The class was focused. But for the tip-tap of fingers flying across keyboards, the computer lab was quiet. Their assignment had been to research their astrological sign and describe in writing whether or not they thought it was a good fit.
Alice raised her hand.
“Mr. Wondra, could you read this to make sure I’m doing it right?”
“Sure.” I knelt down at her side and started reading. It didn’t take long.
“Alice. Do you have any examples from your own life in this?”
“Did you decide whether the characteristics in your zodiac sign do a good job describing you?”
“Do you have an introduction?”
I think it was at this point that I noticed she was crying.
Early in my teaching career these tears would have baffled me. I was asking questions. Her own answers were instructive. But, as I’ve discovered, most of the time there’s much more to it than that. Consider the following research.
In 1991, Janel Caine, a graduate student at the University of Florida, set out to determine if playing music to premature babies might stimulate improved appetites and faster growth. What she found was that babies exposed to soft music in their cribs not only grew faster, but also had fewer complications. Additionally they were discharged an average of five days sooner than babies that were not exposed to music.
It was a fascinating and important discovery. But her findings becomes truly startling when broken down by gender: Baby girls exposed to music left the hospital an average of nine and a half days sooner than babies that were not. Baby boys exposed to music left no sooner at all.
Why? A number of recent studies measuring something called the “acoustic brain response” has shown that girls hear substantially better than boys—especially in the 1,000—4,000-Hz range. Again, interesting data. But these findings become even more significant when linked with research suggesting that the range of sounds around 1,500 Hz is critical for understanding speech.
Among other things, this may help to explain why, on average, girls seem to pick up language skills sooner than boys. There is a lot more to say about the link between what our children hear and language development than this one column will allow. So we’ll have to revisit that specific link again later. But did you know that because boys sometimes have trouble hearing things that girls hear as loud, teachers often creatively adapt the learning environment to account for this little known difference in gender? It’s true.
For example, since it’s true that girls can hear certain tones better than boys, teachers will often avoid placing a girl near the door because if someone is talking in the hall, she’ll have a greater chance of hearing that and being distracted. On the other hand, since teachers often give instruction from the front of the room, we often seat boys there, where they will hear us better.
Female teachers with softer voices will often project a bit more for the boys, while men with low booming voices will tone it down so as not to overpower the girls. Being a male with a louder voice myself, I also want to avoid seating girls where they may think I’m shouting.
Men (teachers or not) also want to keep this in mind while addressing girls individually. If I use my normal tone, a girl might think I’m yelling at her. And in fact, this is exactly what happened with Alice in the computer lab.
In the end, I knelt down to eye level with her as she sat at her computer. I told Alice that I knew why she was crying. I told her that I wasn’t angry, apologized for being loud, and explained that I wasn’t “yelling” at her. When I toned it down, we began again. Almost immediately, she understood and stopped crying. And when she relaxed, we made great progress on her paper.
Image Credit: Bindaas Madhavi
Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Find We Teach We Learn on Facebook and Twitter for daily tips on getting the most out of your brain. Email Chris at: firstname.lastname@example.org.