Getting Goofy To Engage Boys In Reading And Writing

Falmouth boys are behind their girl classmates in reading and writing. Less than half of 4th grade boys scored proficient or advanced on last year’s MCAS test, compared to 67 percent of girls.

To address this, a group of male volunteers was assembled in January to do targeted literacy coaching with boys at North Falmouth Elementary School.

The three men, all retired educators, met recently in the basement of the School Administration Building to talk about how the program was going.

Did the group have an official title?

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“Kings of the Earth?” suggested Michael C. Rainnie, setting off a round of laughter.

Throughout the interview the three men cracked jokes, made fun of themselves, and did not give a straight answer if a sarcastic one was at hand.

North Falmouth Elementary School assistant principal Nancy Ashworth, who is spearheading an effort to make the Falmouth public schools more “boy-friendly,” said the volunteers were explicitly encouraged to joke around with the boys, and even, in the interest of learning, indulge in bathroom humor.

“That’s our specialty,” Mr. Rainnie deadpanned.

Once a week Mr. Rainnie meets with a half-dozen 4th grade boys who need extra help in reading and writing.

Mr. Rainnie, a retired English and poetry teacher, greets each boy with a special handshake his grandson taught him. “The jellyfish handshake” starts out as fist bump, but then you extend your fingers and pulse them rhythmically, like the tentacles of a jellyfish in motion.

The boys call themselves “the jellyfish club.”

“It’s a place where these kids can come and relax and have fun with language and see it’s not a bad thing,” he said.

Recently, the group read a poem called Creepy Pizza—“I’d like a pizza topped with cheese / then sprinkled with some knats and fleas”—and discussed the concepts of alliteration and  onomatopoeia.

Mr. Rainnie said the mother of one of the boys e-mailed him to report that her son had come home from school that day talking excitedly about poetry.

Gregory S. Gilbert, a retired adjustment counselor at the high school, said his 2nd grade boys are enthusiastic and very energetic. So much so that he has dispensed with chairs and lets them wiggle about on the floor.

“Do you find your guys sit still?” he asked fellow volunteer Edward J. Finn, a retired superintendent.

“Sit still?” Mr. Finn said, feigning ignorance. “What is that?”

“ ’Cause I’ll be talking and suddenly they’re all behind me,” Mr. Gilbert said.

In Mr. Gilbert’s group, students are working on writing a rap about the joys and trials of being an 8-year-old boy. “Of course, they all want to be the beat box,” Mr. Gilbert said.

Ms. Ashworth said the men are acting as literary role models for the young boys, and that the program is working well. “It’s just what I wanted to have happen: boys and connections,” she said.

Although Ms. Ashworth is not tracking the students’ performance in any formal way, she said positive feedback from teachers points to the positive impact the volunteers are having.

The gender gap between boys’ and girls’ literacy skills is not unique to Falmouth, and is reflected in statewide data.

Mr. Finn wondered if the dearth of male teachers at the elementary level had anything to do with the gap. “It wouldn’t take too much imagination to say there are some dots to connect here,” he said.

In 2008, 76 percent of elementary and secondary school teachers were women, up from 66 percent in 1980, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics. The report concludes: “Given the importance of teachers as role models, and sometimes as surrogate parents, this trend could certainly be a policy concern.”

At North Falmouth Elementary, there are only two male teachers, Steve Cross, a 4th grade teacher, and Jay Fortin, the gym teacher.

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