Monday, March 3, 2008

Memo to Sax and Gurian

Excuse me, modern pied pipers of biology-driven single-sex education, but I have some questions.

First, some background. I have a child who has a vagina. This would automatically put her into your girl category.

When she was little, she attended this amazing private school, where her teachers taught her using a variety of methods. They went on lots of walks and trips. They hardly ever had to sit still for very long. They built stuff, measured stuff, and investigated stuff. My daughter did well there.

We've since moved and my child is in public middle school. In public school here, the teachers only teach using what I like to call the "sit down, shut up, and memorize it" method.

Now I find out that there is apparently something wrong with my child, since she doesn't learn this way. After spending lots of money I didn't really have on private testing, I've learned she has something called an auditory processing disorder. This means that although she can hear, sounds and ideas get mixed up between her ears and her brain.

She would do best if she could go back to learning by building stuff, measuring stuff, and investigating stuff. Two years ago, my public school district almost implemented a plan that would have taught in precisely the way my child best learns, but the ACLU got an injunction because it turns out that this great other way of teaching was only going to be offered to children with penises. That's right. This school district, coached by Sax and Gurian, was going to teach boys and girls differently, and my child was going to end up in the wrong group (god bless the ACLU!)!

"Teaching Boys and Girls Separately" in today's New York Times explains to us how the brains of boys and girls are different and how they, therefore, need to be taught differently.

...two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes.

My daughter really likes snakes. She likes all animals. At Discovery School, the kids had lots of pets in the classroom. The students wrote reports about these animals and also took turns caring for them.

The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

Mr. Sax, have you ever been down south? Seventy five degrees is awfully hot indoors, Mr. Sax, when it's over 90% humidity. No one keeps their a/c that high, even women and girls. Are you trying to teach girls home ec by cooking them? Just askin.' Seriously, what if my child finds seventy five degrees too warm, even though she has a vagina?

Under Sax’s leadership, teachers learn to say things like, “Damien, take your green crayon and draw some sparks and take your black crayon and draw some black lines coming out from the back of the vehicle, to make it look like it’s going faster.” “Now Damien feels encouraged,” Sax explained to me when I first met him last spring in San Francisco. “To say: ‘Why don’t you use more colors? Why don’t you put someone in the vehicle?’ is as discouraging as if you say to Emily, ‘Well, this is nice, but why don’t you have one of them kick the other one — give us some action.’"

Mr. Sax, my daughter prefers the cool colors that you say boys prefer. I also notice that your sample directions for a boy are much more specific than are your sample directions for the girl. My child, who has both a vagina and an auditory processing disorder, needs very specific instructions given one step at a time. Also, she requires an emphasis on action. Action does not discourage her at all, unlike little Emily, even though they both have vaginas. In fact, she has really only ever been able to learn where there is lots of action involved. Lots of talk sounds like so much white noise to her, and it doesn't help her learn. And she loves anything that goes fast, just like Damien, always has. When she was little, I used to put her on every amusement park ride I could find. I was sometimes bemused to see other children crying to be let off of rides, since my child laughed hysterically at every twist and turn the amusement parks could offer. My child never wanted to sit still. Whenever she was strapped into a car seat, she screamed nonstop. Once, she screamed from western Montana, across the Idaho panhandle, and into eastern Washington - two hours, and I have it on videotape. Invariably, the moment she was free to run, she stopped screaming.

My mother once remarked that she admired my parenting because I always took the time to, literally, let my child smell the flowers; the truth is that she was such a ball of constant motion that giving her time to explore using her own senses was the only teaching I was able to do with her. She wouldn't sit still so that I could read books to her, although heaven knows I tried and tried and tried. Now I understand that all that talk doesn't sound like much to her.

School, the boy-crisis argument goes, is shaped by females to match the abilities of girls (or, as Sax puts it, is taught “by soft-spoken women who bore” boys).

My child, who, again, has both a vagina and an auditory processing disorder, is desperately frustrated by soft-spoken teachers who talk, talk, talk. Do you have any educational theories that would help her?

