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Lessons In Manhood: A Boys' School Turns Work Into Wonders

Jul 27, 2014
Originally published on July 27, 2014 7:22 pm

This summer, All Things Considered has been taking a look at the changing lives of men in America. And that means talking about how the country educates boys.

In Berkeley, Calif., a private, non-profit middle school called the East Bay School for Boys is trying to reimagine what it means to build confident young men. In some ways, the school's different approach starts with directing, not stifling, boys' frenetic energy.

"I think boy energy has been misunderstood," says Lisa Hayle, a language arts teacher at the East Bay School. "Instead of squelching their enthusiasm for things, at our school we channel it and work with it."

The East Bay School is not a traditional boys school, aimed at reinforcing typical ideas of what it means to "be a man." The school's director, Jason Baeten, says that the goal is instead to create an educational space where boys can make mistakes, be vulnerable and learn to be self-reliant.

Baeten says, "We all came together and decided what we wanted our graduates to look like, what qualities we wanted them to have. So, things like: respects women, flexible, resilient — all of these."

One of the ways that the school is trying to upend tradition is by re-inventing shop class for the 21st century. In fact, they don't even call it "shop." At the East Bay School for Boys, it goes by a different name: "work."

David Clifford, the school's director of innovation, explains why: "We moved away from the language of shop because it has a history behind it, where for decades now, shop has been considered second or third tier in education, where first tier is academics."

Shop classes have dropped off the curriculum at high schools nationwide. In Los Angeles, for instance, around 90 percent of traditional shop classes have been eliminated.

Now, something called "career and technical education" still exists. In fact, this week President Obama signed a law encouraging the expansion of such programs. But the most popular classes nationwide are health science, information technology and business — not vocational, blue-collar training like carpentry or auto shop.

At East Bay, "work" is one of the six main classes all boys take, right alongside math and language arts. Boys build their own cubbies, desks and benches. One student, Jaden Yu, is building a massive metal hammer as part of a larger project in which boys imagine themselves as superheroes.

Yu says that his superhero mission is to fight poverty, and the hammer is his weapon. "What this is for is destroying old buildings so that new ones can be rebuilt. Old buildings that aren't being used, so that new ones can be built for homeless people, people who need it."

And they tie this work into a larger curriculum, too. In one instance, boys built replica Civil War officers' chairs which were paired with biographies of the officers who sat in them.

Clifford says teaching these kinds of hard skills is vital, for boys and girls. Not only do they graduate knowing how to use a table saw and welder, but Baeten says the work fosters creativity and resilience.

Those tools are sometimes dismissed as "soft skills" by educators pushing a greater emphasis on hard academics. But Baeten says those kinds of skills, including empathy, are central to the school's mission. "The real important part about being a man is taking accountability for your actions, living your life really fully in a really present way and loving people fully."

As a private school in the Bay Area, though, East Bay is not cheap. Families pay more than $21,000 a year to send their sons here. But they've also made an effort to make sure their vision of masculinity isn't just for the privileged. More than half of students here get some type of tuition assistance. More than 70 percent come here from public schools. And nearly half of the boys here identify as non-white or mixed race.

The East Bay School's program is new, having only opened classes in the fall of 2010. The school's holistic view of boyhood — spanning academic to social development — is still evolving.

The big question is: Can aspects of East Bay's more holistic approach to educating boys work elsewhere, especially in America's public middle schools? The statistics can be sobering for a boy in public school. Boys drop out of school and get suspended at much higher rates than their female counterparts. Federal statistics show that among those who are suspended multiple times and expelled, 75 percent are boys.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

This summer ALL THINGS CONSIDERED has been taking a look at the changing lives of men in America. And that means talking about how we educate boys. In Berkeley, California a private non-profit middle school called, The East Bay School for Boys is trying to reimagine what it means to build confident young men. I took a trip to the middle school just before the end of the school year. As class gave way to lunchtime the halls filled with sixth, seventh and eighth graders, many of whom were winding up for summer and happy to give me an exuberant welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 1: Can I be interviewed?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 2: Was it live?

WESTERVELT: What are you guys getting ready to do?

