Boys-only English course offered at NHS

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NAUGATUCK — It’s a man’s world in a new tenth-grade English course at Naugatuck High School.

School administrators, noticing a dearth of male upperclassmen registering for Advanced Placement English courses and tracking male students’ underperformance in language arts on standardized tests, have hand-selected a group of high-achieving and potentially high-achieving sophomores, based on teacher recommendations, for the school’s first boys-only English literature course. Administrators hope participation in the course will plant seeds of passion early and get students interested in pursuing advanced English courses in their junior and senior years.

“When they’re reading something that really grabs them and is interesting to them, and they can have conversations about it and break it down, they may grasp it and get more into it,” said NHS Principal Fran Serratore. “The idea is that some of these students will take on some of these AP courses next year.”

The curriculum of the new course—including the books students will read—is tailored specifically for boys and is intended to spark their interest in and understanding of English literature.

“We’re using strategies that are more boy-friendly,” said Associate Principal Janice Saam. “Boys tend to be more competitive, they tend to be more verbal, they tend not to be as comfortable talking about emotions in front of females. We hope this environment will help them to be more self-expressive and make them comfortable about expressing their feelings.”

Anthony Sorge, the English instructor who’s leading the new course, said after two weeks it appears the boys will have little trouble airing their thoughts throughout the school year.

“Boys don’t have as much of a fear of being wrong, I’ve noticed,” he said, “They’re much more prone to kind of blurt things out and take risks with their answers. In a mixed class that could be kind of disruptive and problematic because it silences some of the girls because, you know, all these loud boys kind of dominate the discussions and activities. … I’m encouraging them to take risks with their interpretations and go beyond the surface and throw ideas out there and try to support them. Boys tend to do that anyway. It’s a little louder than a normal class, but it’s a good loud.”

Sorge gave the class the choice of reading any of seven books to kick off the school year, and the boys are now divided into those reading one of three books: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a Vietnam War memoir composed of vignettes detailing soldiers’ experience in the war and veterans’ lives afterward; Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” a nonfiction book about Chris McCandless, a young man who, after graduating from college, attempts to discard the convenient trappings and wearisome burdens of modern society and pursue a survivalist lifestyle in backcountry Alaska; and Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider,” the story of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone who overcomes his captors’ brainwashing to rediscover his humanity.

“I’ve picked really boy-oriented books that have subject matter that’s really relatable and exciting for them—you know, stuff about war and adventure and survival—but also stuff that has a really heavy emotional weight to it,” Sorge said. “So it kind of becomes this really safe way to talk about emotional stuff, because we’re doing it through the context of this sort of macho subject matter. It’s not what they perceive to be feminine emotionality; it’s life and death, survival, family stuff, what it means to be a man—things that are a little closer to them. … It takes the stigma away from it a little bit.”

Sorge said students were somewhat negative about the class at first but seem to be warming up as the school year picks up momentum. He said after spending a few days previewing the books, the students were “practically begging” to get their hands on the texts and start reading—something he said he’s never experienced.

Saam’s own observations confirmed the boys’ cautious enthusiasm for the course.

“I went in the other day and I talked to the boys,” she said, “and they were kind of teasing, saying, ‘Jeez, we miss the girls,’ and I said, ‘Well, aside from the view, is there anything you’re really missing?’ and they laughed, but it seemed, as I sat through the class, that they were participating, they were vocal, they were having a good time with it.”

The tenth-grade honors course may be just the beginning of gender-specific, experimental education at NHS. A boys-only advanced creative writing course for seniors—intended to foster the development of writing as a marketable skill—is already in the works for the Spring semester.

Additionally, girls-only courses in analytical math and science courses could be on the horizon.

“One of the things that we’re hoping, if this pilot proves successful, we’d like to look into an all-girls math or an all-girls science,” Saam said. “Those are subjects that girls tend to be not as predominant as males.”

But that’s assuming the pilot goes well and the new English program continues.

“It’s a pilot and we’ll see how it goes,” Serratore said. “You have downsides when you’re not having females in a class, also. You lose something, you gain something. We just want to take a look and see how this plays out, what are the advantages and disadvantages, and track it, and make some decisions next year.”

For this year, at least, boys will be boys in Sorge’s class, and he couldn’t be more pleased.

“I’m pretty excited to just do some research, figure out what might work and start doing some new things, because that’s what makes my job exciting,” he said.OOY