In April 2014, Dave Menges called and offered me the opportunity of a lifetime: to join the first grade team at St. Christopher’s. I was elated! But then the nerves kicked in, and I began to wonder what I would do with a classroom full of boys and no girls to temper the testosterone. I have always enjoyed being silly with my classes: making up songs to give directions, using humor to alleviate a child’s worries, telling funny stories about my dog gone bad and my busy children. Could I still do this with a boys-only class? Would they think I was funny or be completely embarrassed by me? Well, I didn’t know the answer in April, but I knew I had to try.
September rolled around, and we were off on our new adventure – the boys constantly reminding me that it’s the CHAMBERLAYNE Reds and CHAMBERLAYNE Grays; that shirts are always tucked in; that MYP stands for Mid-Year Play, which would rule our schedule for a month in the winter; and that hoodies are a no-no in chapel. I had a lot to learn! But, I knew that the boys had a lot to learn from me, as well.
More than teaching reading, writing, and math, my job is to impart a love of school and of learning; to teach the boys to be good citizens in and out of the classroom; and to inspire them to solve problems independently. This is my calling and my passion, and I strive to do this by creating a comfortable learning space and using some time-tested strategies. Research has shown that it’s the relationship between the teacher and the students that creates opportunities for learning and engagement. Without a solid relationship, a teacher’s ability to reach her students is significantly curtailed.
So, what things work in a boys-only setting, and how do I create a classroom environment that promotes good citizenship, creative thinking, and a love of knowledge? Not surprisingly, boys, especially in the primary grades, need plenty of opportunities to move around and be active. St. Christopher’s is dedicated to this need by having P. E. four days a week for the Lower School boys. In my own classroom, I spend a lot of time singing and moving with the boys. Whenever I can tell that my class has been sitting too long, we stand up, stretch and sing. The boys love to sing songs with silly words and big actions, such as “Baby Shark” and “Way Up in the Sky”. Why are singing and movement so important in my classroom? I firmly believe that when a person – adult or child – can let down his guard, sing silly words, and dance around in front of others, it brings a level of comfort to the classroom that makes everyone feel equal and included. The songs also make us feel like a team, since they become our special moments together and everyone is participating in a common activity.
I also love to use songs to give directions, and I have found that after a few times of singing some solos, the boys begin to join me and encourage each other to follow the sung directions. For example, at the end of our Language Arts block, we clean up the classroom, and head outdoors for recess. I signal the start of this time by singing, (tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”), “If you’re ready for recess, line up (clap, clap). If you’re ready for recess, line up (clap, clap). If you’re ready for recess, please show me right now. If you’re ready for recess, line up (clap, clap). “ Once in line, I sing the follow-up, “Put your hands by your side, by your side.” You get the idea! Singing allows all boys to participate in a leadership moment with me, feel proud of themselves for listening and following through with my requests, and have time to move and use their voices.
The hallmark of a good educator is one who tries different strategies and assesses her effectiveness with those methods. So, does music work with young boys? Without a doubt, YES! How do I know this? Besides watching the faces of my boys light up when I begin to sing, one of the biggest compliments I have ever received as a teacher is when a boy is so comfortable with me that he calls me, “Mom.” It happens more than you might guess, and first grade boys don’t get embarrassed when they slip up. To me, that’s one of the sweetest, most unintentional moments of encouragement that I have ever received. Another big indicator for me is that many of my boys were visibly upset each time a break from school occurred. On the first day back from Christmas break, many of my boys commented that they were so happy to be back at school; they missed doing literacy centers, missed their friends, and missed me. That’s enough to melt the heart of this teacher!
One of the best parts of a teaching career is the constant cycle of a fresh start each September. It’s a time to reflect on the past, evaluating what worked and what didn’t, and challenge myself to try new strategies to manage my class, new methods to deliver instruction, and new ways to relate to a bunch of fresh first grade faces. With one year teaching in an all-boys school under my belt, I excitedly anticipate year two as an opportunity to work my musical magic with my class and find the songs that become special, funny, and signal a moment of relaxation in our classroom. Perhaps you’ll walk by my room this school year and hear the happy sounds of boys singing, “If you’re finished with centers, clean up!”