Deborah Mulligan has taught 5 to 13 year olds for the past 23 years. During
that time she has taught in and visited schools in Israel, England and
along the east coast of Africa. After extensive investigation, she has
discovered that boys are boys where ever in the world they are. Each share
a common set of masculine attributes whilst at the same time, maintaining
an individuality all of their own. Over the past decade Deborah has noticed
a changing shift in boys' attitudes to academia. They present as frustrated
with current educational practices and not inclined to treat school as an
opportunity to gain access to knowledge. To this end Deborah has instigated
a number of programs which run concurrently throughout the school year. The
following article has been published in several educational journals within
Australia and has attracted 2 television specials.
Fathers are Fine at Rangeville State School
Rangeville State School, situated in Toowoomba on the Darling Downs in
Queensland, draws its 750 students mainly from Anglo Saxon middle class
families. The school has confirmed its commitment to providing a high
standard of educational excellence and equity by offering unlimited
opportunities for fathers to involve themselves in their children's
education- both in and out of the classroom. In an effort to address the
rhetoric surrounding the Boys in Education debate, one of the school's year
7 teachers, Mrs Deborah Mulligan, has instigated a number of programs
which run concurrently throughout the academic year. These programs are
aimed at targeting literacy skill acquisition and relationship building
with peers and significant male adults.
The programs are based on Deborah's philosophy that learning outcomes
a) parents are actively involved in their children's education, and
b) teachers are trained to recognize the general differences in learning
styles between boys and girls, and apply these in the classroom.
c) quality teaching occurs when teachers understand and accept the general
behavioral differences in the genders.
Real Men Read
Concern over the over-feminisation of the teaching work force and the fact
that many boys complete the whole of their primary schooling never having
been taught by a male, or read to by a male, prompted the Real Men Read
initiative. In conjunction with a male colleague in the adjacent room, the
two teachers introduced a scheme that drew on a pool of 55 men. This
involved inviting fathers- or significant male adults- into the classroom
to read to the students. The Dads were asked to bring along a book or a
magazine that they may have read as a child of 12 years and read aloud an
extract from it. This then promoted discussion within the group (led by
the adult male) about the importance of being literate in a functional
sense as well as the pleasure derived from the act of reading as a hobby.
This program has been a great success, with most fathers being more than
willing to move out of their comfort zone and read to a class of thirty
"I was very nervous about having to read to all these children but the
importance of the program far outweighed any reservations I had. After I'd
finished, I realized that these kids soaked up every word I said. They love
to be read to and I felt very proud that I was able to contribute. It's
funny, you don't realize how your actions as a parent impact on your
children," commented one father.
Not all fathers elected to read to the class. A small percentage of them
simply came in and spoke about their life and how reading, for purpose and
pleasure, impacted upon it. These sessions were, in fact, quite poignant as
the men reminisced about their primary school years and how they wished
they'd co-operated more with their teachers and taken their studies more
Many of the fathers took it upon themselves to bring along a range of
genre that they read as both adolescents and adults. Newspapers, poetry
books, biographies and assorted magazines were all introduced. Examples of
each type of genre were acquired from the school library. Two photos were
taken to record the event- one of the father reading or talking to the
class, and another of the father and his child. The photos were displayed
in a prominent place in one of the classrooms. One father (an army
helicopter pilot) even read a piece of poetry that he had written himself.
He then went on to discuss the cathartic effect writing can have if you
suffer undue grief.
When the well of volunteer Dads dried up, students then wrote to males in
the wider community. The letter explained the program and invited
participation. The response was overwhelming with 75% involvement from
those contacted. Feedback from the students indicate that the most popular
guests were those closer to the boys in age- ie under 30.
The influence these speakers had on their audience should not be
underestimated. In single sessions, these men were able to discuss not only
the importance of reading per se but the necessity of appropriate behavior
both in and out of school. The same messages, hammered by teachers almost
daily, took on a new perspective when presented by different faces. Even
more gratifying were the guest speakers themselves who so kindly donated
their time. Not all of these men were public speakers, however they each
took up the gauntlet of the challenge of speaking with the students.
