Class outside the box

Published 6:42 am Thursday, October 15, 2009

Roger Dvergsten has been a teacher for more than 30 years, and says he has always been open to change. Even when he learned his school would be splitting four classes in seventh and eighth grades by gender this year, he saw it as a test of research-based ideas.

“I think it might give us more opportunities to do things some genders want to do,” said the agriculture science and industrial technology teacher. “I’ve always enjoyed that age group. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another.”

It may be too early for some staff to voice an opinion for or against the concept, but gender split classes at Grand Meadow Public Schools have certainly put the district on the map for out-of-the-box thinking.

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The idea came into fruition because of the book “Boys Adrift, The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Men,” by gender education expert Dr. Leonard Sax. He believes five factors are contributing to the decline of boys’ performance in school: video games; changing teaching methods; prescription drugs, such as those for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; endocrine disrupters, including chemicals found in plastic bottles that may lower testosterone levels; and devaluation of masculinity.

Grand Meadow staff began reading the book over the summer as part of an effort to tackle a foreseeable challenge: a disproportionate number of boys compared to girls. This year, only two grades — fifth and sixth — have under 50 percent boys. Six grades have 60 percent boys or higher. Next year, the kindergarten is expected to have two boys for every girl.

The issue, superintendent Joe Brown has said, is that the boys have been underperforming academically, and behavioral issues are also common among the males.

As one way to test the theory of separating boys and girls, Grand Meadow is piloting segregating the genders this fall in seventh and eighth grades in art, music, physical education and industrial technology. The school will monitor academic achievement and discipline referrals.

“This is so new, to my knowledge we might be the only other school (in Minnesota addressing gender gaps),” Brown has said.

Art teacher Jesse Smith has only has the girls’ art class this semester; he will have the boys the second semester.

“I thought it sounded like an interested idea,” Smith said of the gender split classes. “I guess I haven’t really done anything different.

“I like trying new things, though,” he said. “I think overall, the consensus is the things we are looking at need to be looked at.”

Phy-ed teacher Chad Burmester said although his curriculum is mostly the same, the students attitudes are different.

“I’ve found with the split classes there’s not as many problems with the boys,” Burmester said. “With the split classes, the girls are more willing to try stuff.”

Music teacher Janet Moe called the split gender classes “an answer to my prayers.”

“For seventh and eighth grade, I thought, ‘fabulous,’” she said.

Moe said it is now easier for her to address behavioral issues, especially with boys, who tend to be more aggressive around other males. She added that the students are also going through a very big transition period in their lives.

Total disciplinary referrals this year in grades 7-8: 11

(Referrals which came from a split gender class: 1)

Students receiving Ds and Fs this year in grades 7-8: 16

(Ds and Fs which came from a split class: 3)

Total attendance

7th grade males: 98 percent

7th grade females: 98.5 percent

8th grade males: 96.33 percent

8th grade females: 96.25 percent

Source: Grand Meadow Public Schools

“They boys’ voices are starting to change,” she said. “They are already very conscious of that. The girls are not being distracted by the boys; they are starting to create an older sound.”

Dvergsten, who teaches mostly male-dominated courses, said he has enjoyed the co-ed classes in recent years “because I get the different flavor — the English teacher always gets that.”

“I will be the first to admit I like working with females,” Dvergsten said. “It fits a bit of my personality; I tend to be a no-nonsense person.”

However, he said, his experience in classes like shop and agriculture is that the boys and girls will be able to work more at a pace that is aligned with their talents and interests.

“There are gender occupations out there, as much as we won’t admit,” Dvergsten said. “You can do more male-oriented things. You can move a little bit faster, a little more competitive.

“Some females maybe even haven’t yet touched a power tool,” he said.