Single-sex schools `better for teenaged boys and girls’

Boys and girls in single-sex settings average better year 12 results, with TER scores 15 to 22 percentile points higher than the scores of students in coeducational settings, according to Melbourne research.

The gap exists even after allowing for different school sectors and students’ differing abilities.

Boys and girls in single-sex settings were also more likely to be better behaved in the classroom and to find their school enjoyable, their curriculum relevant and teachers responsive, said the study’s author, Ken Rowe, principal research fellow with
the Australian Council for Educational Research.

“The reasons for such differences are complex,” said Dr Rowe. “But research evidence suggests that coeducational settings are limited in their capacity to accommodate the large differences in cognitive, social and developmental growth rates of girls and boys between the ages of 12 and 16.”

He attributes the difference partly to “the two-thirds rule”: “Two-thirds of the teacher’s time in a coeducational environment, regardless of the gender of the teacher, is spent managing either the ego-tripping behavior of the boys or the very aggressive, assertive behaviors of the girls, which means less time is spent on task.”
Dr Rowe said boys and girls were out of synch with each other as teens because of differences in physiology and cognitive development, with girls maturing earlier. “So the girls have to deal with pretty juvenile, male macho kind of behaviors.” There was less showing off in single-sex classrooms, he said.

The news contradicts the prevailing wisdom on schools and gender, which was that girls performed better in single-sex environments away from boys’ rowdiness and boys did best in co-ed settings, where girls’ behavior helped improve the boys’.

But Dr Rowe warned parents not to automatically choose single-sex schooling on the basis of his findings, saying that teacher quality, not sex-segregation, was the most influential factor affecting students’ outcomes. Single-sex settings accounted for 10 to 12 per cent of the residual variance in outcomes while teaching quality accounted for 59 per cent, he said.

He pointed out that Melbourne’s top schools, which are Jewish, are coeducational but their students excel because of the quality of teachers and the schools’ culture of learning. “It also depends on `horses for courses’; some children thrive in single-sex environments and some students do better in a co-ed environment,” he said.

Dr Rowe based his research on several studies including an analysis of the achievements of 270,000 year 12 students in 53 VCE subjects over six years (1994-1999). The findings that single-sex students were more satisfied were based on longitudinal studies of more than 16,000 students from 200 government, Catholic and independent primary and secondary schools.

First published in The Age.

Classroom conflict

Making education an equally rewarding experience for both sexes is a huge challenge

He’s 13 years old and he hates school. He told an interviewer who was studying boys and education: “My English teacher wants me to write about my feelings, my history teacher wants me to give my opinions, and my science teacher wants me to write about my views on the environment! I don’t know what my feelings, opinions and views are, and I can’t write about them.

“Anyway, they’re none of their bloody business! I hate school! I only wish I could write about things I’m interested in, like sport and military aircraft.”

Adolescent angst? Or a pithy summation of the ways in which boys and schools are increasingly going their separate ways, to boys’ eternal detriment?
In the ’70s, the panic was about girls’ performance. Now the average girl outstrips the average boy: she reads earlier and more widely, works harder, behaves better, stays at school longer and, when it comes to the VCE crunch, scores higher marks in most subjects.

Now parents and teachers – and politicians, who have launched a federal parliamentary inquiry into the issue – are worried about boys. The students who are most disruptive in class and least interested in work tend to be boys; while that is not new, the problem is said to have worsened, with boys increasingly “disengaged” from school.

The alarm has been compounded by the gap between girls’ and boys’ retention rates and their achievement at VCE level; girls do better.

Boys find teachers even more tiresome than teachers find boys. A recent survey by Flinders University researchers of 1800 boys in secondary school found even high achievers think schoolwork boring and repetitive. They said teachers were lazy and authoritarian and liked girls better just because they were obedient and easy to manage.

Many boys who said they aimed to stay at school had left by the time researchers returned later in the year. At one school, all the year 11 boys failed to return after a term break. “All but a small number of the boys consistently, emphatically and despairingly talked about their achievement problems primarily in terms of `bad teachers’ who are given too much power,” reported the study.

But concerned teachers are often upset and bewildered by their failure to engage boys, says Richard Fletcher, manager of the men and boys program at the Family Action Centre at Newcastle University. He told the parliamentary inquiry of a New South Wales high school so desperate to get boys involved that it set up a cadet corps. The deputy principal called Mr Fletcher out to the yard the day of the first muster: “There were 16 girls and two boys. He had tears in his eyes …”
In the classroom, boys are also contending with the newfound confidence – if not arrogance – of girls. Ken Rowe, principal research fellow with the Australian Council for Educational Research, quotes a female year 9 coordinator in a large coed secondary college as saying: “The girls give (the boys) a very hard time. The `sisterhood’ are bitchy, socially and sexually aggressive, and nastily intolerant of the boys’ less competent verbal and academic skills.”
So why are boys in strife, and what can be done to help them?

Boys develop differently to girls. Even as babies, girls are ahead in their communication skills, gesturing to others more often than boys and in more complicated ways, according to Berenice Nyland, lecturer in early childhood at RMIT. She says boys also have higher muscle mass and energy levels, making many less suited to sitting still and paying attention for long periods.

