Where Do Boys Fit in ELA? (50 Books in 2020… #5)

Thankfully I’ve been doing a much better job of reading my 50 books in 2020, than I have blogging about those texts. I actually finished Book #5 in May but didn’t get around to capture my thoughts in a blog post. It was such a fascinating book, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on it now.

The book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture by Thomas Newkirk, was recommended to me by Mike Anderson. The book explores how boys interact with, consume, and produce literature.

There were many thought-provoking ideas in this book, but for the purposes of time, I wanted to discuss three in particular here.

1 – The gender gap in reading and literacy shows that boys do not perform as well in reading and do not have the same enjoyment of the subject as their female peers. The pride boys take in their academic work drops from elementary school (53%) to high school (16%). This is coupled with the fact that boys feel that showing enthusiasm in school is seen not being a “real boy.” When boys show they are excited about school and learning they receive negative feedback – at least that is their perception. There’s a boy code which dictates how boys should act and interact, and this code does not value reading as manly endeavor. Some of this might be reinforced by their surroundings. In one survey more students reported their mother reading more often (56%) than students who said their father reads more frequently (5.6%).

How do we encourage boys to enjoy reading more? How can we get to a place where boys show enthusiasm for reading and writing in school? These are very important questions and should be discussed as educations systems look to improve literacy programs.

2 – There are hierarchies of literacy in education and schools. Books chosen in schools are typically longer, traditional selections of literature. I once had a conversation with a coworker who taught high school English. I asked why we still teach mostly the same books in our high school classes which were used when I was a student almost 25 years ago. She explained the importance of the canon of literature. She spoke of how much there is to learn from Beowulf, Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte, and other classics. She spoke of these works in a romantic way. It was a feeling we did not share. Boy vs. girl.

As Newkirk points out, however, boys tend to enjoy books that “emphasize action over personal relationships, excitement over the unfolding of character, and humor most of all.” Boys are not as interested in the personal relationships of Wuthering Heights. I teach 4th grade, and I can tell you Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are wildly popular with boys. Humor most of all. Rarely do educators choose other forms of media like movies, television programs, cartoons, etc. With this in mind, it is important to choose a variety of text and media which can be tools for teaching literacy. This will help engage some of more reluctant readers, especially boys.

3 – One of the big themes in this book is that our system of teaching literacy does not mesh with the way most boys’ brains operate. One topic he discusses is how conflict is now addressed in a post-Columbine school climate. The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 forever changed how schools operate from a security standpoint. The safety changes that were made have help created safer learning environments for everybody in the school community.

Along with these changes there was an attempt to eliminate violence in student writing. This has had a detrimental impact on boys because they like action over personal relationships. Newkirk argues that not all violence in writing is the same. There is writing which involves action, and sometimes violence, as a critical component of the plot development. It is not necessarily meant to shock or psychological harm the reader. This form of violence can be characterized as high modality violence. Newkirk believes that the more common form of writing by boys is low modality violence which is not meant to cause any form of harm to the reader and not an attempt to insight a violent reaction or response. The dilemma is when schools say all violence is off limits in writing. This leaves no room action and low modality violence to be used as a tool for plot development.

There’s not easy answer to some of the topics addressed in this book. They are, however, topics which educators should consider as they institute policies and implement plans moving forward.

50 Books in 2020… #2

Last night I finished my second book of 2020. (My goal is to read 50 books in 2020.) This was a special book for me because I didn’t read it alone. I read it aloud to my ten-year-old daughter, Anna.

The book was The Giver by Lois Lowry. It won Lowry her second Newbery Medal – Number the Stars in 1990 and The Giver in 1994. In the book, 12-year-old Jonas lives in a futuristic society where there is no pain, fear, or hatred. Everyone and everything is basically the same. Jonas is chosen to be the communities next Receiver of Memory, which gives him authority in his community. While training for his upcoming job, Jonas learns some dark secrets about what would otherwise seem a utopian society.

The Giver is a fantastic book to read whether you’re ten, like my daughter, or in your 40s, like me. In fact, The Atlantic wrote an article about reading The Giver as an adult. My daughter and I both couldn’t wait to see what happened next. We would talk after we read each night about what happened and what we thought would happen next.

We read together almost every night. In fact, our goal for 2020 is to read together every night before bed. Tonight will be 27 nights in a row. We take turns choosing the books. I picked The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. She chose Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. There are nights where I am out of town or Anna has a sleepover and we will FaceTime to read together. Last night, we were coming home from a day-trip to Washington, D.C., and I read the last chapter to Anna while my wife drove.

Anna in a Washington D.C. bookstore choosing our next read aloud book.

The 15-20 minutes we read together each night is almost always the best part of my day. We usually cuddle in bed, read, and talk about our book. It is such a wonderful routine to help us both unwind for the day and get our minds ready for bed.

Reading with Anna… and our labradoodle, Maxwell.

