Teaching boys that 'all the answers are within'

To Ray Johnson, boys would benefit from more movement in school - and a new sense of what it means to be male.

"There's always pressure on boys to be 'the man,' " with its connotations of power and conquest, says Mr. Johnson, principal of the Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit.

But boys can learn from a different model - one that values learning. Old-style teaching - sitting still, learning passively - works against achievement, particularly for boys, says Mr. Johnson, whose public, coeducational K-8 school is Afrocentric in curriculum and almost entirely African-American in enrollment. And according to a new National Urban League study, black males are particularly at risk of failing because of low expectations and overrepresentation in special education.

"I marvel at how boys even exist in many of these schools," he says. "I couldn't sit through that litany of stuff, on and on. There's no opportunity to have constructive engagement and movement throughout the day."

He notes that people who get candy are often ones who can sit and be quiet. "That's cool, if I'm already in a culture that says this is the way I [a girl] ought to be anyway," Johnson says. "But [as a boy] I'm restless, because in the external environment, music is going all the time," and many of the messages are in sharp contrast to what school offers as a model.

Johnson, whose school has a long waiting list of urban and suburban families, says it's crucial to teach kids other models in ways that reach them. At Paul Robeson they learn, for example, to meditate for brief periods. "I want to focus on the internal locus of control, rather than a Pavlovian response," he says, noting that the school doesn't use bells. "Values need to be character-driven, from the inside out. We start this in preschool, so by the time they're 12, they know all the answers are within them. It helps kids discover their capacities."

Johnson also sets great store by having many male role models in the school, either as teachers or as mentors. Boys learn to embrace each other and teachers on greeting. "Boys get a chance to see new ways of behaving, and it offers a counter to the World Wrestling Federation," he says.

Engagement on every level is what counts. Struggling students often are assigned as mentors to younger kids, and thus boost their own self-esteem and learning. The school has more than 40 programs to engage kids beyond academics, be it baton-twirling, baseball, drum corps, or chess club.

The key, Johnson says, is to tap into what boys want to be able to do. "They want to be involved. You need to create programs where they can give back in realistic, relevant ways."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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