One Camp, Two Ways of Teaching Boys

An Essay by Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

There is a debate going on in the U.S. about boy academic underachievement and whether or not teachers really know how to teach boys properly. There are charges and counter-charges: boys aren't ready to learn, they play too many video games; and the classroom is feminized, maybe women teachers don't "get it" about boys' learning styles. While I welcome this important discussion, what worries me is the implication there is an easy answer to all of this, as if there were one right way to teach the great range of boys (or girls). Nothing is that simple, especially not in teaching, which is a demanding and complex skill.

As a boy advocate and school consultant, I am always on the look-out for good teaching. That's one reason I love visiting summer camps, because I invariably pick up something about the essence of the teaching process when I spend time with counselors, some of whom are veterans, but the great majority of whom are young, untrained, and novice instructors—but sometimes superb teachers nonetheless. Last summer, at a boys' camp in Vermont, I had an unusual opportunity to watch two counselor/teachers work with ten-year-old boys. One was a professional, a woman who teaches kindergarten in the winter and is waterfront director for the camp in the summer. The other was a young man, an amateur, a twenty-two-year-old college student. Their teaching styles could not have been more different.

What was particularly sweet about this encounter was that I got to see the two counselors run activities simultaneously, on either side of me, as I sat in a beach chair on a waterfront dock. On the outer side: swim lessons; on the inner, shallow side of the dock a chaotic form of "water polo." It was like watching a two-ringed circus in the water, with very different acts in each ring. In order to see both, all I had to do was turn my head from one to the other and back again, and try to keep my laptop dry with all that splashing going on all around me.

The boys, all from the youngest group at this sleep-over camp—eight- to ten-year-olds—had chosen these activities at "morning circle" from a diverse menu of activities: soccer, baseball, wood shop, a skit-writing activity for the camp show, and others too numerous to recall. Every boy was given the chance to choose the activity he wanted after a brief, often humorous presentation by the counselor in charge of that option. The "water polo" instructor, Will, had advertised his activity by saying, "We are going to play water polo, and I'll be wearing my helmet!" From his tone of voice and the helmet reference, I understood that he was advertising a free-for-all in the water. Steph, the waterfront director and swimming instructor, had simply announced, "I'll be doing swimming for anyone who wants to work on their Red Cross levels."

After circle broke up, the boys were permitted to go back to their tents, change into their suits, and laze down to the waterfront at their own pace. It is simply amazing how slowly boys move when you allow them to follow their inner clocks. Modern life has forgotten that there is a Huck Finn inside every boy saying, " . . . we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness." The beauty of a camp, if it is run right, is that there is a lot more Huck Finn time than anywhere else in America.

But I digress. By the time I got down to the dock there was a small group of boys on the dock with Steph. "Pencil dive!" shouted one boy as he jumped off the dock, clapping his hands to his sides to embody a straight line. Another boy yelled, "Jackknife!" and leapt in gripping one leg to his chest. "Pretty good," Steph said. After some minutes of diving, she announced, "In a few minutes we'll do some backstroke." The boys continued their free-form diving.

Meanwhile, Will's water polo group was taking forever to get into wet suits, but no one scolded them and no one hurried them. There was the inevitable conversation about peeing in the wetsuits to warm them up. Talk about urination and allusions to penises are a constant feature of life at a boys' camp, especially in the youngest boys' group, because bedwetting at camp is still an issue for some of them.

Two boys, now dressed in wetsuits, walked to the edge of the dock, and the bigger boy jumped in immediately. The other boy remained behind, trying not to look miserable, but he did and Will recognized the boy's anxiety immediately. He plowed through the chest-deep water, using his hands as paddles, and stood in front of him. "Are you ready, Anthony?" he asked quietly. The boy nodded. Suddenly, Will gave a mock command: "Then release your fear!" The boy jumped in.