Boys are more likely than girls to start school with problems in “auditory processing”, according to Mr Rowe, of the educational council. He heard one teacher tell a six-year-old boy: “I want you to go to the grey cupboard in the corner, pick up the green pencil from the top shelf and the purple book from the third shelf, close the door, go to our desk, get out your workbook and come and sit down with me.” The child stood mute and bewildered.

Mr Rowe says many teachers do not realise they have to offer information in small grabs and speak slower for young boys than for young girls.

He says girls on average remain two years ahead of boys in language skills until both are university age. By grade two, girls’ vocabulary is 40per cent larger than boys’, and by 14 they have read six times more material than boys. Boys are four times as likely to have reading problems and make up 90 per cent of the children diagnosed with attention deficit problems.

Boys do better on tests involving straightforward answers to factual problems, and in the past found it easier to achieve in areas such as maths and physics. But Mr Rowe says that today even those subjects need a high level of verbal reasoning and written communication skills. An exam question will present a problem that must be analysed first to work out which mathematical equation should apply.

“The level of verbal reasoning required in specialist maths and physics is four times greater than what’s required in English literature and Australian history.” Some boys’ advocates call the new emphasis on language a “feminisation” of the curriculum because it favors areas girls are good at. Mr Rowe sees it as preparing boys for a changing world: “We are living in an information society, and unless boys can access and synthesise that information, they’ve got problems.”

Some of boys’ educational problems are due to immature ideas about what it means to be a real man. A Federal Government report released last year said some boys (and some girls) belong to peer cultures of banter, bravado and bullying that undermine school achievement.

Mr Rowe sees a link between boyish bravado and early literacy problems. He says boys often say they feel they cannot do well at school or compete with the girls.

“To compensate for this, many such boys place a premium on success in sport and some of the more macho (and often delinquent) activities that yield positive feedback from their peers, rather than recognition from school staff – most of whom (the boys note) are women.” Women now make up more than half of all secondary teachers and more than three-quarters of primary teachers, the parliamentary inquiry was told.

Proposed solutions to the problems include working like fury to teach little boys to read, and involving more men in boys’ schooling, particularly fathers.

Professor Peter Hill, of the Centre for Applied Educational Research at the University of Melbourne, told the parliamentary inquiry it would cost an extra $200 million to rescue literacy’s stragglers in the early years. But the one-on-one help this would buy is very successful: “We have seen kids taken from the bottom of the class that go to the middle of the class in 12 weeks.”

Mr Fletcher runs an “Engaging Fathers Project” in Newcastle schools. He says it is important that fathers become directly involved in activities with boys.

Another project has male volunteers spend an hour a week with struggling boys, many of whom have no father at home. Mr Fletcher says: “They do not have to teach him anything; all they have to do is be interested and be able to talk to him and listen. The results are exceptional. Behavior improves, academic performance improves and the parents often report that their behavior at home improves. There is less anger, less acting out.”
But the 1800 boys in South Australia who complained bitterly about the quality of teachers are also making a crucial point. Rowe says the quality of teaching is far more significant to the success of boys and girls than any other factor.

He says gender accounts for up to 12 per cent of the variance in performance, while teacher quality accounts for 60 per cent. This makes the debate about girls versus boys “the pimple on the pumpkin”. The real question, he says, is “how do we improve the standard of teaching?”
Judy Parker, an educational consultant and author of a new book, Effective Teaching and Learning Strategies, says teenage boys in particular need schoolwork that is imaginative and personally relevant and involves more hands-on activity: “It’s got to have a visual-spatial element. If they can shape it or make it or construct it or design it, they’ll be much happier.”

First published in The Age.

Some highly educated working mothers do have ’em

IN A finding that will reignite the debate about working mothers, Australian researchers have discovered that some children’s education suffers as a result of their mothers’ careers. But the disadvantage applies only to one group: children whose mothers have a university education.

Among such women, the children of those who work average four months less education than the children of housewives. Another way to understand it, the researchers say, is that “one out of three of the children of (educated) working mothers will complete a year less education than they would have done had their mother not worked”. This is enough to reduce the children’s chances of completing secondary school.

The researchers say that, statistically, the loss is not huge and could easily be compensated by other positive influences, such as sending the children to a private school, “but it is not negligible either. It implies an educational risk or challenge equivalent to the difference between a two-child family and a five-child family”.

The findings are reported by Dr Mariah Evans and Dr Jonathan Kelley in the latest issue of Australian Social Monitor, a publication of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. Their research is based on pooled data from 24,350 respondents to national surveys by International Social Science Surveys Australia between 1984 and 1995. Respondents were asked about their mothers’ working patterns during their childhood and about their own educational attainments.

Only a minor negative effect was shown for the children of working mothers who had completed secondary school and no negative effect was found for the children of the least-educated mothers.

Evans says long working hours could not be blamed for the problem because few of the tertiary-educated mothers in the survey had had continuous full-time jobs. Most had “mommy-tracked”, working part-time or converting to full-time only when their children were older.

