Are you thinking or not?

Published 9:50 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

“There’s just something going on with males. I don’t know what it is, if guys don’t want to compete or girls are just stepping up more to take on leadership positions. It’s a noticeable problem.”—Tom Nelson, recently retired superintendent of South Washington County Schools

Tom was an Austin boy. He graduated from Austin High in 1963 and was featured in a Sunday Pioneer Press headline: “Are boys falling behind?” The article looks at how boys reading and writing skills are lagging behind girls, and boys seem less engaged in school, according to teachers.

At Carver Elementary in Maplewood, Mr. Mealey, a Maplewood teacher, proposed a boys-only experiment “to tackle an achievement gap between girls and boys.”

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The boys in Mealey’s class can stand at tables or sprawl across the floor, as long as they get their work done. They also take 10- or 15-minute breaks to run laps around the gym or play a quick game of dodge ball.  Mealey maintains that the activity “helps focus them in the classroom.”

This was recently brought to Tom Nelson’s attention, when Nelson was at Park High School’s senior awards event, where he noticed, “all 10 of the 2009 class’s top academic performers, were girls.” He then called Woodbury, the districts other high school. At Woodbury seven of the top graduates were girls.

South Washington County isn’t alone. According to the article, the girls at many east metro high schools dominated the lists of top graduates.

So what about Austin High? I notice the great number of men running for the board and only one woman. Must the future of our education be mostly left up to “the good ol’ boys.” What is Austin doing to improve education other than add administrators?

I remember a few years back there was an educational presentation at Ellis facilitated by women staff. First, there was a general discussion in the cafeteria led by a woman — and introduction.

Then, parents broke into other discussion groups in classrooms. There weren’t any male teachers there as a part of the presentation. I don’t think any of the board members were present either.

Of course parents play a role in this too by arming their kids with the ability to text message one another in certain classes. I guess because students find this more interesting than what the teacher is presenting. Maybe it is.

I also think back to my first days as a teacher at Banfield, back in the early 60s, a fresh graduate of Mankato State and how ill-prepared I was for the job. The practice teaching I did in Albert Lea was supposed to help prepare me, and it did some but I should have visiting classrooms in Mankato while I was a student to see “how it’s done.”

My mother taught country school. My brother and sister both taught. I was next in line influenced by Edith Morey, my fifth grade teacher. I often tell people that I think I could have quit school after completing fifth grade and in some ways maybe I did.

I’m not sure what direction education is heading today or what is being offered in education to make it more meaningful. I hope something more vital than text messaging.

My father used to share something in Czech that translated to: “You thinking, or are you not thinking?” I’m thinking that thinking has perished or maybe it is alive and well in school. I think this is more likely in the arts programs.

Tom Mealey uses physical activity, team competition and positive role models to boost the academic achievement of his male students.

Incidentally Tom Nelson, who too, was mentioned earlier, was responsible for developing the Charter School Program under Gov. Rudy Perpich. Many of you, I suspect, had “Mr. Nelson” at Ellis for a teacher who went on to become a state senator and then a principal.

I remember talking to a charter school student at one of the first charter schools we stopped at the summer we were visiting and her enthusiasm for the charter school.

In closing, I read the other day about the long-term effect this war has had on Kenneth Eastridge, who served in the military as an infantry specialist, who says: “The Army pounds it into your head until its instinct: Kill everybody,” he said. “And you do. Then they just think you can just come home and turn it off.”

He is now serving 10 years for killing another American soldier.