UNKNOWN PERSON: UNIDENTIFIED BOY 1: Can I be interviewed about my...

WESTERVELT: In some ways the school's different approach starts with directing, not stifling boys sometimes frenetic energy.

LISA HAYLE: I think boy energy has been misunderstood. And instead of squashing it and squelching their energy and their enthusiasm for things, at our school we channel it and we work with it.

WESTERVELT: That's language arts teacher Lisa Hayle.

HAYLE: Knowing that I see that they had this energy and that they need help managing it instead of coming at them in a punitive way. I'd rather manage it, than punish it. It's that simple.

WESTERVELT: East Bay director Jason Baeten says the aim is to create an educational space where boys can make mistakes, be vulnerable and learn to be self reliant.

JASON BAETEN: We all came together and decided what we wanted our graduates to look like, like what qualities we wanted them to have. So, things like respects women, flexible, resilient.

WESTERVELT: Now this is still a private school in the San Francisco Bay area and it's not cheap. Families pay more than $20,000 a year to send their sons here. But the school has made an effort to make sure their vision of masculinity isn't just for the privileged and the white. More than half of the students here get some type of tuition assistance. More than 70 percent come from public elementary schools. And nearly half of the boys here identify as nonwhite or mixed race. One way the school is trying to upend tradition is by reinventing shop class for the 21st century. When I visited they were finishing up an assignment to build tools for an imagined superhero with a social mission.

WESTERVELT: What you got there? What - show me?

JADEN YU: This is my war hammer. We're working on it for like, I think almost the whole work class for the school year.

WESTERVELT: Eighth- grader Jaden Yu, who's 14, shows me a massive metal hammer he's built. Part Thor part Lord of the Rings.

YU: You want to lift it?

WESTERVELT: Yeah sure? We're looking at a four-foot-high steel pipe with a giant Thor spike.

YU: It's filled with concrete.

WESTERVELT: Wow. Super heavy Wow.

WESTERVELT: Yu said his super hero's mission is to fight poverty.

YU: Well, what this is for is destroying old buildings so that new ones can be rebuilt, the old buildings that aren't being used so that new ones can be built for homes for homeless people, people who need it.

WESTERVELT: Shop classes have dropped off the curriculum at middle and high schools nationwide. Here in LA around 90 percent of the traditional shop classes have been eliminated. What's called career and technical education still exist. But they're almost always electives and the most popular classes nationwide are information technology, health sciences and business, not hands-on technical classes such as carpentry or auto shop. But eighth grader Jaden Yu says this class has helped him prepare for his future.

YU: It teaches you how to make stuff for yourself. If you ever need to like maybe make a door or a frame for a door or a fence, now we know how to do that. So, you can make that at home now.

WESTERVELT: Here at East Bay the boys help build everything from cubbies to apps, to the very desks they use. Here shop class a.k.a work, is just one of six main classes Jaden and all the boys take. It's seen as having equal value alongside math and language arts and physical education. Teacher David Clifford.

DAVID CLIFFORD: All we're asking the boys to do is to think about what they value, what they're good at, what they're challenged by and what difference they want to make in the world.

WESTERVELT: The school ties work class into the curriculum, like on the day I was there boys were finishing up replica Civil War officers' chairs, which were paired with biographies of the union officers who sat in them. Clifford says teaching these kinds of hard skills is vital for boys and girls. Not only do they graduate knowing how to use a table saw and welder but he says the work fosters creativity and resilience. Director Jason Baeten says that mixture of so-called hard and soft skills is central to this school's mission.

BAETEN: Because the real important part about being a man is taking accountability for your actions, living your life really fully and in a really present way and loving people fully.

WESTERVELT: The East Bay School for Boys is still evolving. The school itself is new. Their first class began in the fall of 2010. And a big question is, can aspects of this holistic approach to educating boys work in America's public middle schools? The statistics there are sobering. Boys drop out of school and get suspended at much higher rates than their female counterparts. Federal statistics show that 75 percent of kids who are suspended multiple times and expelled are boys. Many of whom will never have access to this kind of progressive and expensive school. Thanks for listening it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.