In my classroom, I usually assign reading for homework. There are no reading logs or other forms of accountability. Reading regularly is just a good habit to create. There are times when parents tell me they have a hard time getting their child to read each night. I often suggest reading aloud to them.

When parents ask me what they can do to help their child become a better reader or enjoy reading more, I always tell them about reading with Anna. I explain to them how we created this routine and both cherish that time together. I am able to model fluent reading for her and help her comprehend text at a deeper level.

Most importantly, I get to spend quality time with my little girl. She won’t be little much longer, so I’m going to read every book I can to her while I can. Really, we both win.

Are Graphic Novels Okay to Read?

This question was posed to me at a parent-teacher conference early in my teaching career. Is it okay for our son to read graphic novels at home? The parents were concerned that these text were not challenging their son enough.

Their “problem” was they couldn’t get him to read anything other than graphic novels at home and worried they were not rigorous enough to make him a successful reader longterm. He would devour graphic novels but fought tooth and nail to read “traditional” books.

This student was extremely behind in reading just one year before I had him. While he was still below grade level in fourth grade, he made enormous strides since the beginning of third grade. What happened to help him turn this corner? One big part of the story is that he went to a comic book convention with his father the summer before third grade and got hooked on graphic novels.

I can personally attest to the interest in graphic novels. My ten-year-old daughter is a reluctant reader. She doesn’t enjoy reading traditional texts. We’ve made numerous trips to the book store, placed book orders through school, and even tried e-readers. No luck. She still has not found the book or genre that sparks an interest in reading chapter books.

Graphic novels are an entirely different topic. She can’t put these books down. She has read and reread titles like Smile, Best Friends, Real Friends, and Guts. Just this weekend I had to ask her to put a book down during dinner; it was a graphic novel. Later that night I found her asleep in bed with the book still open.

My daughter asleep in the middle of her fifth reading of Best Friends.

Research supports the idea that graphic novels help reach reluctant readers. The combination of pictures, graphics, and fewer words is appealing to students who don’t enjoy traditional texts as much. They also help with comprehension, critical thinking skills, and vocabulary acquisition.

But what about the reading level in these books? Certainly they can’t challenge students the same way a traditional text does. Can they? Research out of the University of Oregon has shown that graphic novels are not necessarily easier to read despite their format. According to the study “comic books average 53.5 rare words per thousand.” That number outpaces children’s books (30.9) and even inches ahead of adult books (52.7).

The topics students encounter in graphic novels go far beyond Garfield’s basic fascination with lasagna. In one of my daughter’s favorite graphic novels, Smile, the main character feels self-conscious after she is forced to wear headgear, braces, and even an appliance with false teeth, following an accident. This all happens while she is trying to navigate friendships and make her way through middle school. In the end, the reader learns that it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, but it’s who you are on the inside that really counts. That’s definitely a lesson I want me daughter to learn regardless of the format of the text.

So what did I say to the parents back at the conference? The same thing I say to my daughter. I want students to love reading. If he’s found a text he loves to read, then let him get lost in that book, regardless of what it looks like.

50 Books in 2020… #1

I mentioned in my “One Word for 2020” post that I set a personal goal to ready 50 book in 2020. The goal seemed a little daunting at first. One book into the challenge, and it still seems a little too ambitious. Now that the ball is rolling, however, it seems a little more attainable.

The first book I read for the new year is One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus. This is a thrilling mystery with twists and turns throughout. Five high school students are given detention. Only four come out alive, and everybody has a secret to hide… and a motive. It is very Breakfast Club – a jock, an outcast, a brain, etc.

One of Us Is Lying is not a genre I normally read. Typically I read either adult nonfiction, mystery, or thriller. I love anything by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and David Baldacci. One of my goals with this book challenge is to read texts outside of my comfort zone. So, for my first book of 2020 I chose a young adult novel. Granted, it is not exactly going out on a limb since it is a mystery/thriller, but it’s the first young adult novel I’ve read. Baby steps.

I got the idea to read new genres from a familiar place – my classroom. Throughout the school year I encourage my students to read books from different genres and try to get them into books they might not normally read. Students get a “What Genres Am I Reading?” form at the beginning of the year. As, they read a book they mark the genre they read. The goal is the fulfill the requirements for each genre by the end of the year. I check in with them periodically to see which genres they’ve completed and where they might need some encouragement or guidance.

Last year, I had one student who is a voracious reader. After completing a couple genres, she came up to me a little worried. “Mr. Rashid, I don’t really like poetry,” she said anxiously. We talked about this, and I introduced her to some Shel Silverstein books. The next week she was sitting with one of her friends laughing at some of his poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends. It’s not that she wouldn’t have found a love of poetry without the genre challenge but maybe not as early as she did.

Other students found books and genres which were new to them. I had an entire group of students become mystery fans because of the challenge. Do all students achieve the goal? No. Does every student love each genre? No. But even if they read half the genres I outlined and find one new genre they like, that is better than not trying. That way, we all win.