The researchers believe the disadvantage is due to the fact that highly educated mothers talk to, read to and stimulate their children much more than other mothers, behaviors that are linked to higher academic development in children. But when cared for outside the family, these children receive less input from the less-educated adults around them.

“If you come from a modest home where people don’t use the language very much and don’t read very much, then going to a day-care centre will be no great loss to your ability to gain language skills,” Kelley says. “It may even mean a gain. But if you come from a home where both parents are PhDs, where what you get is incessant chatter between parents and children on quite complex topics, and go to a centre where you spend your time with other three and four-year-olds and adults who are
not as articulate, that’s a great loss.”

Evans says the level of training for people who work in preschool child care is low.

“They’re not university graduates. If you’re looking at the relative benefits of children spending time with these women versus their university-educated mothers – who’s going to have the vocabulary? Who’s going to have the cognitive resources to give children the best start?”

These were not findings Evans expected or is pleased by, but she is convinced they are accurate, in part because they confirm a similar discovery she and Kelley made with a different set of Australian data several years ago.

She warns: “The finding is not a policy prescription. There are many possibilities regarding how you might deal with it as an issue.”

She says one answer would be for tertiary-educated women to spend more time at home, but an alternative would be to invest more in child care so that better-qualified staff looked after children.

The evidence relates to the childhoods of people who are now adults but Evans believes child-care standards have not improved since. “There’s probably been a small decline. More capable women now go off to law school or medical school instead of doing education in early childhood work, so you find entry scores declining in many child-related fields.”

But there was no evidence in the results that working mothers damage children’s emotional development. “Because the finding is just for educated women and not for other mothers, it is not evidence that everybody needs their mother at home, or that this is about an emotional bonding sort of issue.”

Consequently, the report suggests it would be possible to reduce public support for single mothers and encourage them to work a limited amount without noticeable harm to their children.

“One strategy that would meet this goal would be to: (1) provide enough income to allow for full-time homemaking while the children are preschoolers and during the transition to school; then (2) from the time when the youngest child is in year one, to make part-time maternal employment a condition of continued income support,” the report says.

But it warns that the costs and benefits to children in terms of delinquency and teenage pregnancy should first be carefully assessed.

First published in The Age.

Kindergarten teachers shape lives

IN Ben Elton’s book Stark, a character describes British Army pre-mission briefings in which officers first state the bleeding obvious – just in case people hold different assumptions about what the bleeding obvious is.

A similar restatement of basic facts is required in the row over the pay and functions of kindergarten teachers, who recently went on strike to win a better deal on the basis that their degrees are the equivalent of primary teachers. A Melbourne radio broadcaster responded: “Really, how educated do you have to be to mind four-year-olds?”

Minding is what the teenage babysitter does sprawling on your couch while your children are tucked up in bed. It is unskilled and passive. If your kids are alive and well when you get home from the movies, child-minding has been successful.

It’s not what kinder teachers spend four years at university learning, although many spend a fair proportion of their social lives trying to convince ill-informed acquaintances otherwise. The notion that they’re just kind girls who like playing with children, and that this is an innately brainless activity, is apparently widespread.

This is partly because their largely female profession suffers from a perceived link with “motherhood” and its associated baggage, including the belief by some that caring for and educating the very young is a bovine task (children being the equivalent of backward adults, and mothers having had the tattered remnants of their intelligence expelled with the afterbirth).

There is also a view that, because women are innately nurturant and like educating children, society is not obliged to reward them materially for their skills (a principle that does not extend, strangely enough, to mechanics who love fiddling under car hoods or surgeons who never feel more alive than when they are cutting and stitching body parts).

So here comes a statement of what should be the bleeding obvious: preschool education is a complex process crucial to many children’s futures, and teachers who undertake it deserve a decent wage comparable with their primary school colleagues.

Australian research has time and again confirmed that kinder children reach that potentially defining year of prep physically, intellectually and socially prepared in a way that far outstrips non-kinder children.

American research reported by Laura Berk in her text Child Development is alarming: it suggests that preschool interventions are more important to a deprived child’s later success in life than what happens in the years when formal literacy and numeracy are taught.

Since 1965, the US Head Start program has provided thousands of economically disadvantaged children with a year or two of preschool education. In the first few years of school, children who have been in Head Start score higher in IQ and achievement than children in control groups, although these differences later decline (possibly because their high-quality preschool experience is often followed by education in deprived public-funded schools).

But Head Start kids maintain their lead on many other measures: they are less likely to be placed in special education classes or held back a year, and more complete school. Some benefits, such as lower rates of delinquency and teenage pregnancy and a greater likelihood of employment, last into young adulthood.

A separate experiment called the Carolina Abecedarian Project took 100 babies at risk of school failure (risk factors included low parental education and income, a history of poor school achievement among older siblings, and other family problems). Half were assigned to a “control” group that received only nutrition and health services. The “treatment” children were enrolled in full-time daycare where they received stimulation aimed at promoting motor, cognitive, language and motor skills, including – after the age of three – the kinds of pre-reading and math concepts emphasised in kindergarten activities. Both groups then went on to normal schooling.

