Minding the gap
September 5, 2008
ASPEN ” In Dee Searing’s writing class at Aspen Elementary School, nobody has to sit in their seats. And students never have to write about what they did on their summer vacation.
Instead, they’re allowed to write about cartoons and adventures, to draw pictures before they write, and to lie on a bright pastel rug if it helps them come up with better words.
Today’s 3rd grade class is spilling some ink about heavy machinery and demolition in their writers’ notebooks. Conveniently, the demolition of the Aspen Middle School is happening just outside their window.
Searing walks through the room, coaxing individual girls to read aloud.
“Oh my gosh, you need to hear Josephine’s,” she says, encouraging one girl to read aloud.
The boys don’t need any encouragement.
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“I have a really good one,” says one boy. Another asks to read his twice, in case some students didn’t hear it the first time.
Meanwhile, Jozie Wille looks down at her page, speaking almost in a whisper. Searing encourages her to read louder, and her voice rises imperceptibly.
“You monster,” she whispers. “You machine, you monster. You always want more.”
Josephine Dominguez reads a bit louder: “You tear the school like a cookie.”
Durgan Soderberg reads so loudly and clearly he doesn’t even need to stand up to be heard: “You little bobcat ” you’re doing all the work and the big diggers aren’t doing anything. Go make them do some work,” he reads.
Walk into any writing classroom at the elementary school this year and you are likely to see a new kind of class ” one in which the teacher encourages students who want to write about snakes and superheroes, or read aloud from a Captain Underpants book, and gives students the freedom to lie on the floor if they want.
At the other end of the age spectrum, two Aspen High School teachers are piloting a new writing program that gives students space to explore their creativity outside the literary essay. In workshops, students are learning to develop characters or play with time ” not just analyze symbolism in Macbeth.
At both schools, the new teaching style is an attempt to reach all students. But one of the most important goals, say teachers, is to reach the district’s boys.
Once again, this year, boys lagged behind girls in writing skills, at least according to the state-mandated CSAP test. In fact, boys tested below girls in all grade levels this year, sometimes by as much as 27 percent.
It’s not just a local trend. According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, administered by the Department of Education, girls have scored about 20 points higher on their writing exam than boys for the last 20 years.
Searing, the elementary school writing specialist, cites the different needs of boys and girls as the current hot topic among writing teachers.
“Basically, it ends up not being one-size-fits-all,” she explained. “That never worked in education anyway ” so why would it work in writing?”
Twenty or so years ago, if you walked into an Aspen School District classroom, you might have seen hair scrunchies, pegged jeans and blue eyeshadow ” and probably a teacher worried more about engaging girls in math and science than engaging boys in writing.
The teacher might have known that, in 1973, only 7 percent of full-time science and engineering faculty in the United States were women. Or perhaps she had read the 1992 study, “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” by the American Association of University Women.
Fortunately, the teacher didn’t have to close the gender gap on her own. Soon Colorado organizations sprang up to provide curriculum, studies, career fairs, camps and workshops to help girls excel at math and science. Nationwide, dozens of nonprofits emerged or devoted resources to the gender gap.
According to a study led by psychologist Janet Hyde and published this July in the journal “Science,” the efforts may have paid off. After studying exam scores on federally-mandated exams for 7 million students between 3rd and 10th grade, researchers found no significant statistical difference in average math scores between girls and boys in the United States.
Hyde’s earlier research, in the 1990s, had shown that girls matched boys in math until high school, when boys took the lead.
In Aspen, however, that high school math gap may still exist. In 2007, ninth-grade boys were 10 percent more likely to be proficient in math than girls. (Because the 9th-grade class is especially small, however, the difference translates to about two students.) In 10th grade, boys were 13 percent more likely to be proficient in math. Data has not yet been released for students in higher grades, as they take the ACT rather than the CSAP.
Superintendent Diana Sirko attributed a gap ” if one does exist ” to the slowly changing climate around girls in science or engineering professions. As girls become more and more likely to enter these traditionally male fields, she predicted they will become more likely to take ” and excel in ” advanced math classes, thereby closing the gap. Sirko’s theory matches that of Hyde, who authored the recent article in “Science.”
Aspen High School math teacher Jamie Hozack said he hasn’t focused on the gender gap as much as the idea that everyone learns math differently. While he noted that gender is an “extremely convenient and visible” way of categorizing learners, he prefers to examine each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
By contrast, writing teachers and administrators ” while they’re all careful to say there are exceptions ” seem to accept the idea of a gender difference when it comes to writing. Moreover, most argue that understanding the difference helps them serve all their students.
As attention shifts from the math gap to the writing gap, the question being asked by many teachers and researchers is this: Is the writing gap new ” or did it just go unnoticed for many years?
Aspen High School principal Charlie Anastas says the writing gap really became clear in the district in 1997, when its students began taking the CSAP test. But he speculated that the gap may have always existed. As for why, local educators offer a number of possible reasons:
Theory One: Boys and girls have different relationships with language.
With the caveat that he was generalizing about high school boys and girls, Anastas offers the following example of the differences between his son and daughter.
A conversation with his son, he said, might go something like the following:
“How was the game?”
“Was it pretty exciting?”
The same conversation with his daughter might go on for 10 or 15 minutes, said Anastas.
Sirko called these relationships to language a “difference in interest.” She noted that if a teacher asks a group of children to write a paragraph on something, girls will be more verbose and descriptive, while boys tend to “cut to the chase.”
Searing talked about how often boys will look at her and wonder why she wants them to write more than two lines on a topic.
