Lee Lewin, School’s founder, program director and teacher, shares her thoughts on what it takes to create a safe and empowering learning setting for adolescent girls:
After several years of teaching in the public elementary schools, I noticed a pattern that emerged in the fifth grade.
Many girls—not all of them, but many—lose sight of their own individuality, their own strengths. Many girls become reluctant to compete academically with boys for fear of losing the boys’ admiration. Middle school is a three-year window where girls who are at risk of losing academic focus should be sheltered from gender dynamics. It’s a critical time to develop academic strengths and self-esteem so they can continue on to public high schools or the high schools of their choices and be successful.
Middle school is a three year period between childhood and young adulthood when adolescents develop life-long habits, social perspectives, self-expectations and attitudes towards learning.
In about 5th grade, sometimes even in the 4th grade, girls become very sensitive to the attention of boys, and will often compete for their attention. And the way they compete can be hard on their own development. One of the ways they might compete is to stop being productive in class. Because if they stand out in an academic setting they might get teased, so it is safer to be quiet.
Some girls might disengage from certain subject matters, like math or science, because these subjects are perceived as “boys’ territory”. By the 6th grade it is very noticeable that when girls are not in the same classroom with boys, or on site with boys, they have a greater degree of emotional safety. They are much more inclined to take risks – whether in an academic or in emotional setting, and it is this kind of risk taking that is the basis of development and growth. I find that it is a good approach to give girls an opportunity to be comfortable to take these academic and emotional risks in the absence of boys, before patterns of behavior alter. Developmentally speaking, in the 7th grade students are really ready for abstract thought and eager to engage with bigger ideas, but it is really hard if they have learned to hold back, to disengage from speaking up during the years leading to that moment.
Often, girls will compete against one another when there are boys around. In a learning environment where there are no boys, girls become collaborative. I believe that the biggest advantage of a single-gender school is the opportunity to learn that collaboration is in sharing knowledge so that others can benefit from it, receiving knowledge, and working together in finding solutions, and that is a much more enjoyable way to learn. Collaboration is also a life skill that helps way beyond middle school.
As a teacher, I see that learning takes place best in an environment where exchange of ideas and skill practice are encouraged and supported by educators and peers. Deep learning requires mutual trust and accountability. Trust and accountability occur in a learning environment small enough that no individual is anonymous.
The most positive classroom environment is the one that is relational: small enough so that students feel safe to engage with each other and with their teachers. Learning is about asking questions, engaging in dialogue, fostering social interactions in the group, working on establishing such critical thinking skills as gathering and evaluating information, and coming to a conclusion. And that happens in a safe and small environment. So learning has to take place in a setting where the relationships are safe; where the students and the adults all know one another.