...claiming that his high school — where there are twice as many girls on the honor roll as there are boys — discriminated against males

My child also is falling behind academically, as the older grade levels shift completely away from activity based learning and use only what I like to call the "sit down, shut up, and memorize it" method. Even though my child has both a vagina and an auditory processing disorder, could high schools possibly be discriminating against my child too?

By this past fall, Sax says, that number had soared to more than 360, with boys- and girls-only classrooms now established in Cleveland; Detroit; Albany; Gary, Ind.; Philadelphia; Dallas; and Nashville, among other places. A disproportionate number of the schools are in the South (where attitudes toward gender roles tend to be more conservative) or serve disadvantaged kids. Sax claims that “many more are in the pipeline for 2008-2009.”

My child now attends school in the South. Should the school district find ways around the ACLU's specific complaints that won the injunction here, what will happen to children like mine who have both vaginas and auditory processing disorders?

Leonard Sax represents the essential-difference view, arguing that boys and girls should be educated separately for reasons of biology: for example, Sax asserts that boys don’t hear as well as girls, which means that an instructor needs to speak louder in order for the boys in the room to hear her; and that boys’ visual systems are better at seeing action, while girls are better at seeing the nuance of color and texture.

My child doesn't hear well. I mean, her ears hear, but her brain doesn't. She has to sit at the front of the room during lectures, and the school may provide some sort of amplification device for her teachers to speak into. Does this mean there might be something wrong with her vagina or female reproductive organs? I wonder if I will ever be a grandmother!

Like Mr. Sax's boys, my child is really observant and good with action - shockingly so. One time, we were shopping at a video store's sidewalk sale. A man next to me apparently grabbed a stack of CDs, ran to his car, and drove away. I didn't even notice. My daughter, however, saw it happen and got his license plate number to report to the police. Another time, during a hurricane, we evacuated to Texas for two days, then drove to Arkansas to share a hotel room with my mom for a week, then drove home to Louisiana. On the drive from Arkansas to Louisiana, my child insisted that we had been in this particular gas station before. I laughed, explaining that after several days on the road, all gas stations start to look alike. She was insistent, however, and knowing how amazing her visual skills are, I finally checked a map. Sure enough, this one stretch of highway was the same one we'd taken from Texas into Arkansas and we had indeed been in that same gas station before. She is never wrong about what she's seen. Never. On the other hand, she is seldom able to process and retain what she is told.

On that November day in Foley, Ala., William Bender pulled a stool up to a lectern and began reading to his fourth-grade boys from Gary Paulsen’s young-adult novel “Hatchet.” Bender’s voice is deep and calm, a balm to many of his students who lack father figures or else have parents who, Bender says, “don’t want to be parents. They want to be their kids’ friends.” Bender paused to ask one of his boys, who said he was feeling sick, “Are you going to make it, brother?” Then he kept reading. “ ‘The pain in his forehead seemed to be abating. . . .’ What’s abating, gentlemen?” The protagonist of “Hatchet” survives a plane crash and finds himself alone by an insect-infested lake. Bender encouraged his boys to empathize. They discussed how annoying it is, when you’re out hunting, to be swarmed by yellow flies.

Meanwhile, in Michelle Gay’s fourth-grade class, the girls sang a vigorous rendition of “Always Sisters” and then did a tidy science experiment: pouring red water, blue oil and clear syrup into a plastic cup to test which has the greatest density, then confirming their results with the firsthand knowledge that when you’re doing the dishes after your mother makes fried chicken, the oil always settles on top of the water in the sink.

My daughter doesn't really cook, and she doesn't really do dishes. She also hates singing as part of a group, preferring to pound away on African drums instead. The books she enjoys feature lots of action. She would enjoy a book about a tough girl surviving a plane crash. She also likes to go fishing.

Sax credits Bender for helping focus a boy who was given a wrong diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder by telling him that his father, who had left the family, would be even less likely to return if all his mother had to report was the boy misbehaving in school. Sax also goes out of his way to note that Bender had this conversation with the boy “shoulder to shoulder,” not “face to face.” “Just remember this rule of thumb,” Sax tells readers: “A good place to talk with your son is in your car, with you driving and your son in the passenger seat.”

