Kindergarten gender groups in Shaler play to strengths
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As adults, some experts theorize, men and women behave so differently they could come from different planets. So it should come as no surprise then, some experts believe boys and girls learn best when they learn differently, too.
It was in response to this idea that a team of teachers in Shaler Area School District created single-sex learning times in the second half of the 2009-10 school year.
It all began when Martin Martynuska, principal of Marzolf Primary School, attended a speech given by Leonard Sax, a psychologist and medical doctor who has written several books on gender differences, including "Why Gender Matters."
Intrigued by Dr. Sax's theories, Mr. Martynuska provided copies of "Why Gender Matters" to members of his teaching staff, suggesting they try to adjust their methods to implement some of the ideas in the book.
After the teachers read the book, they set out to test Dr. Sax's hypotheses using single-sex Titan Time Groups.
Titan Time had been a regular, 40-minute period of the day at Marzolf when, after testing in the fall, kindergartners received special attention to meet their educational needs, whether that involved reading groups, help with math or other support. Last year was the first time students were divided into groups by gender.
Kindergarten teachers Grace Bickert, who has more than 30 years of experience, and David Rigo, who has taught for 11 years, worked with girls and boys, respectively. Lisa Probeck, a reading coach for 15 years, taught a second group of boys.
Dr. Sax is not an educator, and his book did not contain practical applications for his hypothesis, so the teachers developed activities based on his criteria, using their own experiences.
Mr. Rigo and Mrs. Probeck added more movement and physical action into their classrooms to see if the boys would be more successful when competitive activities were part of the curriculum. Ms. Bickert added fantasy and role playing to help girls learn to read and write in a quieter atmosphere. The result was test scores showing gains in every area.
At the end of the year, every student was rated at benchmark level or higher, after taking Phoneme Segmentation and Pseudo-Word Assessments.
This year, the team began working with gender-based groups, again last month, after taking their findings to the June meeting of the school board's education committee showing a PowerPoint presentation.
"The school board was very much impressed with our ideas and suggested getting the other kindergartens involved at the other primary schools," Ms. Bickert said.
Ms. Bickert said she had her doubts about Dr. Sax's gender theory when she started, but was converted by the success of her group of 12 girls. "Every child in each group made significant progress. Honestly, it was beautiful. It worked really well," she said. "Girls at this age are ready to sit and work; they even like having homework. Meanwhile the boys are booming around the room."
To accommodate the girls' needs, Ms. Bickert used the district curriculum and added to it by asking students what interested them. Soon, the kindergartners were reading books about princesses and fairies while dressed like them and celebrating with tea parties. "They had to know all their sight words before they could get their wands and tiaras, and that was a real incentive."
Mr. Rigo read Dr. Sax's book and, using the concepts about brain structure, development and hormones, added more activity to his boys' classroom.
"I developed strategies for boys based on his idea that boys like competition," he explained. He taught the boys their sight words through a modified basketball game and got them to put words together in phrases while running relays. After seeing the impressive gains his students made, Mr. Rigo said: "I thought it was a tremendous success.
"It was very nice to have an opportunity to work with a single-sex learning group," he added. "Traditionally teachers have often taught with the female students in mind, being they are the ones sitting quietly in their seats. Boys can't be as attentive as girls because of their developmental levels."
That being said, Mr. Rigo said, he sees merit in also having both sexes learn together, so boys can take behavior cues from girls, while both groups learn to socialize together. "I'm an optimist," he said. "I think balance is important, but if you can offer both focused learning by gender when needed, and regular classrooms, then you have the best of both worlds." Mrs. Prevost agreed.
"It was an interesting experiment, but I don't think boys and girls need to be taught separately all the time. The same strategies can be used in mixed or same sex groups," she said.
Mrs. Prevost said she expects to have a majority of boys in her reading group next year, no matter what. "It's just always happened that way," she explained. "After screening the kindergartners at the beginning of the year, one of my reading groups will inevitably be all boys."
She also agrees with many of Dr. Sax's theories.
"I think that, depending on the child, girls are more interested in playing school and [in] fine motor activities. Boys are more interested in the gross motor things. But if the boys do some real fun activities, they do just fine and get right up there with the girls," she said.
As one of three sisters and the mother of four girls, Mrs. Prevost said she really enjoys working with boys. "They like competition and learn well when games are incorporated into the classroom," she said. "My classroom was just full of energy and movement." However, she said, boys don't need a man to teach them.
"They just need someone who really enjoys boys, knows how to relate to them and [knows] what makes them tick," she explained.
When she finished Dr. Sax's book, she gave it to her husband, so he can better understand their daughters. "It's a great read for parents as well as people who work with children," she said.
Mr. Martynuska said gender groups will continue to be part of Titan Time when the new school year starts in August.
"We're going to continue to expand upon Dr. Sax's ideas. Dividing the students into gender-based groups enabled us to think about what we have to do instructionally to meet the needs of each group and to help them be successful," he said.
First Published November 4, 2010 5:56 am