Education Opinion

Boy Year

By Donalyn Miller — October 18, 2009 4 min read
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Peeking into my classroom one day last week, our reading specialist remarked, “Wow, you have a lot of boys this year. How’s that going?”

Amused by her question, I responded, “Teaching so many boys adds such energy to my classes. It’s like driving a stagecoach down a mountainside. I am standing in the wagon seat, clutching the reins, with my foot on the brake as we careen down the road, gravel flying over the edge. No matter what I offer them, they are eager for it, and some days, I am just holding on. I can barely keep up with their enthusiasm.”

She seemed surprised, “Don’t you find it harder to get boys to read?”

Thinking for a moment, I told her, “No, I don’t. Why should I?”

I am experiencing what teachers call a “boy year,” classes that are dominated by a disproportionate number of boys, and I love it. There are 60 boys on my roster of 93 students this year. One class contains 21 boys and 9 girls. Several colleagues, noticing how many boys are in my classes, expressed their sympathy and wished me luck in getting my boys to enjoy reading, telling me,

“Boys are rowdy! They look for any excuse to derail the class.”

“Boys play around during reading time.”

“Boys hate reading and writing, and are not shy about telling you.”

“I cannot get some of my boys to participate.”

Looking at my boys, I don’t see this level of apathy about reading. When I mentioned casually to one class that we would use goodreads to discuss and record our reading this year, two boys jumped on the site from home, set up their own accounts, and started a discussion board about The Hunger Games. I was surprised to see how many of their posts mentioned how much they cried during a certain scene (I won’t spoil it for you, but if you have read the book, you know). Fifteen readers have now joined that group, a mix of boys and girls united in their shared love for Suzanne Collins’ books.

In another class, four boys began their own book group to read the Alex Rider series--swapping books back and forth and begging me to locate titles that were missing. When I posted a sign-up sheet for our after school book club, 30 boys signed up the first week. What these readers clearly want is freedom to read the books that interest them and encouragement to do so. I don’t see a boy literacy crisis, although I keep reading about it in journal articles and on the Internet. Am I naive about this?

Considering the data (and we all know it is about the DATA these days), boys score lower than girls on standardized reading tests and report less motivation and interest in reading. I often wonder how much of the disengagement many boys have for reading stems from classroom instruction designed by predominately female English teachers, though. When every class novel and reading activity filters solely through the predilections and worldview of a female teacher, boys can become demotivated and believe that their personal interests and opinions are not valued in English class. It is clear that when selecting books to read aloud, purchasing books for a library, or designing lessons, we must be mindful of the boys we teach and our latent prejudices about the reading material we offer to students.

Boys want the same thing that every reader wants--to open a book and find themselves in the pages. As teachers, invested in creating readers, we owe it to our boys to help them find such books.

Reflecting on my own experiences, it probably helps that I appreciate the same books many boys do. I love fantasy epics and authors like Roland Smith and Eoin Colfer. I am just as likely to pull Scott Westerfeld’s new steampunk science fiction novel, Leviathan, out of my bag and recommend it as I am to suggest a title like Helen Frost’s The Braid, a book geared toward girls. I don’t have strong gender preferences in what I read myself, so providing a balance in the books I recommend to students and choose for us to read together in class seems natural to me.

We create a crisis when we define readers along gender lines, and I think boy readers get a bad rap. They will read fiction, they will read books that explore emotional issues, and they will read books that are longer than 100 pages. They will read. Instead of blaming our boys for their gender, or lowering our expectations for their literacy development, we should scrutinize any system where boys are hailed for their achievement in science and math class and allowed to define themselves as nonreaders.

I will not tell my boys that they aren’t supposed to be readers. I hope no one else tells them. Meanwhile, I will chase them down the hall to the library as they run to check out books, tell John that he will have to patiently wait a few days for me to finish Leviathan, and dig in my cabinets for three more copies of Brian’s Winter. And on those days when my sweet, crazy boys overwhelm me, I will sit with Summer and chat about how much we both love narrative poetry. I loaned her The Braid!

As we consider ways to support every reader in our classrooms, let’s share ideas for motivating our boy readers. How do you encourage your boys to read? What books do your boys like? How do you balance your instruction to value both boys and girls? Do you see a boy literacy crisis with the boys you teach or not?

Here is a list of some titles my boys (and many girls) love to read this year:

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Found and Sent by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney

Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan

Bone graphic novels by Jeff Smith

Peak by Roland Smith (all of Smith’s books are perennial favorites)

Killer Pizza by Greg Taylor

The Heir Chronicles by Cinda Williams Chima

**For more information on supporting boy readers, check out author and boy reading advocate, Jon Scieszka’s retooled Guys Read website.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.