Bridging The Gender Gap

Educators Explore Teaching Methods For Different Sexes In Summer School Program

Posted: July 17, 2013

Alexis Ledezma (left), 9, and Michael Custodio, 9, work on designing costumes for their upcoming play “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as part of the Odyssey program at Smithland Elementary School in Harrisonburg on Friday. The five-week-long experimental summer program splits students by sex in the morning for math and English, then brings them together to collaborate on producing a play in the afternoon. The whole program is backed by a $16,000 grant from the 21st Century Learning Centers at James Madison University. (Photos by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
Rachel Novi, an intern at JMU, works with student actors in the play. Interns in JMU’s theater education program are assisting with the production.
Sam Melkonian, an intern at JMU, talks with Alex Salazar-Mendoza (right), 9, while Jeter Hernandez, 8, looks on during preparations for the upcoming play at Smithland Elementary School on Friday.
Suzanne Gilchrist-Thompson, a teacher at Smithland Elementary School, helps Adan Salazar-Mendoza, 8, pick out fabric for costumes at the school on Friday.
HARRISONBURG — Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Boys are made of slugs and snails and puppy dog tails.

So the saying goes.

Whatever is ingrained in their genetic makeup might also make girls and boys differ in how they digest information, according to research at the heart of a pilot summer school program at Smithland Elementary School.

Scores on standardized tests nationwide and locally differed significantly by sex, researchers say, a fact that led to the creation of the five-week Odyssey program. The project separates third- and fourth-grade students by sex in the morning for language arts and math, and brings the groups together in the afternoon to work on a play they’ll perform next week.

The restructuring came on the heels of more than a year of research by fourth-grade teacher Suzanne Gilchrist-Thompson and third-grade teacher Hunter Rush into differences between the sexes.

“When they started disaggregating data for [Standards of Learning tests], we noticed some gender variations in test scores,” said Gilchrist-Thompson. “Our boys do not do as well on SOLs, particularly our minority boys.”

That’s true nationwide — data show that girls typically do better than boys on standardized tests.

For Smithland, gender- separate data available publicly combine Standards of Learning scores and scores from other statewide assessments for third- and fourth-graders, but no clear narrative emerges that shows boys are faring worse than girls. In many of the core subjects, however, one sex or the other comes out strongly on top in terms of passing rates.

The disparities may be born from what Gilchrist-Thompson says is the “one size fits all” nature of schools.

Gilchrist-Thompson and Rush are running their classrooms based on what research has found to be effective teaching methods for the different sexes.

In Gilchrist-Thompson’s class, girls support each other, participate in relationship building and group discussions and have low-competition activities.

“They want to build relationships; they want to know you like them [and] they want strong relationships with their teacher,” said Gilchrist-Thompson, adding that girls tend to be more focused and on-task than boys.

Student Carmen Vasquez, 9, a fourth-grader at Smithland, highlights this point.

“With the boys, I feel kind of nervous,” said Carmen, the daughter of Lucy Vasquez of Harrisonburg. “With the girls, I don’t. The boys are too talky. We listen to our teachers.”

Male students on the other hand praised their morning classes for the hands-on, competitive nature of the activities in which academics are “weaved in,” Rush said.

He also keeps his class moving along at a brisk pace and has replaced regular classroom chairs with yoga balls to play to young boys’ disdain for sitting still.

“The more you talk, the less boys listen,” Rush said. “If boys get bored, they start a distraction. The structure of school is probably more beneficial to young girls.”

In the afternoons, the children come together to work on the production of and rehearse the play “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Drama provides a necessary creative outlet while encouraging literacy, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, organizers said. Getting the sexes together is also important for socialization.

“It’s wonderful enrichment for them,” said Gilchrist-Thompson.

The whole program is backed by a $16,000 grant from the 21st Century Learning Centers at James Madison University and interns in JMU’s theater education program are assisting with the production.

Organizers expect to come in under budget for the program due to contributions from numerous local businesses and organizations.

Students will perform the play in Smithland’s auditorium July 24 at 2 p.m. and July 25 at 6 p.m. The performances are free and open to the public.

Mark Miller, assistant principal at Smithland, said he hopes that some of the strategies from summer school can be worked into regular classrooms at Smithland.

“[I want to] see what positives come out and have more discussions later on to see if it is something we want to try to expand in some way,” he said.

Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or

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