In general, the children are used to having their mothers participate in
their academic life. These women are very visual around the school campus.
Many mothers, when able, involve themselves in parent/child reading
sessions, especially in the early to middle primary years. This involvement
seems to diminish- for various reasons, in the upper school. To have Dad-
or a significant male- in the room is a real novelty for most of these
students. These men are great role models for the boys as far as the
acquisition of literacy skills and life skills is concerned. Many teachers
read to their students and that's great but we must be careful not to send
out the message that reading is something only teachers- and/or women- do.
The program concluded for the year with a Real Men Eat barbecue held at the
school. All the participants from the Real Men Read program were invited.
The luncheon was well attended with the students sitting with their invited
guests. It was heartening to see the fathers networking and chatting about
their sons and the positive impact of the Real Men Read program. No formal
evaluation of the program has been given to the adult male participants as
Single Gender Classes
There is sufficient evidence to support the notion that boys are not
achieving at school as much as their female counterparts. Clearly teachers
must take on the challenge of righting this wrong and be flexible enough to
explore new teaching strategies.
As well as the Real Men Read program, the two teachers have also divided
their two classes into single gender classes two days a week. This was
initially met with a bit of resistance by the boys who interestingly
claimed they "...needed the girls in the same room to calm them down." This
program has been operating since early in February and has been quite
successful in providing meaningful learning outcomes for both genders. The
dynamics of the two classes are totally different. The boys are more vocal
and like to compete for the teacher's attention. This detracts from the
girls' learning who are generally less competitive in the classroom and
like to chat quietly amongst themselves to problem solve.
The results of this 'experiment' have not been as dramatic as expected. It
was assumed that there would be a dramatic difference in the groups as far
as noise level and co-operation are concerned. Whilst it was certainly true
that in the first few weeks the girls' class was far more quiet and work-
oriented, as time has gone by, the boys are becoming quieter and the girls
are becoming more vocal! Both are generally on task, although the boys'
class exhibits more pockets of inattentive behavior (groups of 2 or 3) than
the girls. The boys generally are working well and more on task without the
distraction of showing off in front of the girls.
Father Son/ Father Daughter Fun Days
In an attempt to address the theory that both boys and girls, but in
particular the former, need to spend more quality time with the significant
adult male in their lives, Deborah organized a Father/Son Fun Day and a
Father/ Daughter Fun Day hosted by a local education adventure group at
their centre. These occurred on consecutive Sundays in May. The number of
fathers and their children involved was encouraging. Out of a pool of 94
parents, 62 fathers came along with their children. Interestingly enough,
the numbers were equivalent for both days. The activities were designed to
encourage positive relationship building with the maximum amount of
enjoyment for all. Activities included a 'Storm the Fort' flour bomb fight,
go karting, indoor rock climbing and mud slides.
The aim of the day was to encourage fathers to spend time with their
children and build a shared memory of time spent working together to
achieve a desirable outcome. Response from the day was very positive.
Fathers are obviously keen to spend time with their sons and daughters.
This day out was a great experience and one that I'm sure both parties will
refer to in years to come. Not only do the boys and their Dads benefit from
the interaction involved, but teachers reap the benefits of teaching boys
who have sound, stable relationships with the men in their lives. Feedback
surveys were gratifying with a number of Dads expressing their feeling of
emotion on belaying their children- "I enjoyed watching Jessica climb the
rock wall and her faith in that she was safe with myself on the end of the
rope." Actually the girls showed more confidence in their fathers belaying
them than the boys did. Often the boys were unsure of their fathers'
ability, and needed to be reassured that their Dad knew what he was doing.
"Have you got me Dad" and "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" were
frequent questions. None of the girls asked this.
Alternatively, it was interesting to observe that in the Storm the Fort
activity, the fathers of the boys were more inclined to discipline their
sons than were the fathers of the girls
An unexpected outcome from the day was that Dads reported they were glad of
the opportunity afforded to meet with other fathers and network. As one man
commented, "I personally got a lot out of this day. For a lot of us fathers
it was the first time we had met, which is a shame as most of the boys have
been all the way through school together. I wish this activity had been
around when my oldest son was in year 7..."
