Why Single Gender?, May 2018

I have been and still remain a firm believer in the benefits of single-sex education during the critical middle school years.  My experience at an all-boys summer camp, combined with my own research about the benefits of single-sex education, were largely what compelled me to create an all-boys middle-school opportunity in the Asheville area.  Founded as an all-boys school in 2009, the French Broad River Academy now also serves middle-school girls with the opening of our girls school in 2015. The boys and girls programs are located on separate campuses located along the banks of the French Broad River, with the girls school in the River Arts District school and the boys school in Woodfin.

Can coed middle school programs produce successful outcomes? The answer is “yes” of course. I successfully taught both boys and girls in a coed classroom for years as a Spanish teacher and led coed trips on the French Broad and to Costa Rica. However, I would argue that there is something unique and special about the classroom and school culture that can be created in a single-sex environment. For instance, I recently observed an all-girls math classroom where classmates eagerly researched and designed aeronautical features to improve the trajectory of their rockets for an upcoming launch at the end of the year. I also witnessed eighth-grade boys trying to “out conjugate” each other during a Spanish review activity as they prepared for their Spanish placement exam.

In each scenario, the students were focused on the objective of the class, the content of the curriculum, their learning, and their outcomes instead of stressing over whether a classmate might ridicule their response to a teacher’s question. Without the dynamic of “coed competition,” student academic performance improves, confidence and self-esteem rises, and students are prepared with the character and integrity for success in high school, college, and the competitive world beyond.

Undoubtedly, the growth and success of FBRA is largely due to tailoring its program to the specific needs of boys and girls. However, as we grow and reflect on how to improve the FBRA experience, we have discovered that there are some amazing opportunities for coed interaction within our programming.

I joined the eighth-grade classes from the boys and girls schools on a recent trip to Purchase Knob in Smoky Mountains National Park to see for myself. Students from both schools were divided into groups and after some initial introductions and activities, the boys and girls rode together and discussed how their year was going, where they would be attending high school in the fall, and so forth. Once we arrived at the site, students enjoyed a picnic lunch together with breathtaking views of the Smokies in every direction.

The staff at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center facilitated an amazing experiential lesson for the group that involved locating and examining tardigrades (microscopic invertebrates-click link for more) under a microscope as well as conducting a field study of salamanders.

Students collaborated on the collection of specimens, analysis of data, and reporting of findings. It was real science in action, but even more impressive was the experiment of mixing our students together. The eighth graders from both schools demonstrated outstanding character and integrity in a truly unique setting. It was evident to me that our shared culture allowed us to succeed in this type of setting where many other school groups fall short in terms of the impression made on the outside facilitator.

Each spring our sixth graders do a coed canoe trip  This allows the students and staff to build relationships based on unique shared experiences in the outdoors. Sadly, this is an increasingly rare practice that is being supplanted by interactions via social media platforms like Snapchat. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, tandem (two-person) canoeing creates a unique communication dynamic where there are real, tangible consequences if communication and teamwork fails. The natural need and structure that a whitewater canoeing trip provides creates the ideal context for young adolescents to interact in a positive and healthy way.
Let me be clear, FBRA was founded as a single-sex middle school program and will continue to be that. However, as opportunities for coed interaction present themselves in a variety of formats, we will continue to evaluate them based on the following question:

“Are we building character and integrity for a lifetime of learning and service in a physically and emotionally safe environment?”

If the answer is yes, you can expect to see more “coed crossover” in the coming years!

The River Experience at FBRA, February 2018

I am often asked why we commit so much time, effort, and resources to take our students canoeing one day a week throughout the fall and spring. My short answer is that “it creates the capacity for us to fulfill our mission in the best possible way we know how.” In this edition of The Current, I will provide a longer answer to this question and break down the “why” of our canoe program, as well as share our rationale for our unique approach to middle school experience for young people.

Our mission is to build character and integrity in young people for a lifetime of learning and service. Paddling whitewater in a tandem (two-person) canoe creates the most unique, unforgettable opportunities for our students to develop their character and test their integrity in a variety of ways that no other classroom or program can replicate. Co-founder David Byers captures the essence of our program with the following quote:

I still believe that tandem canoeing is a great way to build social skills in middle school boys. Canoeing with a partner not only develops whitewater paddling skills and teamwork, but it also strengthens self-confidence as the boys progress down rapids and are forced to make quick decisions with instant feedback from the river. Tandem canoeing also forces socialization and communication at a level that few other outdoor pursuits do.

Whitewater rapids are not the only place where tremendous learning and growth take place. The level of communication and collaboration required for a group of sixth graders to successfully load multiple canoes on to a twelve-foot trailer is tremendous and rivals that of a highly trained military unit. The empathy shared for a student who took a long, difficult swim at Nantahala Falls by a classmate is impressive and authentic. The planning and execution of a successful 3-day trip on the Chattooga river requires an attention to detail and level of preparation that sets our 8th graders up for success as they prepare to tackle the unpredictable challenges of high school and beyond. I have witnessed all of our students demonstrate these skills first hand on countless occasions.

I attribute my own success and accomplishments to my river and camp experience. While I cherish and appreciate my traditional schooling experience at Harvard and Vanderbilt, I learned early on that education requires much more than high levels of numeracy and literacy. It requires opportunities to safely experience failure and to have the capacity to learn and grow from that experience. Yoda reminds us all in the most recent Star Wars, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

 Education also requires a sense of community built around unique shared experiences with shared language and metaphors. During the first week of school at camps Green Cove (girls) and Mondamin (boys), each student at FBRA quickly learns that they are part of something bigger than themselves. This sense of being a part of a team carries over into the math classroom when a group of students collaborate to solve a math problem, or when a class is challenged with a difficult service project in rural Costa Rica. The shared language and metaphors instilled from day one are applicable throughout the three years at FBRA and extend into high school and the world beyond.

While many of these skills and habits can be obtained through programs outside of the traditional school environment, the FBRA experience cannot be replicated because the same person teaching you 7th grade science is also your international trip leader, your PE teacher, and your whitewater canoeing instructor. Therefore, the expectations and culture of FBRA are consistent, and as a result, the outcomes and growth are consistent.

Do we canoe for the sake of canoeing?  On a certain level, yes. Being outside on rivers with children and exciting rapids is fun, even exhilarating at times. It rejuvenates our spirits and reminds us of the sheer joy and pleasure we once experienced. However, on a deeper level, canoeing is a means to a different end. It allows us to build the character and integrity in young people that is so desperately needed in a society where children are increasingly detached from the natural world and where the line between “virtual reality” and what is actually happening in young people’s lives is becoming more blurred and indistinguishable each day. It allows us to create a special community built around unique shared experiences with common language and metaphors.  The river experience is not the only way to accomplish these goals, but it absolutely makes the most sense to me.

So, peel out, read, and react!