Bringing Back the Arts
To Help Boys Learn


Reducing or eliminating art, music, and creative programs to spend more time on academics has been particularly hard on boys, some educators think. Integrating the arts into lessons is helping some schools close the literacy gap between boys and girls. Included: Ways to include the arts in literacy activities.

When staff members at Douglass Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado, were analyzing test results in 2004, it was clear boys were significantly behind girls in the areas of reading and writing. After doing some research, the principal and staff decided to return some of the extras to the curriculum that had been cut for more time for academics — such as art, music, and creative movement.

The improvement was not just rapid; it was dramatic. Within a year, the school had closed the reading and writing gap between boys and girls. Scores for girls increased as well.

We realized we can manipulate the learning environment in the classroom to make it more conducive to kids, said Kelley King, Douglasss former principal. We gave teachers permission to bring some joy back into classroom.


King, who is now principal of two small rural schools in Boulder; Jamestown and Gold Hill Elementary, also is the associate director of the Gurian Institute, which recommends strategies for more effectively teaching boys as well as girls. King also lectures to other educators about the learning differences between boys and girls.

What happened in Douglass and at other schools around the U.S. is that testing pressures led to narrowing the curriculum and an increased pace of instruction, King said. More teachers moved back to a lecture instructional format, shelving the more creative aspects of teaching, and lecturing often is less effective for boys. Girls are more tolerant of sit and git lectures, she said. Boys tune out or become behavior problems.

While at her former school, King became a leader among a group of ten principals who met monthly for two years to discuss resources and research related to the literacy gender gap. At her school, there was a lot of support for change, which became part of the school improvement plan. The whole staff did it together — we have about 30 educators and support staff. There was a great deal of buy-in when they could look at all the data, King told Education World.

We needed more kid talk, more movement; if youre sitting on your butt and your butts asleep, your brains asleep. Boys fidget and get into things because they are trying to keep alert. 

Instructional changes resulted in boys makingeight times the gains in reading and writing of boys in other schools in the district. Douglasss girls were not left out either; they made three times the gains of girls in other schools. This was not a zero- sum game, Kelley said. It was not a matter of helping boys to the detriment of girls.


A key part of the plan was to incorporate more visual and spatial skills into lessons in order to make them more boy-friendly. For example, a teacher might incorporate drawing into reading and writing lessons.

A classroom is really very verbal, and the primary difference between boys and girls is verbal and spatial reasoning — boys are more spatial, King told Education World. When the teaching is almost exclusively verbal, it affects boys. Now we are teaching and assessing more kids visually.

For example, students are allowed to illustrate vocabulary words and draw pictures of what they have learned and use pictures to outline a story in the form of a storyboard or a graphic novel before they begin writing. Some teachers allow kids to illustrate a story, but only after they finish writing the story, King said. The lesson has to be managed so drawing pictures and art comes first. Some kids need to start with the language of pictures. Its such a simple innovation to do and it doesnt really take more time or money.

Wherever possible, teachers incorporate some music and movement into lessons, such as clapping in rhythm while reviewing spelling words, syllables, or having students recite the parts they liked about a story. Music changes the energy in a room; it increases excitability, can be calming, signal a transition, and can support and aid reading comprehension, King noted. Learning to music led to about 15-minute increase in spatial skills for some students; they took a spatial skills tests while listening to music, and their spatial thinking lasted for 15 minutes longer.


Kings practices have spread to other parts of the state and U.S. At Wamsley Elementary School in Rifle, Colorado, Principal Desha Bierbaum made many of the changes King recommends and expects to see improvement in her boys scores after the next round of tests.

Some teachers allow kids to illustrate a story, but only after they finish writing the story Some kids need tostart with the language of pictures. Its such a simple innovation to do and it doesnt really take more time or money. 

After noticing the achievement gap between boys and girls at Wamsley three years ago, Bierbaum applied for and received a grant from the state department of education for a school support team to study and report on the schools strengths and weaknesses. Instruction was listed as a weakness.

It was not engaging instruction; teachers were not using their time wisely, Bierbaum told Education World. We needed more kid talk, more movement; if youre sitting on your butt and your butts asleep, your brains asleep. Boys fidget and get into things because they are trying to keep alert.

Bierbaum had seen King speak at convention and started investigating Kings work. King came to speak at the school and talked about brain differences, worked with teachers, and observed classes. The whole Wamsley staff also was scheduled to travel to the Gurian Institute.

Staff began training to use different instructional techniques in fall 2007, and since January 2009 the teachers have really focused on learning differences between boys and girls. Now boys as well as girls who are fidgety are allowed to do their work standing, laying on the floor, or sitting on a T-Stool, which requires users to adjust their balance while sitting. For other students who needed ways to stay alert, teachers put carpet squares on their desks so they can tap their fingers all they want without disturbing anyone else. Other boys rub their fingers on the rough part of a piece of Velcro to stay engaged.

Wamsley teachers use music for brain breaks that enable students to briefly move around or dance. Classical music plays while students are writing. The music teacher also started teaching kids drum line techniques, Bierbaum said. Boys as well as girls are allowed to use drawings to illustrate their ideas before they begin writing assignments, she added, and boys writing improved.


Another often successful strategy, which some teachers find hard to implement, is allowing boys to write about gross stuff, according to Bierbaum. If they want to write about barf or hunting, thats okay, she said.

We gave teachers permission to bring some joy back into classroom. 

It did not take long to see changes once the boys started settling down. Some of our boys were really struggling with behavior, Bierbaum told Education World. Some just couldnt understand how to control their body. One spent a lot of time with me — and he turned around while on a T-stool. These were kids at the forefront of most conversations; some were girls, but most boys. After we made the changes, they were excited about coming to school and learning. Im excited to see what our test scores will be like next year.


Whatever the cause, research shows downward trends in boys success in school and life over the past 20 years, King said. If you look at the data, fewer boys are going to college, 90 percent of behavior referrals are boys, and 90 percent of high school dropouts are boys.

While in the past some educators may have suspected that males were sliding academically, standardized testing has made the issue clearer. We werent collecting data in the same ways 20 years ago, King noted. The advantage of state tests is the ability to disaggregate data — prior to that, we may have suspected there were achievement gaps, but we didnt have the means to measure them.

That is why some flexibility in classrooms along with concentrated efforts guided by brain research is important for closing the gender gap. You can see immediate gains if you focus on something, King said. When you start to implement strategies thoughtfully across the board, it is very powerful. There is a sense among the staff that we can do this and a sense of urgency that this needs to be done.




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