In the hurly burly of our contemporary lifestyles, trying to balance the
scales between work and family commitments is often a trial. Fathers in
particular, many times through no fault of their own, seem to miss out on
these formative years of their child's academic and social growth. As
another father commented- "Sometimes as a father you can go off track and
don't realize the value of togetherness. Being together and working
together as a team was a valuable experience."
This experience was followed up with a dinner for interested parents at the
local golf club. A guest speaker, educational consultant Dr Rex Stoessiger,
was engaged (at Deborah's recommendation) to promote further discussion of
the issues and the greater role men can play in the academic and social
lives of their children. Over 100 parents attended. After listening to Rex
and participating in a question time, parents were then asked to fill in
their place mats which contained questions pertaining to their perception
of the problem of boys in education and what they thought of Rangeville's
efforts to grapple with the problem. Feedback was generally positive.
The Biddulphian notion of contemporary society's lack of 'rites of passage'
for young boys is an interesting one and worth exploration. To this end, it
is envisaged that next year Deborah will run a Father/ Son overnight camp
at the same venue. The plan is to incorporate activities such as an after
dinner walk in the dark followed by a bonfire on the Saturday night. Sunday
activities would include the mud slide, rock wall climbing and a literature
task (run along the same lines as the one for year 4).
Mentoring in the Classroom
This was attempted but abandoned due to lack of available mentors. Many
individual men and organizations approached thought the concept was a great
idea but could not translate this into actual help in the classroom due to
pressures of work, time commitments etc. On reflection, perhaps the idea
of what was envisioned by the mentoring process was unrealistic. It was
hoped that males would be coming into the classroom on a regular basis to
model acceptable classroom behavior and spend half hour time periods with
a mentee at least once a week. However, on reflection, in the unsettled
year 7 timetable when there are so many disruptions to the school day,
perhaps the mentors would have been just one more 'thing' to be worked
around and would lose their educational value. I am happy that the Real Men
Read program satisfies a need for male role modeling.
Year 4 Father/ Son Day
Deborah believes that year 4 is a crucial year in the life of a primary
student. Usually by this time, they have undergone 4 years (preschool
included) of structured schooling and they are no longer of a mind set to
co-operate with teachers and/ or other students if they feel that school is
offering them nothing. This reaction is due to a number of factors. Year 4
class sizes are bigger, going from 25 in the infant grades to 30 or more in
the middle and upper. Also in year 4, teachers are expecting more
independent work from students and more pressure is applied by the
curriculum. At this time the acquisition of literacy skills is paramount.
To this end, Deborah conducted a father/son day in October along the same
lines as the one held for year 7, although with a modified schedule. Pre
lunch activities included the rock climbing (with fathers belaying sons),
and the mud slide. After lunch the fathers and sons found a quiet spot to
sit and wrote a factual or fictional text inspired by the events of the
day. The pairs then came together as a whole group and shared their
stories which were read by the boys.
Outcomes of this type of 'literacy camp' reflect both the short and long
term aims of the day. Obviously the short terms aims include a shared
literacy task between father and son, as well as overall enjoyment of the
day. Long term aims include fathers being less intimidated by their sons'
academic pursuits- which may in turn foster a more pro-active interest in
his work at school.
Feedback from the day has been positive, with comments from the fathers
along the same lines as those from the year 7 dads. Opinions about the
literacy circle were all of the same mind ie that it was an enjoyable one-
on -one task. Sharing will be done in smaller groups next year rather than
the group as a whole. This is due to the fact that a few boys were reticent
about reading their stories in front of such a large group. By dividing
into smaller friendship groups, it is hoped that the boys will feel more
Deborah Mulligan has a Master of Education specializing in Children's
Literature and is beginning her Doctorate in the year 2001. She has
conducted workshops at conferences throughout the South East corner of
Queensland. She is keen to hear from anyone who has programs operating
within their school targeting boys. She can be reached at-
Rangeville State School
32 High St
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