Refusing to give in
Fortunately, even in schools where scores are king, there are compassionate teachers who close the classroom door and sneak in some excitement. Christopher Smith, a kindergarten teacher in Corte Madera, CA, doesn't force his students to form letters with pencils if they're not there yet -- he encourages them to use play dough instead. "They learn the letters and feel good about themselves," he says. And to counteract dull test-prep vocabulary, Gutowski started what she calls a "Wow Word Wall," where the kids write fun words they've found so the class can learn them together.
At the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, a K-12 magnet program in Tennessee, teachers plan carefully to avoid worksheets and lectures. In fact, they make sure that 80 percent of all learning is active learning, which means that kids are moving around, exploring, and interacting with one another. " We don't force-feed information. Instead, we ask questions and have them make their own connections between their world and what they are learning," explains elementary school teacher Marilyn Griffith. "I'll ask: 'What are some cool facts about a ladybug or the difference between the inner and outer planets in the solar system?' The students do research, hands-on projects, and then teach each other. These are exactly the kinds of skills they'll need later in life."
Getting boys engaged
When you think of class clowns or troublemakers, who springs to mind? Boys, we bet. They can't sit still. They goof off. They can't (or choose not to) stay on task. But none of this is necessarily entirely their fault, says Peg Tyre, a mother of two sons and the author of The Trouble With Boys. "Boys aren't really allowed to be boys in the classroom," she says. "Schools have pathologized their natural interests and so discourage them from writing about 'violent' topics such as superheroes. They're told to replace that sword with a wand. This sends the message that their true selves aren't acceptable at school." No wonder they start to think of school as girly and disengage.
A few years ago, when Douglass Elementary in Boulder, CO, discovered that their girls were consistently outperforming their boys, teachers decided to take a closer look at their teaching methods. "Passive learning with a ton of worksheets just wasn't doing it," says Linda Taht, a fourth-grade teacher for the past 14 years. "Boys perform better when we use active strategies in the classroom. Yes, they 've got to learn their multiplication facts, but it goes much more quickly when we ditch the flash cards and teach a rap song about them instead." Taht also allows boys lots of leeway to be who they are. "I encourage them to write about whatever interests them," she says. "They're guaranteed to write more that way." If she has any concerns, she speaks to the child's parents before limiting him. The results of such strategies are impressive: After just one year, the school closed the achievement gap between boys and girls, and everyone is performing better.