Even at age 12, treatment children had a higher IQ than control children and were achieving considerably better, especially in reading, writing and general knowledge. School-based intervention had little impact on changes in IQ; the effects of early intervention were far more powerful.

Other research suggests environmental stimulation actually helps shape the structure of the developing human brain. Children learn more in the first five years of life than at any time thereafter. They learn how to manage their bodies and emotions and how to manipulate the physical world. The cardboard-box kinder creations a parent regards with such amused indulgence might have taught the child mathematical concepts (volume, length, weight, strength), artistic basics (which colors must be mixed to make purple) and social skills (how to ask nicely for the scissors).

Kinder teachers should be paid wages attractive enough to maintain their numbers, especially in rural areas and poorer suburbs where the need for family support and activities outside the home is great.

A nation with 700,000 children below the poverty line is already taking enough risks with its future.

First published in The Age.

The curse of being `gifted’

`CHRIS” is 11. He has just finished several year 10 subjects and written a 26,000-word novella. Next year he will study VCE English literature.

You’d think he’d be a catch for any school; don’t they love having smart kids who boost their academic results? Not if catering for them requires too much effort, they don’t. And gifted students like Chris can be hard yakka.

Chris isn’t even “in” school. Plodding along with other children years behind his mental age made him miserable, so for the past three years he has studied at home with his mother. Their suburban house is walking distance from two schools, but he is learning under the distance education system set up for rural kids.

“Gifted” is a curse of a label. It makes a child sound blessed, endowed with nature’s riches. It makes him sound like he needs no help.

“Gifted” is the kind of label that might confuse even a Labor government oriented towards equity. To the uninformed, it seems hard to justify special resources for children with high IQs when there are slow learners needing help just to learn to read and write. It seems like robbing the poor to give to the rich.

Alarmed parents recently wrote to the Education Minister, Mary Delahunty, following rumors that the gifted education section of her department faced the razor. This week they learnt that its already minuscule staff of four had been reduced to three.

Worse had been feared, and the gifted section has not been singled out for cuts. The department is reorganising to put more resources directly into schools. But it is worrying that a spokesman for the minister this week guaranteed only that there would be no cuts to gifted programs in schools next year.

Is their long-term future guaranteed? Does the department understand that gifted children are also special-needs children? Their classroom needs are as far from the norm as those of the learning disabled.

If they don’t get what they need, we lose them. In Australia, home of the decapitated tall poppy, gifted children have almost the same high-school dropout rate as slow learners and, as adults, twice the average incidence of depression and a correspondingly high risk of suicide.

A 1986 Senate select committee found gifted children were among the most educationally deprived students in Australia. Given that none of the committee’s recommendations was acted upon, they probably still are. (Victoria spends only $500,000 on gifted education out of a total schools budget of $4 billion, even though up to 5 per cent of children are gifted.)

Standard classrooms drive these children bananas. They need only one exposure to new ideas or information that normal children must repeat half a dozen times to master. Repetition is purgatory to the gifted child, who becomes bored and frustrated and turns off learning. Too many are diagnosed as gifted only when they’re sent off to a psychologist for behavioral problems.

They need to work at a higher level than children the same age and at a faster rate. Most of all, they need to work with students like themselves: children who get their jokes, spar with them academically and tolerate their idiosyncrasies.

Many dumb themselves down or become the class clown in an attempt to win acceptance in a country that values sporting excellence, but derides its intellectual counterpart.

“In Australia, the kid who’s going over the high jump higher than any other child in her class is applauded and cheered by the others,” says Dr Miraca Gross, professor of gifted education at the University of New South Wales. “But the kid in the classroom who uses a wide vocabulary and comes out with unusual ideas often will get negative feedback, so the child will bring her vocabulary down to the point where she’s not mocked.”

Teachers are sometimes no better, she says: “Many are afraid of the idea that there might be kids in their class who know more than they do about some things. But piano teachers and sports coaches would never fear a child being more able than themselves.”

In Victoria, about 20,000 children have been identified as gifted and at least 20,000 more are estimated to exist. Girls, migrants and underprivileged kids are least likely to have found the help they need. Australian studies show that when teachers without special training were asked to identify their gifted students, more than 70 per cent of those they picked were boys and more than 90per cent came from the Anglo middle-class.

Some Victorian state schools are setting up gifted programs, but these are few and usually limited in nature. NSW, which has set up “opportunity schools”, is way ahead.

The gifted education section educates teachers (many of whom learnt little or nothing of giftedness in their initial training) and initiates programs for students. Its work should be expanded, not cut.

Gifted education is not elitist. “From each according to his ability” really does depend on “To each according to his needs”.

First published in The Age.

Finding the smart kid inside your child

Jerome was a 14-year-old stuck in sixth grade because he could not read. Teachers had him tagged as “trainable retarded”. But in the migrant labor camp where he lived, in a small Florida town, Jerome was a legend; an unbeatable chess champion.

His school psychologist, Dawna Markova, was puzzled by the paradox – dummies can’t play chess – so one day she went to the camp to watch him. She found his audience sitting on fruitboxes, utterly silent. Jerome paced back and forth, his eyes scanning the board. Then he made his move: “Checkmate!”