As the game of water polo began, Will had donned his wetsuit and his blue skate-boarding helmet. He played the clown, shouting mock commands. "Go for the goal," he screams at a team-mate. "I've got you covered like a blanket." Then all of a sudden, lurching out of the water and grabbing off his water shoe he wails: "Time out . . . Rock in my croc . . . seriously, rock in my croc!"
The boys on the opposing team jump on him with ferocious energy, and he is completely accepting. No wonder he wears his skate-boarding helmet in the water. Anthony, who is smaller and younger than the others, is practically glued to Will, whether out of competitive fervor or anxiety about being in the water, or, as I suspect, because he wants the closeness to a counselor. Water polo makes his need for physical contact legitimate. I wonder whether, over the course of a year, Anthony gets to spend much time wrestling with his father in—or out of—the water.

Now twenty minutes into the activity period, Steph, holding a notebook in her hand, has begun to teach swimming in a gentle, encouraging manner. "Your body's vertical, you're treading water, and then you float on your back," She tells one boy. She throws out her arms to demonstrate the move. She is constantly smiling and occasionally laughing. She does not play the clown like Will. She is understated, earnest, and low-key—and is constantly challenging them with more difficult strokes. "You can lie on your back and do the breaststroke kick," she says, and demonstrates from the dock. "Or, you can do the dolphin kick." The boys go to it for a short time before she changes the activity, asking them to don life jackets for some safety drills. Later, I ask her how many minutes she keeps at a particular activity for boys this age. "It's short, about eight minutes."

From the other side, where the water polo game is going full out, Anthony calls out, "I just peed in the water. There's a warm spot here." Everyone smiles; no one condemns or approves. Everyone remembers the experience, but every boy there recognizes that it is a bit immature to make a public announcement the way Anthony did. A few minutes later, when he is wrestling with Will, Will spits some water out of his mouth. "You spit pee on me," says Anthony. "No, I didn't," responds Will. "Yeah, there's pee in the water," announces Anthony belligerently. "No, there are lots of things in the water," says Will, trying to both ignore and defuse Anthony's immature provocations.

Will is constantly narrating the game, as if he were a sports announcer. "It's sudden death," he shouts when one of his opponents makes a goal. The boys shout back their own commentary. Then Will suddenly changes the rules of the game, challenging them to swim farther and faster. "You better remember how to swim!" he shouts. He demonstrates a play, a reminder of the swimming skills he possesses, as well as the strength and speed he rarely uses with them.

His comment is a reminder that Will, too, is teaching a swim class, and perhaps a fitness and perseverance class as well. Will's constant patter has kept the boys swimming steadily for over an hour. Many of them have looked tired, some have looked longingly at the dock and the dry land. Will and his "wild and crazy guy" routine keeps them glued to the water.

On the other side of the dock, two boys have finished their Red Cross swim tests and have been promoted a level. Only Robert is hanging back. Perhaps he's less motivated or just distracted, or maybe he's anxious. It's hard to tell. But he has a long skill test to pass. Steph doesn't hurry him. She doesn't prod or poke or try to motivate; rather, she stands quietly as if there were all the time in the world. The boys who have completed their test sit facing her in the sunshine, wrapped in their towels. She often has a little circle of chilled boys with slightly blue lips gathered around her. Robert focuses, walks to the edge of the dock and jumps in, prepared to do his test.

Robert has to swim the forward crawl for fifteen yards, then tread water or float for thirty seconds, and then do the back crawl. His formal swim is interrupted by a flying croc shoe launched into the air by one of the water polo players on the other side of the dock. Robert stops swimming, grabs the shoe and throws it back over the dock. It immediately boomerangs back. The water polo boys have turned the shoe into a game, not knowing that Robert is taking a test. Steph never scolds, nor does she call off the test. Indeed, the test has been made harder and longer by the invasion of the shoe.

When Robert finishes, he climbs out looking pleased with himself. When I ask, he admits to me that he was nervous about passing his swim test. Happy and chilly now, he heads off the dock. The sky has turned cloudy and a little rain has started to fall.
The water polo boys have been swimming steadily for almost eighty minutes, and Will's mock orders to keep playing are met with groans and laughter. "IT'S NOT OVER!" he shouts. But, of course, it really is. The boys are tired; the rain is falling; and they are done. Everyone in both groups has passed a test of one kind or another.

