On March 15, the topic for discussion was “The Problem With Boys,” and readers addressed their questions to Thomas Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire professor of English and the author of Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture (Heinemann, 2002). Below are excerpts from the discussion.
Question: Do the academic problems boys are experiencing come as a surprise? If not, what has caused them and how can we fix them?
A full transcript of this chat is available at www.edweek.org/chat/boys.
Newkirk: These problems have been around for a long time. So the question that you raise is a good one. Why are we paying attention to them now? The answer, I think, is that we are living in what [New York Times columnist] Thomas L. Friedman calls a “flat world,” where historic privileges—national as well as gender—are eroding. In the past, boys could count on opportunities no matter how well they did in school. They could make an end run around the education system. Boys in school today will have to compete. And many of their traditional attitudes toward school and literacy will hold them back.
How to “fix” that is a complicated problem. But a first step is to no longer hold to the view that boys are just not good at the literacy activities that are central to schooling. About 15 years ago, many women educators and leaders in math decided not to accept the view that girls were simply not good at math. And they have proven themselves right.
Question: Is there any evidence that links the low performance of boys to the dominance of females in the teaching profession?
Newkirk: I don’t know of any study that proves this, but it seems plausible to me that the lack of male role models in elementary schools may contribute to the disengagement of boys. Female teachers can be effective if they are in tune with the interests boys bring to school. They may learn this from having male children, from experiences with brothers, or from working to keep in touch with boys’ interests. For some teachers, this may mean going outside their normal zones of interest—for example, gaining a familiarity with professional wrestling, video games, and TV cartoons.
Question: What do you consider the pros and cons of single-gender classrooms?
Newkirk: I have spoken to a number of educators who find that single-sex schools have liberating effects for both boys and girls. They find boys are less likely in such settings to perform for girls, and that girls are less self-conscious and more willing to talk in class. The research that I have seen is not conclusive, but I still think there is promise here. Even in mixed classes, though, we can do more to make schooling more interesting to boys. There can be more place for activity—using performance, for example, as a way of responding to literature. I also think that many female teachers need to be more aware of the lives and loyalties boys bring to school, particularly their interest in popular culture.
Question: Why are you not promoting technology education as a viable program for students? Maybe boys are being overlooked educationally, and school systems are not providing the hands-on education boys generally excel in.
Newkirk: Technology can be very important in engaging boys with literacy, and schools are often on the tail end of exploring these possibilities. Digital storytelling in particular has tremendous promise. Schools are often locked in to a print-only view of literacy, when much of the storytelling in our culture is multi-modal. It involves the integration of music, text, visuals, even animation. Since boys spend more time with this technology than girls, they are probably primed to utilize this technology. Part of the difficulty is that teachers themselves are not familiar with these possibilities, and perhaps a bit scared of them.
Question: What should a new teacher do to get and keep boys interested in reading and language arts?
Newkirk: I subscribe to the piggyback theory of literacy. By that I mean that reading and writing “piggyback” on the interests and passions of students. None of us reads just to read, or writes just to write. We do these things to engage with topics we are passionate about. Jeff Wilhelm calls these major interests “identity themes.” For many boys, these will include sports, action-based fiction, and nonfiction that deals with startling facts or information (which is why we all loved dinosaurs as kids). Teachers need substantial classroom libraries, and they need the skill to direct boys to books that match their interests and reading levels.
I also think that boys, early on, feel overmatched by many of the books they are expected to read. If they don’t feel successful, they will begin to identify themselves as nonreaders or reluctant readers. You will see many of these nonreaders just turning pages during independent-reading time. Schools typically assume reading is book-reading, and for the reluctant reader a book can be a huge mountain to climb. We need to find more of a place for newspaper and magazine articles. Studies show that these make up a majority of the reading many adult males prefer.
Question: What cues should teachers look for to see when they are losing boys in reading?
Newkirk: Boys who experience early difficulty often take on the identity (and behaviors) of resistant readers or nonreaders. These include delaying tactics and “fake reading.” Or they say, “I hate reading” or “Reading is boring.” What this often means is that they find reading to be embarrassing to them, even shameful. These students need success—material they can read successfully that builds on their interests. They also need strategies for dealing with difficulty, such as those taught in Reading Recovery.
Question: What young-adult authors do you recommend to help boys attach literacy to their concept of masculinity?
Newkirk: A good place to start would be Jon Scieszka’s anthology, Guys Write for Guys Read. It has short essays by a galaxy of male writers who are popular with boys. Scieszka has been very aware of the need to appeal to boys [and offers selections for boys on his Web site, guysread.com].
Question: I have a hard time with elementary-age boys who are constantly shouting out or wanting to play while I am instructing them. Any recommendations?
Newkirk: This is a hard one. Part of being in school involves learning to behave appropriately. In times past, there were a lot of places this was taught—Cub Scouts, Sunday school, and so on. There is less support for this now. The longer a time students are expected to listen, the more likely it is they will act up. You might want to consider shortening instruction time to mini-lessons, when kids are listening, and spend more time on activity.
Question: Is anyone looking into the correlation between the amount of time spent video-gaming and school performance? Are we starting to see a “drone syndrome” in our society?
Newkirk: There’s a very interesting book that begins to address this question, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You. His point is that the media culture, including video games, is actually making people smarter. We are constantly being challenged to manipulate technology, and that has turned us into better problem-solvers. Another book, James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, makes a similar point. And a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation also found that heavy video-game users did more voluntary reading than light users. So I think we need to take an open attitude toward video games’ effect on kids, particularly boys.
Question: Can you give us some suggestions on what we can do to help teachers bring popular culture, and boys’ ways of talking about popular culture, into reading and writing practices in school?
Newkirk: I would make a bigger space for fiction writing and cartooning. Once the door of fiction is opened, boys will draw on their pop-culture models. It will help if the teacher is familiar with some of these models. I would also pay special attention and give praise to the drawing of young children. I think 1st graders are ingenious in the ways they convey action in their drawings. Finally, research indicates that the most popular television shows boys (and girls) watch are comedies. Too often in schools, the focus of writing is on autobiography, introspection, and realistic fiction, which are not the types of stories boys love outside of class.
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A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: The Problem With Boys