All-male English classes give boys a leg-up


By Kristen Shane


“Okay guys, listen up.”


It’s Thursday, 1:30 p.m., and Dan Ogilvie is well into teaching the back half of the day’s applied Grade 10 English class at Kincardine District Secondary School.


Ogilvie stands before a projector screen at the front of the classroom. Seated in desks surrounding him are 17 teenaged boys. They wear hats, zip-up hoodies, jeans and t-shirts. Some are hunched over their desks, scribbling notes in binders. Others look at Ogilvie intently and listen.


Class will be over in 20 minutes, but aside from the odd yawn, you couldn’t tell. No one’s inching for the door.


On today’s agenda: the origin stories and character traits of Batman’s enemies. The young men are reading a Batman-based graphic novel, like a long-form comic book.


On the screen, a cartoon drawing of the villain The Riddler sneers devilishly at the students.


“He actually can’t do a crime without leaving a clue,” explains Ogilvie. “So he gets caught all the time.”


A few students chuckle as their teacher explains The Riddler’s fatal flaw.


Ogilvie might not have gotten that level of reaction if he’d been teaching To Kill a Mockingbird or Twelfth Night.


Those classic high school texts aren’t on this year’s syllabus. The students in this all-male English class are set to read Acceleration by Graham McNamee, a mystery novel about a teenaged boy determined to stop a serial killer. Their end-of-year project is on sports. They started off learning about heroes of Greek mythology.


“The things he teaches us, it works for guys,” says Ray Friolet, fiddling with the pages of a thick newspaper Ogilvie just plopped on his desk. Every Thursday, the teens read newspapers for 20 minutes.


Like many guys his age, English isn’t Friolet’s favourite subject. But he says he likes this class.


“There’s not as many distractions, I guess,” he says. “It’s just easier when there are all guys around. I think the kids feel more comfortable in the class.”


That strong comfort level can translate into more class participation, says Ogilvie.


“In general, you get a little better effort than you would normally,” he says of the all-male class. “They participate out loud in class.”


Keith Colley agrees. He teaches a second Grade 10 all-male applied English class running this semester at KDSS.


“I think they’re definitely more engaged with the classroom learning. And they’re more willing to volunteer to read. I think there’s a lot less social worry,” he says.


Worry that the girl a boy likes will make fun of him later if he trips over a word while reading aloud in class, for instance.


Teacher Keith Colley, left, talks to students in his all-boys Grade 10 applied English class late last month about the novel they’re reading aloud in class. (Kristen Shane photo)


These Grade 10s may be more eager to participate, less distracted and more engaged in the material, but can an all-male class breed better standardized literacy test scores? The young men’s educators hope so.


It’s one of the main reasons why KDSS tried out its first all-male applied English class last year, under then-principal Dan Hobler.


Gender-divided classrooms aren’t a new concept. All-male and all-female private and Catholic schools have been available in many larger communities for years. Closer to home, KDSS and other local schools already teach some segregated physical education classes.


Recently, more and more male students were signing up for applied English, a more practical, hands-on kind of learning than the theory-based academic stream. In fact, this year, the males in Grade 10 applied English at KDSS outnumber the females by more than double: about 35 to 15.


“The boys in the applied pathway were struggling the most to pass the (Ontario Secondary School) Literacy Test. We were looking for anything to give them a little bit of an edge,” says Hobler, by phone from his office where he is now principal at West Hill Secondary School in Owen Sound.


Although it’s not true for all of them, boys tend to learn differently from girls, says Hobler.


The all-boys class seeks to provide the environment and materials to match the students’ dominant learning style.


That’s why Ogilvie’s class is learning about villains from Batman comics and not Atticus Finch.


“The course is actually tailored to what we’re interested in,” says student Rob Clemens. “To have a class that teaches to what our interests are, it’s actually really nice.”


And it’s not just the course’s content that’s male-friendly.


