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English Department Chair Trevor Rees Reflects On Teaching Boys
Kristina Miller
Revor Rees Parents Weekend Convocation

"I heard a story recently about a high school English teacher in Minot, North Dakota, who came across this idea “Genius Hour” and tried it with his juniors.  After being told they would have one class period a week to pursue research on whatever they were interested in, half the students, mostly the boys, did a Google search for “What should I be interested in?”  This story makes a teacher’s heart sink.

So what are we doing to help our boys stave off the fatigue and even paralysis that can flare up on the back nine of a formal education?  How do we make space for the often misunderstood 21st century boy to emerge?  How can we steer them on the path to becoming gentlemen?  What ingredients compose our fertile Hilltop soil?  To me, it’s a combination of clever Gamemaking, the Tao Te Ching and an empathetic approach to microwave fires.  I’m talking about healthy competition, the passion to lead from behind, and acceptance.

A couple weeks ago we took a group of boys to Broadway to watch Jeff Daniels tie a bow around his Tony Award-winning run as Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  At the end of the play, Scout Finch is meditating on the lessons of the tragedy they’ve endured, and she’s struggling to calibrate her moral compass.  Ultimately, Scout settles on the bearing that “trying to do the right thing, is the right thing.” 

When you see boys ignite the microwave by cooking their popcorn for 20 minutes on high, triggering late night fire drills, it’s hard to believe “trying to do the right thing” is on their minds.  But put yourself in their shoes: maybe they wanted to expand their horizons with a well-done version of popcorn?  Perhaps they were interrupted by a friend in desperate need and became so consumed by helping others that they neglected their snack preparation at a critical juncture? 

I sincerely believe that our boys want to do the right thing; they just need a little guidance from time to time, someone to stand with them, perhaps clarify the correct hierarchy of needs, shuffling the need for microwave blaze avoidance a little higher in the stack.  One time, I returned to the dorm and there was a cavalcade of fans blowing air down the stairwell.  Microwave fire.  They were clearing out the charred plastic smell.  It’s a stubborn scent.  That was the Ford Cousin Easy Mac Inferno of Winter 2019.

When you don’t trust people, you make them untrustworthy.  It takes a little jujitsu and a lot of faith, but when you can align behind the consensus that we’re all trying to do the right thing, you’re more likely to move forward in the end.  There’s an aphorism called Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.”

It’s our job to line up next to the boys shoulder to shoulder, and light the way a little brighter.  The education science says that with boys, you can’t lecture from above them or opposite a desk when they’re struggling.  If you’re working with a boy, sit down next to him and spread out the materials in front of you, so you’re both looking at the problem shoulder to shoulder. Then attack it as a team.  There are few differences in what boys and girls can learn.  But there are big differences in the best ways to teach them. 

Boys love to compete.  BUT, it has to be competition that’s fair, competition that’s outcome is uncertain, and competition that has a clear winner.  Yes, competition can lead to bickering.  That’s okay, they can learn to resolve differences, our boys are resilient, and learning how to move on from failures and grudges is a wonderful skill to acquire before the stakes are raised later in life.  Usually when girls fight, that’s the end of the relationship, often with boys, it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Don’t worry, the Hilltop doesn’t turn into the Thunderdome when the parents leave.

For example, in the winter the English department has our annual Hammy Awards, conceived by our dear leader Chairman Elliot Grover, midwifed by yours truly, where we fete achievement in the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s epic revenge tragedy, Hamlet.  Teams write, direct, and produce their own creative interpretations of famous scenes, and we bust out our tuxes, or tuxedo t-shirts, for a red carpet gala to screen the nominees and celebrate the best.  The logo of the show is, appropriately, Hammy the Pig.  I even found a manufacturer of barbecue rib competition trophies, golden pig statues that we emblazon with honors for Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Elizabethan Actress…you name it, we’ve got it.

Two years ago we had a sticky situation: there was a clear Best Picture winner, directed by the same boy who earned Best Actor.  We were debating if it would be okay to give him both awards, instead of spreading the love.  He played a terrific Claudius, the calculating villain.  Act Three Scene Three:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

He even had like, the Joe Biden eye going where his eye was bleeding out.

We had to give him both awards, and the boys knew it too.  This is not everybody gets a trophy land.  And the boys loved it; it was firm, fair, and fun.  They rallied around the boy who won and his team, nobody was jealous, and more boys were quoting Hamlet than I had ever seen.  Boys respect real competition.  Besides, success is a lousy teacher.  Full disclosure: I got that from last Saturday’s New York Times Crossword, the clue was “A lousy teacher per Bill Gates”, and I just had to squeeze it in here.

As any of you cruciverbalists out there know, at least once a quarter, Lao Tse shows up in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  This has drawn me to the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese “Great Book of the Way to Virtue and Integrity”, written by Lao Tse, about 26 hundred years ago.  There’s a verse of it, verse 17, that I have found particularly valuable:

With the greatest leader above them, people barely know one exists.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy

The great leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.
When all is finished, the people say
“We did it ourselves.”

I read that and think: “That’s project based learning.”  With the greatest leader above them, the boys barely know one exists.  The master teacher works without self-interest and leaves no trace.  Project-based learning might not be as new as we think.  Boys are excellent at it.  It gives them ownership. 

I’m beta-testing a project in my AP Language class.  Teams of our boys are designing and co-authoring “Compendiums of Rhetoric”, each mining a different lode of source material.  One team is going to catalog the tools of language vis-à-vis Game of Thrones, another using professional sports, I can’t wait to see how they develop and flourish.  Tryion Lannister is going to be a gold mine of persuasive language.  I am going to be the principal investor, editor-in-chief, and publisher.  In March I will anoint the best edition, in April we’re going to band together to polish it and self-publish it, and in May, we’re going to try to get you to buy it.  All profits will go to our microwave disaster relief fund.

My hope, as the students are vaulted into overnight literary superstardom, is that they barely know I exist, and exclaim by June “we did it all by ourselves.”  They can do it all by themselves, and learn more than they ever cared to know about anadiplosis in the process.  Projects foster ownership, ownership creates agency, and agency deepens understanding. 

Any one of my colleagues could have taken my place up here today, each has some equally instructive version of what I tried to convey, it is an honor to serve with you.  Same with you boys, the chapel talks this year have been outstanding, keep up the good work.  I think all I could have hoped to do today was show you that we have passion, we have understanding, we have acceptance, and we care deeply about what we’re doing here.  Boys, we love lining up next to you, we happy few."