Mr. Bender, my father left me when I was a child. It broke my heart. Do you believe he didn't return because I wasn't being good?

Mr. Sax, it's interesting that you point out the best way to communicate with my child, even though you're prescribing for boys only. I didn't know anyone else was on to this trick! The way my child and I talk about serious stuff is side by side, usually in the car. She doesn't like someone looking her straight in the eyes. She prefers to be busy and talk while she's doing. Because she can not sit still long enough to study, what I've done over the years is to make flashcards when she has an upcoming test and then we walk around the neighborhood, moving and studying at the same time. I first tried this when I read that the Greeks studied while walking and I immediately thought of my fidgety would-be scholar. Do you think it's weird that a person with a vagina needs to study in this manner? The ACLU suit quoted some material of yours suggesting that in single-sex classrooms, boys will get more breaks and be allowed to move around more often than will girls. What about my girl?

Speaking to a group of sixth graders, Sax explained his theory that girls’ hearing ability is much better than boys’, as is girls’ sense of smell. The girls, just on the edge of puberty, sat utterly rapt, seeming to want to understand why their brothers, boy cousins, cute skater-dude neighbors and fathers were so weird.

Well, once again, my child's hearing ability is well below average. At thirteen, her ability to discern phonics is at the level of a typical nine year old, even though she does have a vagina; she lags developmentally in this area, as you suggest boys often do. Also, perhaps girls are seeming rapt, wanting to understand boys, because every single aspect of popular culture tells girls this is what they should care about. Surely "Cosmo" isn't destiny.

For several years before then, the boy had been withdrawn, uninspired and on multiple medications, but he had recently made a big turnaround, which his parents credited to having enrolled him in an all-boys school. Upon hearing this, Sax said to the boy’s mother, “With all due respect, I regard single-sex education as an antiquated relic of the Victorian Era.” To which he says she replied, “With all due respect, Dr. Sax, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” After visiting a handful of single-sex schools, Sax threw himself into studying neurological differences between males and females, eventually focusing on how to protect boys from a syndrome he calls “failure to launch,” which Sax often characterizes as caring more about getting a Kilimanjaro in Halo 3 than performing well in high school or taking a girl on a date. Among his early proposals was that boys should start kindergarten at age 6, a year later than girls, in order to ease the “sense of scholastic incompetence” that so many boys feel early on because they tend to develop later.

It's funny you should say that too! My child didn't do well her first semester of kindergarten. It was when we put her in a school that taught using a variety of active approaches that she finally "launched." For example, she finally learned the sounds associated with the letters of the alphabet when her new teacher bundled up the kids and took them for a walk in the snow to look for things starting with a certain letter. When she got to public middle school and this was no longer the teaching style, we did indeed end up having to hold her back a grade, just as you suggest is often a solution for boys - even though she is a girl.

For boys, he said: “You need to get them up and moving. That’s based on the nervous system, that’s based on eyes, that’s based upon volume and the use of volume with the boys.” Chadwell, like Sax, says that differences in eyesight, hearing and the nervous system all should influence how you instruct boys. “You need to engage boys’ energy, use it, rather than trying to say, No, no, no. So instead of having boys raise their hands, you’re going to have boys literally stand up. You’re going to do physical representation of number lines. Relay races. Ball tosses during discussion.”

It's almost like you've been following my life, Mr. Sax! This is exactly how my child learns and lives, even though she is a girl! I think she must have a nervous system too!

For the girls, Chadwell prescribes a focus on “the connections girls have (a) with the content, (b) with each other and (c) with the teacher. If you try to stop girls from talking to one another, that’s not successful. So you do a lot of meeting in circles, where every girl can share something from her own life that relates to the content in class.”

Um, Mr. Sax? That is a sure route to failure for my child. Any background chattering shuts down her brain's ability to "hear." Also, lots of kids in circles and group processing sounds like static to her. She will become frustrated by the constant static. Her mind will drift. She won't learn anything.

He opens “Why Gender Matters” with two cautionary tales: one about a boy who starts kindergarten at age 5, is given a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. and depression and ends up on a three-drug cocktail of Adderall, Wellbutrin and clonidine...