Down the hall, the boys in Colley’s class are taking turns reading a novel seated in a circle at one side of the room. They sit on two comfy couches and chairs. They don’t use their desks during the whole 75-minute class. A couple rows of flat-screened Mac computers line the back walls. A camera tripod is set up not far away. In one corner, a sports jersey and rugby banner hang on the wall. This is the school’s media room, where Colley typically teaches.


“It’s designed…to create a different kind of learning environment,” says Hobler. “Our hope was to change the environment to allow for more group connection.”


Seated on a couch in the school’s media room, students in Keith Colley’s all-boys Grade 10 applied English class follow along in the novel Acceleration as a classmate reads aloud. (Kristen Shane photo)


Hobler realizes the concern about classifying all of one gender as having the same interests.


“That is an over-generalization. But at this point, it’s a really nice place to start,” he says.


And, if the test scores are any indication, the new learning technique might be working.


All Ontario high school students must pass a standardized literacy test to graduate. Students are first eligible to write the test in Grade 10.


Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test results have shown that about 10 per cent more first-time eligible fully-participating KDSS females pass than their male classmates. A similar trend has been documented at a school board and provincial level.


Last April, during the first year the school ran an all-male Grade 10 applied English class, the same number of males and females passed. It was the first time in five years the two sexes were equally successful.


Ogilvie taught that all-male class last year.


He’s happy the boys bucked a trend and did well, but wary of thinking too much of the results. “It’s only one year. So, we’ll see how this year goes,” he says.


Hobler is equally cautiously optimistic. He’s hopeful the all-male concept contributed to the extraordinary test results, but can’t say so definitively.


“A trend takes more than a year,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons why we would see that success.”


It could be another aspect of the class that sparked the young men’s interest. Maybe, the good results had nothing to do with the all-male factor, it was just because the students were taught differently.


Hobler was to outline some of those reasons at a presentation on the KDSS boys literacy pilot project at a province-wide conference in Toronto, April 19, on how to help at-risk students.


Whatever the reason for the young men’s success, this year KDSS is throwing a new element into the experiment: an all-female class.


“It’s a similar kind of thing,” says Hobler. “You’re recognizing the kind of literacy girls respond to and that’s what you’re providing in class.”


Teacher Erin Armstrong asked her students at the start of the semester what they were interested in doing. They’re reading a book with a female protagonist, studying newspapers and poetry.


Students in KDSS’s first all-female Grade 10 applied English course show off the female-focused novel they’re reading this semester, Alexandria of Africa. Back row from left: Grace Small, Corey Burrows, Jessica Winterburn, Kristyn Miller, Nancy Collins, Brandy Walker and teacher Erin Armstrong. Front row from left: Celina King, Ashley Middelkamp, Sarah Leyden and Abbey Gibson. (Kristen Shane photo)


The material may be different from the all-male class, but the benefits are the same.


“(Our) confidence level is better in this class because we don’t have to worry about trying to impress a boy,” exclaims Celina King, in a class conversation about the all-female concept late last month.


“The thing I notice the most is the class participation. They’re all very keen to participate,” says Armstrong afterward.


That day, girls were reading aloud love poems they’d written. They might have been more embarrassed to take a turn if there were guys in the room, says Armstrong.


Grey Highlands Secondary School in Flesherton may try an all-female class next year, following Kincardine’s lead, says Hobler.


KDSS led the way with the all-male concept as well. This year, OSCVI in Owen Sound and Grey Highlands both started boys classes patterned partly after Ogilvie’s model.


Teachers and principals are anxiously awaiting the results of last month’s 2010 literacy tests before the end of this school year.


But early indications show the strategy is working.


Most students in the OSCVI Grade 9 all-male English class passed the course, said Hobler.


And last year’s KDSS literacy test results are a good sign, for a group that typically struggles in English, he says.


“We hit our targets, which were: Let’s try and get as many people as possible through the literacy test, and, probably more importantly, let’s get as many kids enjoying English.”