Markova realised his mind didn’t work in a way that fitted the traditional way teachers taught. So she taught Jerome to read using the same strategies he told her he had used to learn chess.

Markova had joined the growing ranks of educationalists who believe that many intelligent children who “fail” in school are actually being failed by teaching methods that do not match the way they process information.

Markova has made the new theories available to parents in her book: How your child IS smart: A life-changing approach to learning. She says, while it is usually assumed everyone’s mind operates the same way as the teacher’s, there are, in fact, several ways we can “think”.

She says children digest information at three different levels: conscious (where information is most easily absorbed), subconscious (where information is sorted) and unconscious (where information is integrated with what is already known).

As thoughts and information move from one level to another, they change form. The three kinds of processing are:

* Visual: seeing the outer world, inner visual images, and crafting what can be seen (reading, drawing, writing);

* Auditory: listening to the outer world, inner voices and sounds and expressing what can be heard (speaking, singing, chanting, music making);

* Kinesthetic: sensing from the outer world, inner feelings or body sensations, and moving or doing in the world (touching, actions, experiencing, crafting).

Markova says in everyone’s mind, each of these three perceptual channels is linked to one of the three states of consciousness, but the mix varies between individuals. Take, for example, remembering a telephone number: one will visualise it as if it’s printed on a screen in her mind, another will hear a voice speak the numbers in her mind, and a third will remember by holding the phone in his hands and actually going through the motions of dialling in his mind. Traditional teaching methods, however, are based largely on the auditory channel: teacher talking, child listening.

For the illiterate Jerome, the written world opened up when Markova taught him to read using the same kinesthetic and visual strategies he had used to teach himself chess. He told her: “I gotta be standing up and moving around. And it’s gotta be real quiet or I can’t think. Then I gotta look steady with my eyes at one thing, and one thing only, like the chess board, then I gotta close my eyes and see it in my mind, then I hear way inside my mind what to do.”

While Jerome moved with his eyes closed, Markova spelled words out loud, tracing them on his back or in his palm. He would say the words while he looked at them in a book. And the untrainable retard learned to read.

Scholto Bowen, deputy principal of Huntingtower School in Mount Waverley, has run courses to help teachers identify children’s learning styles. He says there has been much research in this area overseas since the early 1980s, but the strategies are just starting to filter through the Australian education system.

He says teachers need to understand that they might be unknowingly teaching in their own preferred style. “They need to move back and forth between all three styles in each lesson,” he says.

“I would estimate that 95 per cent of the problem kids out there are that way, not because of attention-deficit disorder or whatever, but because their learning style is just not being met. They have got to cope with incredible boredom (and) very often develop negative strategies to (deal with that).”

Learning can be difficult even for those who are not “problem kids”. Karen Ritterman, coordinator of the gifted children’s program at St Leonard’s College, Brighton, tells of a highly creative student who was a talented artist but found art history a nightmare. She could not navigate her way through great slabs of printed information.

Ritterman says, “We highlighted the main points about the French impressionists, but she didn’t know what to do from there. So we created a ‘mind-map’. We had the key point in the middle and all these little symbols that came off it.

“We drew muted colors over it, like the Impressionists had used, so she didn’t have to remember any words, just visualise the whole picture. She was able to reproduce that mind-map in the examination.”

The school’s head of science, Merrin Evergreen, has also used the multi-faceted approach, most notably in a Year Seven sex education lesson on menstruation. The students spent time labelling and coloring in the reproductive structures of both sexes, and then discussed their functions.

Then she took them down to the school oval, where they acted out the female cyle. Some were the fallopian tubes, others the uterine and vaginal walls. Everyone wanted to be the ovum, who was encircled by two other students and then released as the rest of the team shouted “Ovulation!” Then came ‘Menstruation!’, and after the ovum and uterine lining left the body, everyone cheered.

The experience taught them more than just the mechanics. In the following lesson, Evergreen was surprised when a group of usually “loud” boys gave a sensitive presentation on the onset of menstruation.

Other teachers have been startled by the intense creativity that can be unleashed when students are given free rein to process information in any way that suits them. Ritterman says one class at her school is studying Antarctica and students have been told they can do a presentation in any form. One is making a cake model of Antarctica; chocolate underneath, representing the earth, with white icing and a string of imaginative symbols for other elements. Three others are making up a song.

Says Ritterman: “The teacher was saying, ‘This is amazing! It’s like a runaway train, and I’m just hanging on the end’.” — How Your Child IS Smart, by Dawna Markova, Conari Press, rrp $26.95

Different learning types

Show and tellers

Natural persuaders who learn best through reading and light up when telling stories. Good students who shy away from sports.


Empathetic children who learn best by doing what they are shown and asking endless questions. Generally prefer working in groups.

Leaders of the Pack

Natural powerhouses who learn by teaching others. Though they have wide speaking vocabularies, they can have trouble reading and writing.

Verbal Gymnasts

Effective and articulate communicators whose words pour out in logical order. They love facts, history and ideas of all kinds, and have to talk to understand. Sports may be difficult.

