ARTs In The Field: The "Grand Theft" of Boys

As an educational program developer and teaching artist I’m always looking for and trying out new ways to engage students, raise their artistic IQ and help them increase their cognition.

This summer I was working with a summer camp program that was part of a charter school in Harlem. I was brought in to teach dramatic arts and came to them armed with all sorts of great exercises and key themes that I wanted to address. I had a great group of 2nd & 3rd graders who really participated and although some of them were challenging at times in the end they learned and really enjoyed the process.

Recently I was asked by a suburban public school (in a good school district) to teach a dramatic arts & movement class. These kinds of interdisciplinary topics always excite me because I really get the chance to show the similarities and differences between the disciplines. In one of the exercises I did with my 5th grade class I had the students listen to a musical track from two artists. One was Nirvana and the other Sara Barilles. I choose these two artists because Nirvana has a very assertive and driving musical repertoire as opposed to the melodic and emotive Sara Bareilles. As the students listened they had to write words that expressed what those songs made them feel. After a group discussion, I separated the boys from the girls and had them create two stories and skits inspired by the overall feelings the songs brought up. What I noticed is that the boys focus was on shooting, war and fighting all done with a type of glee and laughter. Now I expected to see some kind of “action” from the Nirvana music. That was the point. However, the story the boys created pretty much stayed the same for the Sara Bareilles song. During my group discussion with the boys I asked them what the story was that they were trying to convey. I wasn’t getting any real premise. Then I heard those three words I’m sure many of us working with kids hear “Grand Theft Auto.” Once I heard them reference this popular game it made me decide to push further and ask them for names of action movies that they liked. They listed off a couple but when they mentioned Star Wars I then asked what was that movie about. Still, I got names of characters, full descriptions of wars and fighting, etc but not one of the boys could tell me why the fighting was happening in that story.

In this moment it became really clear to me that boys are getting an overdose of images and virtual training in the art of war and destruction but without one really important part. They are not being taught the responsibility that comes with having a weapon. They are not being taught that with war comes consequence and the reason why they may be fighting must outweigh the consequences and casualties. They are not being taught to look for that even in their entertainment so of course they don’t see it. They are blinded by pyrotechnics, blood, death, shooting and the power they believe comes with it. They have no clue that It is not the man that has the sword that is powerful, but the one that knows how to wield the sword that is.

I spent time working with the boys (as much as I could) so that they could start to get an understanding of that. I really wished I could have a separate class with the boys to address this because what I noticed is that the girls (who were way more adept at this exercise) verbally fired statements like “boys are stupid, they’re so immature, they don’t know what they’re doing” and as I reprimanded and quieted the girls I saw the boys accept and internalize these statements. Clearly, they hear this all the time and it actually gave them license to act even more erratic.

Scientifically they say that girls develop faster than boys and this is a mantra that we’ve heard for decades. However, maybe it’s more of girls learn differently than boys. Maybe there is a reason why most indigenous people separate the boys from the girls during a certain age range that is more than an avenue for instilling societal stereotypes. Either way as educators, teachers, parents, mentors and the community I encourage us all to work to get boys to see past “action” and look for the cause and effect. They need to have those mental muscles exercised where they are actually seeing the reasoning behind the fight and the ability to make a projection as to who will be affected by these actions. If we don’t, I fear that we will have multiple generations of boys who are the victims of the “Grand Theft” of their humanity and possibly all of ours.