“‘You asked me to write a story. I did,’ they’ll say,” said Searing.
Theory Two: Girls try harder on standardized exams or classroom assignments, even if they don’t like them.
Anastas said he can’t help but notice, when he proctors standardized exams, that the boys are more likely to write one paragraph and decide they’re finished, even though the time isn’t up. In general, he added, many high school students are “over” the CSAP by the time they enter high school ” and boys are more likely to have this attitude than girls.
“A lot of times girls write for the teacher, and boys write for themselves,” said Searing.
Both Searing and Aspen High School English Chair Cerena Thomson noted that CSAP prompts are often less-than-engaging for boys.
“I don’t know that we have an accurate test that shows boys don’t write as well as girls,” said Thomson.
She noted that most occupations value not literary analysis but strong and concise writing that communicates a specific point.
“How often do we really test that? And if we did, would girls beat boys?” she asked.
TheoryThree: Boys need to move around in order to learn.
“They need more wiggle room,” says Searing emphatically, explaining that a rigid environment doesn’t help boys learn to write. That’s why, in her classroom, students always have the option to grab a clipboard and lie on the rug.
Carolyn Williams, an independent college counselor and former English teacher at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale noted that girls tend to come to high school more ready than boys to “sit quietly and listen.” As an English teacher, she worked hard to create project-based learning and active lessons in order to engage boys.
Theory Four: Boys are more likely to want to write about violence, superheroes and bodily functions ” topics that teachers often discourage.
Searing argued that writing teachers may need to learn to “flex a little” in order to allow boys to write about subjects that interest them.
“Respect what boys bring to the table,” she advised, quoting Ralph Fletcher, an expert on boys and writing.
She acknowledges that learning to accept what boys truly want to write about was difficult at first, especially when violence was involved. But now she works with boys to help them think about their audience. If they’re writing for their grandmother, she explains, violence may not be appropriate. But if they’re writing for themselves, imagining a semi-violent practical joke might be fine.
Theory Five: Boys often struggle with the details
“I do a lot more chasing down of boys for organizational details than I do females,” said CRMS’ Williams of high school students.
And Searing explained younger boys are sometimes reluctant to return to something they’ve already finished and add detail or fix punctuation. They’d rather move on to the next assignment.
“You really have to do a bit of a song and dance to get boys to revise,” she said.
Explaining that the district tries to look for ” and address ” trends over time, Anastas said it may be time for the high school to “roll up our sleeves” and get to work on the writing gap between girls and boys.
“You know, I have to say,” said Anastas, looking particularly at the 27 percent gap between male and female 10th-grade students, “this is a glaring gap.”
But he also added that the gap tends to fluctuate from year to year, grade to grade and kid to kid, making it difficult to address. In the 9th grade, for example, girls were only 9 percent more likely to be proficient than boys.
But according to English department chair Cerena Thomson, the department has already begun training its teachers to help boy writers.
Two summers ago, Thomson and another teacher received an Aspen Education Foundation (AEF) grant to attend a Colorado Language Arts Society training in Denver. Ralph Fletcher, a well-known advocate for boy writers, was the keynote speaker. Hearing him catalyzed the two to attend a two-week training with the Colorado Writing Project this past summer.
“That has changed the way I think about writing,” said Thomson, who is now teaching workshop-style courses that give students more choice, more time in class to write and more publication opportunities.
“There are some boys who keep a journal, of course,” she explained. “But girls write for themselves. Having real publication opportunities and authentic prompts and reasons to write makes a difference for boys … It’s that jumping-through-the-hoop writing that I think they really struggle with.”
She and Marybeth Thompson are teaching the writing workshops as a pilot program this year, with the hopes of expanding the program next year.
“That, to me, is probably the biggest change in the department right now ” is that we really are trying to focus on writing and the workshop approach,” said Thomson.
So far, she said, her students are suddenly talking about how fast the 90-minute classes go by.
“It’s not the usual read-this-and-do-that, boring class that I dread so much,” wrote one student about the class this week, she said.
At the other end of the spectrum, four elementary school teachers also recently attended the Colorado Writing Project training, thanks to an AEF grant. Upon their return, they held a training for 15 elementary-school teachers. AEF also purchased the book “Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices” by Ralph Fletcher for any teacher who wanted it.
Nationwide, education professionals worry about whether testing gaps translate into achievement problems for students later on. So far, what is clear is that girls tend to out-achieve boys ” in general ” by the time they graduate from high school.
According to Williams, 60 percent of females nationwide go to college, while only 40 percent of males do. Admissions counselors say it’s just not as cool, culturally, for boys to be smart anymore, she explained.
At Aspen High School, 80 percent of the valedictorians and salutatorians in the last four years were girls. And last year, 77 percent of students in the top 10 percent of the graduating class were females.
And yet, 96 percent of girls at Aspen High School went to college last year ” and so did 96 percent of boys.
Aspen High School college counselor Kathy Klug says she thinks Aspen has bucked the national college trend because it has focused hard on figuring out what boys need.
Klug described her job, some days, as “chasing boys down the hall, trying to get them engaged with the process.” Girls tend to be more organized about their future, she said.
Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to ignore the college application process without some coaxing.
In general, said Aspen High School college counselor Susan Walter, boys arrive at high school less mature than girls. But by senior year, she said, the gap is staring to close, she said. Independent college counselor Carolyn Williams concurs.
As for when the gender gap finally closes, there is only speculation. One thing, however, is clear: The gender gap still favors males when it comes to salaries. According to the website simplyhired.com, Aspen males, on average, still earn nearly $10,000 more than their female counterparts.