Wandering Wonderers

Quiet Einsteins who learn best in solitude. Can learn physical tasks easily without verbal instruction. Can become overwhelmed by listening.

Movers and Groovers

Athletes who need to be allowed to use their bodies in order to learn – often called hyperactive. Reading and writing may be very difficult.

– Source: ‘How your child IS smart.’

First published in The Age.

A teacher’s life

Yesterday, it was 40 degrees inside the sheds they call portable classrooms. It’s nearly as sticky today, a cloudy airless Thursday. The kids have tried to help by propping open the broken windows with plastic chairs, but they can create a current only by fanning themselves languidly with exercise books. As he bends over his geography assignment, one boy complains, to no one in particular: “These working conditions are atrocious!”
His teacher, Kay Peddle, grins and congratulates him on his expanding vocabulary. She finds this classroom better than several of the portables that make up YALE, the Young Adult Learning Environment at Deer Park Secondary College. This room at least has enough tables and chairs, even if they are battered. Peddle isn’t fussed by the carpet, spattered with mysterious little balls of grit and the blackened remains of ancient chewy. “The cleaning budget was cut again at the end of last year,” she says matter-of-factly.

This is the voice she uses through most of her working day: calm, firm and sensible. She doesn’t get distracted or distressed; she just gets on with it. It’s the only way you could get through this kind of day, day after day. Her ready sense of humor doesn’t go astray either.

Peddle’s heavy teaching load includes biology, geography, science and food technology, and she is also head of the senior school at Deer Park. She manages the 330 students in years 10, 11 and 12. She is forever on the move; between 8.15am and 4pm on this day, she sits down for a total of 15 minutes. Her lunch is grabbed in five. Every class and every break between classes is interrupted several times by students and teachers with queries about books, timetables, class changes, family problems, homework. Like a mother with toddlers, she constantly has young things tugging at her.

Deer Park Secondary could politely be called a “challenging” workplace. An outer-western suburb, Deer Park used to be an industrial wasteland until the industries shrank or died, stranding many locals – 38 per cent of whom come from non-English speaking backgrounds – without jobs. Half of the students in the middle and upper school come from families on income support.

Some face hurdles that make success at school as big a triumph as climbing Everest. When Peddle and her colleagues talk about a struggling student, the discussion often veers to problems at home: dad dumping the family and returning to his homeland, or the teenager, desperate to complete her studies, who has to do all the family cooking and housework since one parent died and the other became disabled.

Peddle’s job is part teacher, part administrator, part social worker and part clerk. When she began at Deer Park nine years ago, there were 80 staff to 990 students; now there are 47 for 680 kids. In well-endowed schools, clerical staff handle most of the keying into computer databases required for VCE students’ details. Peddle has been spending up to eight hours a week pounding the keyboards herself. There is one advantage: the spartan portable that she shares with three other staff has been given an air-conditioner to keep the computer cool.

Peddle came straight to Deer Park from teacher training and found it a bit of a shock after her years at a Catholic college in the country. “I was surprised by the attitude of some of the students,” she says. “They weren’t too fussed about whether they got things done or not, if you know what I mean. The school was there for them, but they weren’t interested in getting much benefit from it. They don’t always complete their homework, they don’t bring stuff to class.” She attributes this to the area’s high unemployment, double the national rate; many see no point in schooling. She tries to deal with it by structuring lessons in ways that will grab their attention.

Her first lesson after lunch is a food technology “prac” where the kids are to bake banana teacake. Seven have not done their written homework, most have lost their recipe sheets and only two remembered to bring cake containers to take their booty home. Peddle makes no comment and concentrates on ushering them out of hubbub – an exercise that must be repeated every time they move from one place or activity to another – and into mixing batter.

At the end of the class, she tells one boy to wipe down his bench properly. He slams a cupboard door and throws his arms in the air: “But I done it already! Look at that! Look at that!” She stares him down and repeats the instruction. He spends a few moments skylarking with a tea-towel in a show of manly defiance, then complies.

Primitive views of manliness, a dark strand in the multicultural weave, make for some tricky moments at Deer Park. Some male students fiercely resent rebuke from female teachers.

This day, as Peddle finally unwraps her sandwich 10 minutes before the end of lunchtime, there is a deep male roar from the yard, followed by a girl screaming “F— off!” Three teachers race out together, Peddle arriving on the scene with her arm raised like a policeman signalling “Stop”. What sounded like a riot turns out to have been only a group of boys jeering at a passing teacher.

Peddle teaches every period today. After school, she is tied up until 6pm with meetings and administration. Then she takes two hours’ work home; it is the only time she has for preparation and correction of her classroom work. Her life revolves around the school. She plays basketball once a week but found that she had to give away aerobics as she was just too tired: “By 9.30, I collapse.” It’s just as well she is single, she says, as a teacher with small children would find it hard to do it all.

What makes it worthwhile? Two things, she says; the other teachers, who are highly committed and really look after each other – she got lots of offers of help when she was short-staffed last year – and the relationships she can develop with the kids. Oh, and the school’s new paint job: “It’s amazing how much it’s lifted morale.” (The rest of the school has recently been refurbished in cheery colors with a Government grant. The VCE portables were not done up because they might be taken away.)