The boys take it all for granted: the water fun and swim time, the afternoon rain, the two instructors and their very different teaching styles. Steph, the kindergarten teacher in her late thirties, uses an almost meditative calm and acceptance to bring boys to the point where they are ready to focus and challenge themselves. "It isn't hard," she said to me after the activity period, "If you give them half an hour of free swim first." Later she tells me that she teaches differently in the water and in the classroom. "I think my goal with them here is to let them do what they want, accomplish what they want, and get to know them as individuals."

Will, the twenty-two-year-old college guy—how can I say this?—plays the clown. And the boys love it. Will offers the boys himself: as a model, as an opponent, as a target, as the biggest boy of all. In so doing he makes them feel that being a boy is a blast. He also offers them a bridge to manhood, through actual physical contact and imitation. He uses his phenomenal capacity to throw himself into a game to seduce them into taking risks, into feeling their courage, and using all of their energy.

The boys in both had fun and made progress, either on their Red Cross swim levels or on their coordination, fitness, and their fears. They had gotten stronger, and they had obvious feelings of accomplishment. Now, can you tell me, what's the best way to teach boys? And, oh yes, while you're at it, could you tell me the best way to teach girls? I need a quick answer.

Working With Boys in a Summer Camp Setting
Six Tips for Working with Boys

  1. Remember that boys value choice and control. To the extent that you can give boys choices about when and how they enter the water, for instance, or in which order they take a swim test, you will elicit their cooperation. One of the most important aspects of the scene I described is that the boys were able to pick the counselor with whom they wanted to work during that activity period.
  2. Avoid power struggles. Because issues of hierarchy and dominance are so salient for boys, it is best if you can finesse the power issues much of the time. (This is difficult for college-age counselors who are just feeling their own adult power.) In the essay, one counselor did it by “playing” at being powerful; the other counselor did it by understating her power.
  3. Silently accept boys’ fears or acknowledge them light-heartedly. Boys are often humiliated by being afraid; it offends their sense of masculinity, so do not spend a lot of time talking about their fears. Either accommodate them silently, as the swim instructor did, or acknowledge them lightly and provide a boy with a way out. One former camper told me that once when he climbed up a high diving tower at his camp, and was not “supposed” to climb down, he froze in fear at the top. A counselor climbed up, stood beside him, held out his hand and said, “Let’s jump together.” That generous act turned a moment of terror into triumph.
  4. Throw yourself into an activity with “boyish” enthusiasm. Boys respond to the energy of their fathers from early in life. If you are excited about an activity, your enthusiasm will serve as a form of leadership, and they will respond to
    it, as long as it is not false or manufactured.
  5. Boys respond to the quiet confidence of their counselors. One of the most important things that mothers provide for little boys who are playing or taking risks is confidence in them. A mother’s silent trust supports them. You do not have to constantly coach, encourage or cheer on boys when they are confronting a task. Your silent confidence is enormously helpful to them. Too much booster-ism can turn them off.
  6. Peer pressure is one of the most powerful forces in the life of boys. Let the presence and example of other boys do its work. As a counselor, you do not have to run everything with your instructions and your direction. As long as you have some camp “veterans” among a group of boys, other boys will key on them and follow them. Save your precious ammunition for groups made up of new campers or times when the leader boys have collapsed into giggles or an oppositional stance. Boys appreciate it when they are not being led all of the time.

Self-Evaluation and Peer Evaluation

  1. If you are an experienced counselor, sit down and make a list of the three things you did best with boys and the things you have tried with boys that have bombed. Be honest with yourself and after you have listed them try to analyze why some work and some do not.
  2. If you are a first-time counselor, make the list two weeks into the camp session. Gender matters. It is worthwhile focusing on the techniques you use both with boys and girls.
  3. Whether you are experienced or inexperienced, ask a colleague to observe you working with boys and give you feedback about what you did right and what did not work well.

Michael Thompson, Ph.D., is a psychologist. He is the coauthor of Raising Cain and author of The Pressured Child.

Originally published in the 2007 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.