My child too was diagnosed in kindergarten with A.D.H.D. What helped was not a program specifically for one gender, but an active learning program for boys and girls.

Baby boys prefer to stare at mobiles; baby girls at faces. Boys solve maze puzzles using the hippocampus; girls use the cerebral cortex. Boys covet risk; girls shy away. Boys perform better under moderate stress; girls perform worse. Many academics and progressives tend to find Sax’s views stereotyped and infuriating, yet Sax does not seem to mind.

Well, I do mind, Mr. Sax. My child laughed at risk from the moment she was born. She was fierce and fearless! She was just born that way. As a baby, she didn't prefer staring at mobiles to staring at faces; she was desperately trying to reach out and grab and investigate anything she could see!

One of Sax’s core arguments is that trying to teach a 5-year-old boy to read is as developmentally fraught as trying to teach a 3 1/2-year-old girl and that such an exercise often leads to a kid hating school. This argument resonates with many teachers and parents, who long for the days when kindergarten meant learning how to stand in line for recess, not needing to complete phonics homework. Yet public schools are beholden to state standards, and those standards require kindergartners to learn to read.

My child also couldn't read until well into second grade and was starting to hate school until we found a place that knew how to harness that restless little girl energy.

One of the first things he noticed was that three boys were getting suspended for every girl, “and for the most ridiculous things in the world — a boy would burp, or he’d pass gas, or a girl would say, ‘He hit me.’ ”

A girl would complain about being hit? Well, the nerve!

Under Bailey’s guidance, the boys did two more pages of phonics, and then she jumped to her feet and announced: “Stand up if you need to get your sillies out! Put your hands on your belly. Ha . . . ha, ha . . . ha, ha, ha. Now get ready for a blastoff with me!” Bailey counted down from 10 to 1, crouched down into a squat alongside the boys and then exploded into the air. Then she promptly took her seat. “Sit up tall, fold your hands, three-two-one, here we go.” Bailey held up a page and put her index finger on a red dot. “Boys, let’s read together now. This . . . is . . . my . . . kitten....”

But it was inside Emily Wylie’s A.P. English class where the real social value of single-sex teaching was on display. Ferreira, among 20 other seniors, sat in a circle discussing “Pride and Prejudice.” Wylie asked the girls to call out which characters had which vices and virtues. A serious discussion of whether lust — Lydia’s lust — was a vice or virtue ensued.

My daughter would be bored to tears and staring out the window during this discussion. Can't she just be in the group that gets to stand up, get their sillies out, touch their belly buttons? Even though she has a vagina? It really is best for her education, I promise, even if it doesn't fit your neat little stereotypes.

Thank you again to the heroes of the ACLU! Who else would work to stop these idiots?


Leigh C. said...

Can I please drop-kick this schmuck? Yeah, he might be physically larger than me, but I think I could muster up enough angry adrenaline to handle him like a pigskin.

NOLA radfem said...

Isn't he just amazing?

Please go for the drop-kick!

The other one they quote is Michael Gurian. I knew that guy when I lived on the other side of the country, oddly enough. His B.A. is in Journalism, his M.F.A. is in Creative Writing, and he has no training as a scientist or therapist. Even so, he's written about 15 books on the "biology" of gender (guess that's the creative writing part). The NY Times, like many other media outlets, incorrectly calls him a "family therapist" when, in fact, he is registered in WA State as what is basically a layperson or peer counselor (NO training required, not even a Bachelor's). Even so, Louisiana PAID to send teachers to his Gurian Institute in Colorado, back before the ACLU sued...apparently, they never even checked his credentials first!

Gender segregated education in the public schools might not be awful if it's voluntary and equal. Here, they tried doing it where parents didn't have any choice, and that was a problem. And, of course, as the NY Times article I've posted about makes abundantly clear, they are NOT about teaching girls and boys separately but the same. Instead, they are going for very different things with the two groups, and I have a real problem with that. Even Sax admits that not all boys fit into his model - he calls bookish boys "atypical" and recommends that the male teachers encourage them in sports and roughness. There's no way anybody can claim that is about merely RECOGNIZING's about CREATING IT.

Thanks for the post, Leigh C.