Peddle genuinely loves her work. She says she has always known she wanted to be a teacher. “I really enjoy being in the classroom with the kids. It’s all about the rapport you develop with them. And that’s one thing about them, you can develop a rapport. I had a year 12 ring me yesterday to say thanks for all the help with last year; I’d spent a lot of time with her and she did get into the course she wanted. Particularly with the year 12s, at the end of the year, you can see that you’ve made a difference.”
IT IS a golden sunny morning and the senior students at St Leonard’s College, Brighton, gather on a shady lawn for their class photos. They are encircled by marks of privilege: to the left the swimming pool, to the right the tennis courts and indoor sports centre, behind them the graceful Victorian mansion that houses their music school.

The school’s head of science, Merrin Evergreen, moves along the row of students on hair-and-earring inspection. “You’re as bad as a mother,” says one girl. “Worse,” says Evergreen. When she comes to the male teacher at the end of the line, she pats his beard approvingly and they both laugh.

Evergreen is a bit of a free spirit. Today she is wearing a mediaeval-style purple dress with a laced bodice and floaty skirt. Her year 9 students call her Lady Evergreen. They are still getting used to the surname, which she chose to symbolise her new life after her divorce last year.

A lot of her teaching reflects this refusal to live in a conformist box. Today, her year 12 biology class arrives with their homework – making models of cells. Most have done it in the kitchen: one has made a chocolate cake with frosting for membrane and bubble-gum strips for flagella; another has used a string of arrowroot biscuits to represent a neurone, with icing for the myelin. She exclaims in delight over their inventiveness. Beside her grows a pile of their written holiday homework, columns of observations and analysis. That will go home with her tonight.

Evergreen’s working day starts with a staff meeting at 8.30am. She teaches 25 out of 35 periods, but her “free” time is filled with other responsibilities such as assemblies, supervision of private studies or administration work for the heads of a science network that she coordinates.

As a year 11 group tutor, she is also responsible for the pastoral care of students. “They’re nice kids. A lot aren’t from wealthy backgrounds; many have two parents working to put them through. They want to achieve.”
Evergreen is also responsible for overseeing the school’s science curriculum, including its implementation in two secondary school certificates, the VCE and the International Baccalaureate. There are meetings most nights after school, and she rarely leaves before 6pm.

In the evenings, Evergreen cooks dinner with her 10-year-old daughter – “We sit down at the little table because the big table always has schoolwork all over it” – and they watch TV together before starting their homework at 7. Evergreen spends a couple of hours preparing, correcting and reading magazines such as New Scientist to keep up with what’s happening in her field. Then she studies for her master’s degree, sometimes until 1am. She has also recently co-authored two science texts, Science Quest I and II.

Does she ever have time to read a novel? “Sometimes I read from 1 to 3am. Mostly futuristic romance.” She would like to be able to say that she uses her gym membership, but she’s too short on time and energy. Even her holidays are not her own. She spent part of the summer break familiarising herself with one of the new laptop computers and printers her students are using this year. She leases the computer she uses at her own expense.

While there has always been pressure to get academic results at St Leonard’s, Evergreen says the last decade has also seen an increased emphasis on helping develop students in a wider sense: emotionally, creatively, spiritually. Everyone is expected to help with cross-curricula enterprises such as the annual school play (Evergreen does the make-up). Today, Evergreen spends most of her lunch hour giving grade one children from the junior school a taste of experimentation in the science labs.

The school is her village. Her daughter is educated there and she counts many of the staff as her friends. There is little time for socialising outside, and on the day of her divorce last year, it was her work friends who comforted her, leaving single roses on her desk and chocolate frogs in her pigeonhole. “We really watch out for each other,” she says. “The students see that we care for one another and they start to model that behavior. It makes for a really nice atmosphere in the classrooms.”

Is there a downside? “What I don’t like about it, and what I do like about it, so that it’s a difficult one, is that the school becomes your whole life. I wish there was more financial recognition for that. You see people in other careers where they work 9 to 5 who might earn $50,000. It’s lovely to be vocationally oriented and to love what you do, but as a single mum looking for a mortgage, I’m beginning to realise it is an undervalued job.

“At the same time you don’t mind that it takes up your life because it’s such an important job, shaping other people’s lives.”

JEANETTE Fraser is giving the kids a run through the gum trees before lessons start; it will be too hot later on. She lines them up in rows: “Grade six, take off!” A big boy begins lolloping. “Grade five!” Two boys. She works her way down to grade one, two little girls and three boys. The preppie is away today.

This is Bonnie Doon Primary School, where Fraser teaches all 16 students in one room. You can tell that Bonnie Doon primary is clinging to the edge of oblivion by its architecture. The name conjures up visions of charming old red brick; the reality is a couple of flat-roofed, mushroom-colored portables – one a classroom and office, the other the dunnies – that could be moved anywhere, any time. If the school’s enrolment falls to 11, Fraser will be out of here. Two similar schools, at nearby Merton and Yarck, have already gone. “We take it year by year,” Fraser says philosophically.

