 more or less than the total. But the amazing thing was not their increased ability to estimate, it was the question that followed, “Why are there always more brown M&Ms in a bag?” followed by my question, “Are there always more brown candies in the bag?” You can imagine where we went from there. Today our conclusions are no longer true, but I do wonder which color is the most prominent? I bet it is blue.

Teach older elementary students about averaging their grades. Highly competitive classes will go crazy with this and some of the more curious will figure out what grade they need on the next test to raise or maintain their averages. Use the skill of averaging to answer questions like, “What is the average size family in our class?” and then deal with the hilarity of half a person. During a study of the American Civil War, a student found a source that said the average height of a soldier was 5 feet and 8 inches and the average weight was 145 pounds. A quick-thinking teacher followed that with, “I wonder what the average height of our class might be?” You see numbers aren’t just in math.

Older elementary students are interested in spending money. The week before Christmas break is not a great time to teach new concepts so an enterprising fourth- grade teacher told students that they had a pretend $200 to spend on Christmas presents for family and friends. She gave them a stack of catalogs and a worksheet with the instructions that they didn’t have to worry about shipping, but did have to figure the tax. The students loved the project and also found that the money didn’t go as far as they had expected. While studying Colonial America, a student stated that the colonists should have paid the tea tax since it wasn’t very much. The ever-planning teacher had a box of receipts she had saved from a wide variety of stores. She cut off the tax and total and then had the students figure the total and then figure the tax at their area’s tax rate. The result was an eye-opening exercise for both students and teacher.

A second grade teacher asked the students in his class to name as many pairs of things as they could in the world around them. Of course, he had two eyes, two ears, etc., and his list was about 10 things, but the students couldn’t quit with ten and after several minutes there was a very interesting question: “Why do we have a pair of pants when it is really just one piece of clothing?” Ponder that one for a while. All of these were great activities, some of which were planned but generated unexpected questions.

Sometimes curiosity can be planned and sometimes it is spontaneous; keep your ears open and your mind engaged. Think about all of the subjects you teach each week; where are the numbers in those subjects? What can you do to enhance your student’s curiosity about the numbers in that lesson?

Encourage questions.

First grade for me was one of two of the most wonderful times of my elementary education years; the other, by the way, was fifth grade. I had lots of questions about a lot of things, and looking back on that first year, I think I may have driven Mrs. Schwartz crazy, but she never let on.
She always promised to answer my questions under the condition that I would complete my work. I am sad to say that this attitude did not carry over to my second-grade teacher, who one day in her frustration, angrily said to me, “Stop asking so many stupid questions.” I obeyed; I never asked another question in class until I was in graduate school. Even when I was older, I still believed my questions were stupid. That is the power of any teacher especially over the mind and emotions of young children.

Children need to know that no question is stupid; it is just sometimes ill-timed, or rude and self-centered when others are being neglected, both of which are social skills to be taught. Questions can be deferred, but don’t forget to get back to the student who asked. A third grader was barraging his teacher with  many questions and it was driving her crazy. I gave her a note pad and told her to have this curious young man write his questions that weren’t related to the topic on the pad and then set a time to talk about them later in the day and don’t conveniently forget. Much to the teacher’s delight this young scholar learned appropriate interaction and his daily list of questions became shorter and more insightful. Not surprisingly, he later became a National Merit Scholar. Be careful and don’t kill their enthusiasm.

“But,” you say, “my students don’t ask questions.” That is not surprising; several studies have shown that in our age of “I-phones, I-pads, I-pods, and I-everything else” students are becoming less socially interactive, except through on-line social media. It is time to reverse the trend and uncover their curiosity and let the sun shine on astounding discoveries. If students aren’t asking questions, then ask questions you might have. Draw their attention to fascinating details. Take a cue from Albert Einstein, who said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

Learn together.

Learn together. One of the joys of learning is making discoveries with others. One child can spark an interest in another for the wonder of numbers. Students love to hear a teacher’s personal stories about discoveries. Share your own discoveries about numbers and where those discoveries led you. Allow students to share their discoveries with the class; oh my, you may even teach some rhetoric skills.

Teach a number trick and then say, “Let’s see if it works all the time.” Here is a trick for multiplying 2-digit numbers by 11. Add together the two digits of the number you are multiplying by 11. Separate the two digits and put the added number between them. If the added number is ten or more, add the first digit of the added number to the left- hand number and you have your answer.

Example 1
31 X 11
3 (3+1) 1 341 Answer 341

Example 2
76 X 11
7 (7+6) 6 7(13)6 7+136 Answer 836

Remember this is for multiplying 2-digit numbers by 11; does it work every time?

What would you have to do if you were multiplying a 3-digit number by 11?

Do you notice a pattern? Using a chart similar to the one I drew every day in first grade, ask students to find various patterns that they can see. Where are all the numbers divisible by 5?

Do you notice a pattern of odd and even numbers? There are so many things you can find with young children by helping them notice details.

What am I missing? Sometimes feigning ignorance or intentionally making mistakes can show students that they really do know how to work with numbers and may even keep them watching so they can find your next mistake. One of my favorite math lessons was the day that I taught some third graders the steps in long division using the “Family” mnemonic: “Daddy, Mommy, Sister, Brother” = Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Bring down. We did several problems together and then I started doing them on my own and purposely adding instead of subtracting, until one young man, who really didn’t like math, frustratingly said, “But Mrs. Howell, you’re leaving out the sister and bringing in the Aunt.” That was a moment worth celebrating.

Celebrate Discoveries.

Celebrating discoveries is an important step toward motivating the students to be more curious. The teacher’s attitude that kept me motivated was an attitude of celebration. Even though I know now that Mrs. Schwartz already knew the discoveries I was making, she always made those experiences full of wonder and celebration. I made the discoveries myself and she encouraged more. Celebrating the discovery of one student can be motivating to another to make his own discoveries that should be celebrated with as much joy as the discoveries of the first student. Pay attention to the little things they learn and then wonder out loud about the next step. Don’t leave out the quiet child, the shy child, the defiant child; find the celebrations for all of them. It is these celebrations that will motivate not only the students, but you will find much joy in teaching every day.

Teachers of students between the ages of 5 and 12 are critical in the development of student attitudes about a wide variety of subjects. Maybe math is not your favorite subject, but you too can be a “Mrs. Schwartz” for someone. Make them curious.