After our recent CLIPPERS FOR CANCER fundraiser, I was asked to write an article about the journey that got us to this event. This will soon be published in a local teaching publication, and now is shared here.
Over the last 4 years, Hackham East Schools have been developing a single sex program. Beginning with trials in Health and PE lessons in 2007 and followed by our first full time boys and girls classes in 2008, our program has grown and now offers 5 single sex class options: for boys from year 2 through to year 7 and for girls in year 3, 4, 6 and 7.
Beginning with recommendations made by Australian boys education expert, Ian Lillico, and USA expert Michael Gurian, our boys and girls classes are based on a wide range of research into the benefits of single sex education. Covering many facets of learning, a common theme through all of the research we have used is the importance of relationships: the relationship of the students with their teacher as well as the relationships between students. This became the underlying foundation of our single sex classes.
Our first full time boys class began in 2008. After successful trials in 2007, we held information sessions for parents and created a year 4/5 class. The class was made up of students whose parents requested their placement in the group as well as targeted students that we believed would benefit from single sex practices. From day one, building strong relationships became our early priority. Through our school’s ‘learning to learn’ program, as well as specific boys education initiatives, we worked toward a ‘challenge’ camp in our first term together that would build the comradeship and team atmosphere that still underpins our class today.
The support that students now offer each other has helped us achieve strong improvements across the curriculum and has brought a complex group of boys together as a class with very few behaviour problems. The relationships formed have allowed us to undertake learning that has led to some unique and rewarding experiences including music and cultural performances for Premier Mike Rann, a performance for the Governor-General, performing on stage at the Festival theatre and our Clippers For Cancer Fundraiser.
In his writing, Michael Gurian argues that, to be successful in school and in life, boys need to develop a sense of purpose, an understanding of how they can contribute to their world in a positive way. In my class, it was clear early on that our boys did not have a positive view of what men were ‘supposed’ to be. When undertaking an ‘X’ chart activity, our boys’ view of men included words like scary, mean, tough, angry, loud, rough and drunk. Research we had read suggested that boys often have a set idea than men should be of the ‘alpha male’ kind. Being hit with the reality of what my boys believed was a life changing experience for me as a teacher. I was stunned by the ideas that the boys were sharing, and by the sudden realisation that these beliefs were what I was seeing reflected in their behaviour and play. With strong relationships already established, we had found our new focus.
As we progressed through our year, we became ‘big buddies’ for our school’s transition program. This meant that each term, we would work with a new group of first term reception students. My boys listened to reading, helped with learning tasks, and became important contacts in the yard. Each term, the boys had to establish new relationships, and their nurturing side quickly started to show. Working with younger students gave us a great opportunity to develop a positive role in our school community. To develop purpose in our wider community, we made contact with our local nursing home. Fortnightly, we spent an hour with residents participating in a variety of activities. Students began by reading and sharing learning, but quickly became companions for residents who rarely received other visitors. We were invited to join the ‘Men’s Bowls’ competition, which later developed into a games hour, planned and implemented by the students. Many of the boys were so committed to this project that we made arrangements for visits to continue throughout the school holidays. This was an uplifting experience for all involved and an early indication that I was working with a special bunch of young men.
Our second visit to the ‘X’ chart at the end of term 2, showed some positive changes. Caring, helpful, kind, hard working and looks after people all made their first appearance. Many of the ‘alpha male’ words still appeared, but gone were drunk, angry and scary. Things were changing. The boys were giving up their own time to take on roles of responsibility around the school and were quickly gaining a reputation as strong contributors to our school community. Yard play was becoming more cooperative and far less violent in nature, and the feeling of being a team was strongly evident in their interactions both in the class and yard.
By 2009, we had developed into a strong learning team. Academic and behaviour data showed significant improvement, and we were able to start the year on a familiar playing field and launch straight into our learning as year 5/6 class. As our year began, we were engulfed by images and reports of the devastating effects of bush fires in New South Wales and flooding in Queensland. As in many classes around the country, this was a major topic of conversation and concern for students. At a class meeting, a student talked about feeling helpless sitting at home watching the destruction sweep through so many families’ lives. A lively debate soon started about the ability of children to effect positive change. Many students shared a belief that they really couldn’t contribute much until they were adults. At our next meeting we watched ‘Ryan’s Well’. The story of a young boy from the USA and his campaign to bring clean drinking water to an African community. The boys’ reaction to Ryan’s story was powerful, and an instant buzz took over the classroom and ‘Clippers For Cancer’ was born.
After discussing many options, the boys decided that they would raise money to support the McGuiness McDermott Foundation, a South Australian charity designed to support children living with cancer and their families. We spent a week brainstorming fundraising ideas and then put it to a vote. The overwhelming winner was an idea for each member of the class to collect sponsorship and have their head shaved. The rationale was that not only would they raise money for the foundation but also raise awareness through the sacrifice of their hair. As the responsible adult, I was amazed by the dedication to the cause and the willingness to make a sacrifice to benefit others, but was also a little sceptical about the reaction from outside of our classroom.
My concerns were short lived. With support from our Principal, consent notes were sent home to parents. With a little pressure applied by the boys, the signed consent notes quickly rolled in and we had ourselves a challenge! A goal was set to raise $200. Residing in a low socio economic area and with only our class involved, I agreed that this was a reasonable goal. The boys then wrote letters to enlist the help of local hairdressers and set a date for our shave day. The response was unexpected and amazing. Our parents and school community showed extremely strong support for our event. Over the three weeks leading up to the shave day, the tally grew steadily and it became evident that we would beat our goal. A week before the event it looked as if we would double what we had set out to achieve. The excitement in the classroom and our parent community was electric, and everyone stepped up their efforts even further. On shave day the school community came out in force. Parents and other classes came through the school gym to watch the shearing. Many donated at the door and our final tally hit $1875.00, nine times what we had set out to raise. The result was incredible. The money collected made a fantastic donation to a worthy cause. The benefits to our class were even greater. They now shared a common and powerful experience, a feeling of pride and purpose and an attitude for success that carried into their learning. In term 4 of 2009, the boys contacted the McGuiness McDermott Foundation and made a commitment to run the event again in 2010.
Clippers For Cancer 2010 was a very different experience. The boys needed very little teacher support to get the event up and running. Hairdressers were contacted and a date was set. The goal, this year, was to hit $2000. We enlisted the help of the two other boys’ classes in our school and through our class website, enlisted our friends in Missouri, USA. With 12 hairdressers to coordinate and 97 heads to shave, it was a huge event that would take up a big part of the day. One boy even sacrificed his waist long hair that had never been cut! Again, the school community came out in force to support us and an amazing $7123.00 was raised.
What this experience has done for my class is difficult to convey. It has brought them together as a team like never before. It has given them a sense of pride that they will take with them long after they leave primary school. It has given them a place in their community. It’s shown them that they can make a positive difference in people’s lives. It has given them purpose and a sense of what it is to be an “authentic” male.
Boys' Class Teacher
Hackham East School