She likes this posting better than any of the others she’s had in the past 20 years. It was a bit of a shock at first. When she arrived here three years ago, Fraser had 24 students in seven grades. Some of them were little tearaways and Fraser had formal help only one morning a week. “I don’t know how I survived it,” she says. Even now, there are times when she is confident that she’s thoroughly prepared the classroom work for the day, only to find that she’s forgotten one grade level: “I’ve become very used to doing things on the spot.”
But the current crop are easy kids. Under Kennett Government guidelines, Fraser’s now entitled to much more help, sharing the load with another teacher most days. Fridays, for example, someone else comes in to do the extras – physical education, languages, art – and Fraser can get on with preparation and paperwork.

In many ways, her school is like an extended family. The big kids help the little kids. Small girls coming to ask Fraser for help drape their arms affectionately across her shoulders. Big boys doing particularly well (or particularly badly) get great smacking kisses on the forehead from Fraser, who grins at their discomfort with a mother’s relish. “‘Chocolate’s not in the dictionary!” calls out one boy. “It’s kisses if I find it,” she retorts. “You’d better keep looking.”

Later, Fraser says that the relationship between teacher and students in a small school like this is more intense: “You get the same ones back year after year and you do get close.” The children are closer to each other, too: “They fight like family fight. It isn’t a huge discipline problem; it’s more like brothers and sisters. Mostly they look after one another and get on wonderfully, but other days they’re at one another and niggly, and you spend all day sorting out their little arguments.”
It’s that long-term intimacy that Fraser enjoys most about Bonnie Doon Primary. She knows her students. “Little schools are more wonderful than people think they are. In bigger schools, sometimes you don’t meet the parents till halfway through the year, when you suddenly realise that the kid comes from a background with all these problems. Here, the parents are always coming in for a chat.”
Bonnie Doon’s isolation, on a bare stretch of the Maroondah Highway about 20 kilometres from Mansfield, makes her life harder in some ways and easier in others. To do a course on computers in the classroom last year, Fraser had to drive 45 minutes each way to Benalla for a two-hour class every Wednesday night for nine weeks. “But it’s easier in one sense: there’s not as much to do, because if you want to do anything (out of the ordinary), you have to drive so far that, in the end, you decide not to do it.”
It’s not a rich school but Fraser feels well supported by the local community. On Fridays they carpool to take the kids to swimming lessons, 20 minutes’ drive away. At the end of each school day, parents arrive to clean the classroom and toilets. They want to save the cleaning budget to help with student excursions: it’s $20 per child for a bus ride to Melbourne.

As Fraser farewells the children at the end of this day, a boy mentions that a black snake was spotted in the school grounds at lunchtime. Fraser listens with interest but no alarm; this is the country, after all. “Mostly we have tiger snakes around here,” she says, musing. “At Merrijig (primary school), tiger snakes are very common. They just ring up the pub and say ‘Can you send someone down here with a stick?”‘ Life as a country teacher has its moments.

First published in The Age.

Playground sparks a community adventure

THEY SAY it takes a village to raise a child, and the Sandringham community has shown what a modern-day village can do.

In five days of frenzied effort that capped two years of planning, parents, children and friends built a huge adventure playground (pictured above and on cover) that the school could not have afforded any other way.

In many ways the project was a power-tooled version of the Amish barn-raising scene in the film Witness. Whole families turned out; the younger children were cared for in on-site creches by volunteers, while workers were fed two hot meals a day from great trays of food also donated by parents.

About 250 people came to help on each weekday and at the weekend the equipment could hardly be seen for the 400 volunteers swarming over it. Exhaustive doorknocking of the wider community had tapped into generosity that was of more use than money: the army sent reservists; the local fire brigade offered digging machinery and men; and at dusk each evening a State Emergency Service truck arrived and raised arc-lights on a pole so that work could continue after dark.

A committee of the school’s children had told the designers what they wanted. The result is a mad and marvellous fairytale mix that includes castle turrets and throne seats (princes and princesses were big) and a “telephone” pipe for hurling friendly abuse from one side of the playground to the other.

There is an amphitheatre for outdoor classes, a series of mazes, a puppet theatre and a spider-web climber. The older children had wanted equipment they could race each other on, so there are double monkey bars.

Preppies’ drawings were copied in chalk on to the sides of huge cement pipes and turned into mosaic murals by mothers who had spent the previous day smashing donated bathroom tiles into small pieces. As with many of the other tasks in the building work, no real skills were needed to stick the tile fragments into the chalked outlines, but the result is a free- spirited mix of butterflies, octopuses and dragons.

The playground was the brainchild of parent and school council member Bridie Murphy. She estimates that the cost of $40,000 would have doubled or trebled if the school had paid for labor.

The intangible benefits of the project are just as important, but harder to quantify. Parents who had never spoken to each other before got to know and laugh with those they worked beside. And, as in a village, children could see their parents work and offer help.

Like the fine old Amish barns, the playground will bear witness to this for a long, long time.

First published in The Age.