New Leadership class

Posted: February 14, 2014

More than following the leader: New Leadership Studies course teaches males how to set an example within their gender-community

Five months, four units, three class periods per week, two years to develop a curriculum, one gender and infinite definitions of the subject in question: leadership.

Social studies teacher Matthew Ridenour is teaching a new class this semester, Leadership Studies. The course is available to sophomore, junior and senior boys, though Ridenour hopes it will serve as the pilot for a partner-class that will eventually be offered to females as well. The class is separated by gender to address male-specific challenges when it comes to leadership.

Objectives: “I see the objective [of the class] as threefold,” said Ridenour. “One, to address what leadership is and what it isn’t. Then, to look at what are the specific concerns, circumstances [and] issues surrounding leadership as a guy. Finally, there’s this expressive component, like ‘Take what I’ve learned and do something with it.’” Ridenour was hired six years ago, and brought the idea for a leadership class with him.

Ridenour formerly worked for a whitewater rafting and mountaineering company that created leadership development curriculum, of which Ridenour was a part. “When I first interviewed with [principal] Nancy Johnson, I articulated my hope that someday I could do a class like this,” said Ridenour. “At the time it wasn’t male-specific. We read this book, and that became the impetus for the version of the class as it exists now.”

Reason for class The book Ridenour refers to is Boys Adrift by psychologist Leonard Sax, which the entire Minnehaha staff read during the summer of 2012 by request of principal Nancy Johnson and vice principal Mike DiNardo.

Sax believes there are five main factors involved in the epidemic of laziness and apathy that affects so many American boys today: video games, changes at school, prescription drugs (specifically ADD and ADHD medication), environmental toxins and “devaluation of masculinity.” Boys Adrift acted as the catalyst for Leadership Studies, which partially explains why the class is only offered to males.

“In elementary through high school, boys have lower grades, lower class ranks, [and] see fewer academic honors,” said DiNardo, who studied the difference between male and female achievement levels as part of his doctorate. “Boys are not performing well, but it is a national problem, not [just] a Minnehaha problem. Overall, our boys do well, but compared to the girls here you see a discrepancy.”

Why not girls? DiNardo said that while girls are more likely to do all their homework, follow directions and take AP classes, standardized test scores between males and females are no different. Females face different problems when it comes to achievement, and Ridenour hopes that these problems are eventually addressed.

“I view it as a pilot class that would eventually be extended to females,” said Ridenour. “I do think it’s important that the classes are separate, just in the same way that we separate health classes for certain reasons. There are certain facets of this class that make having separate classes more conducive to the topic.”

Junior Andrew Wintz agrees that the boys-only classroom setting is beneficial for facilitating discussion.

“There are definitely fewer distractions,” said Wintz. “I also think that it helps us as a group. We connect with each other in a different way than we would with girls.”

Though the class is currently only available to males, Ridenour hopes that females do not feel like they are being excluded.

“I sincerely hope that a companion class with females is part of the curriculum in the near future,” said Ridenour. “It would break my heart if anyone were to feel that we were trying to exclude girls from the topic of leadership. We started this because I am a male, and my expertise in my previous area of work was with leadership development especially with boys.”

The gender separation allows the 13 boys in Leadership Studies (five seniors, six juniors and two sophomores) to discuss leadership in the context of their gender community.

Class structure: As a new course there is room for debate on what each class period will look like. “I know [what class will look like] the day of, but the night before I’m still planning and thinking,” said Ridenour. “I’ve laid out the units, and on a daily basis thus far it’s looked like one component of lecture and dialogue. Then there’s an activity component, so looking at case studies, and the third is a writing and a personal exploration component.”

Considering that this is the first time the class has been offered, Ridenour welcomes and encourages student input.

“[Mr. Ridenour] says that we are all building the class together,” said senior Joe Elmquist. “He doesn’t have a set curriculum, because he’s learning just as well as we are.”

However, there is a plan at the beginning of each day.

“He has a PowerPoint set up, he gives us reading and books that he sends home with us every night, we have a journal that we keep and journal during class,” said Elmquist. “There’s definitely structure, but it’s loose enough that we’re able to contribute to the class.”

Beyond the malleable structure of daily class periods, the grading system is also unconventional; every student is granted an “A” at the beginning of the semester. This system was derived from the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander. Ridenour included an article on Zander in the course syllabus which outlines how to keep that “A.”

“Every fall, on the first day of class, I make an announcement: ‘Everybody gets an A.’” said Zander in a Fast Company article by Polly LaBarre. “There’s only one condition: Students have to submit a letter- written on that first day but dated the following May- that begins: ‘Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…’ They have to tell me… who they will have become by the end of the course that will justify this extraordinary grade.”

Ridenour used this policy to ensure that his students would focus on how to become the best leaders they can be, not just to get an A.

“It lifts a weight off my shoulders,” said Elmquist. “I do things more along the lines of how I want to learn, rather than how he wants me to learn. I’m doing it for me more than I’m doing it for the grade.”

Taking initiative to learn for the sake of learning is a trait that could be attributed to a leader, but Ridenour thinks that leadership is more than just trait possession.

“I lean more toward what we would call a transformational approach to leadership,” said Ridenour, “which emphasizes the idea that a leader is simply someone who helps transform a community, an individual, a relationship, an organization to become something that it wasn’t but needed to be.”

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