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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Common Core: What Does It Mean for Boys?

By Kelley King & Ralph Fletcher — May 09, 2014 8 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by international consultant Kelley King, and internationally known author Ralph Fletcher.

The Issue:

For decades now, we have wrestled with troubling statistics regarding the under-performance of boys in the K-12 system. Across so many indicators - achievement tests, grade point average, discipline rates, and both high school and college completion - boys, as a whole, continue to encounter greater difficulty in school than their female counterparts. The literacy gap is a particularly deep-seated and long-term problem, yet it is not inevitable.

With these persistent performance gaps still unresolved (and in many countries growing), we are entering into one of this country’s most large-scale and historic shifts in K-12 public education - the Common Core Standards. As schools scramble to understand the Common Core and to transform classroom practices, educators must learn from the past as they step into the future. In order to close the literacy gap while simultaneously raising the bar for all, schools must proactively grapple with the question: “What does the Common Core mean for boys?

There is good news: Common Core does not tell us how to teach, nor are its standards intended to be exhaustive or limiting in scope. In fact, many gap-closing opportunities exist within the Common Core if we understand both the standards and the boys we teach. Reversing the troubling trends for boys starts with figuring out what makes boys (and boy writers) tick. Let’s let boys be our guides into their hearts, and then their minds.

Thinking About Boy Writers:

The connection between engagement and achievement cannot be underestimated, especially for boys. According to The Boys’ Commission on Reading, boys enjoy reading less and spend less time reading outside of school. This has a profound impact on boys’ proficiency in reading which further serves to decrease their enjoyment of reading. This is also true for writing. Think about the male writers in your classroom - especially those who are reluctant to write. The following list shows a range of preferences in the writing classroom. Where do your boy writers’ preferences fall on these continua?

WORDS __________________________________ DRAWINGS

SOLITARY __________________________________ SOCIAL

FOR TEACHER ______________________________ FOR PEERS

SINCERE __________________________________ SARCASTIC

SERIOUS _________________________________ FUNNY

REALISTIC __________________________________ FANCIFUL

NICE _________________________________ VIOLENT

PROMPT _________________________________ CHOICE

SCHOOL LANGUAGE ___________________________ KID LANGUAGE

It’s no secret that boy writers live on the right-hand side of the page. If you want to see more engagement in your boy writers, move toward the right. Let’s now take these ideas and apply them to the Common Core writing standards.

A Boy-Friendly Approach to the Common Core Writing Standards:

The Common Core standards present some common-sense skills and concepts for writers of all ages to master. The challenge is not in “what” the standards are asking students to do; rather, the challenge is in “how” we package and deliver them in the classroom to get even the most reluctant writer writing. Let’s take a look at some of the key writing standards and identify the associated strategies that will enhance boys’ writing engagement and achievement:

  • Write arguments (W.CCR.1): - Many boys love the competitive nature of a good argument. Key into that motivation (put them up to the challenge of winning the argument) and let them have some say in the topic choice. Many boys are talkers--encourage students to persuade orally before they try to write down their argument.

  • Write informative/explanatory texts (W.CCR.2) - Boys, especially, enjoy reading and writing tasks that are functional and real-world in nature. In addition to traditional report-writing, be sure to include real-world writing tasks, including writing memos, how-to pieces, technical writing, and even writing for social media. Whenever possible, allow boys to select a topic of interest.

  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences (W.CCR.3) -The Common Core standards indicate that, at fourth grade, narrative writing should be one-third of the writing curriculum. By twelfth grade, it should comprise 20% of the curriculum. Currently, many high schoolers - as well as some intermediate and middle school students - get almost no time to write narratives. The shift to Common Core should help re-balance this. In addition to boosting time spent on narratives (especially fiction!), give students as much freedom as possible to choose their own topic.

  • Produce writing....appropriate to audience (W.CCR.4) - There is a built-in, powerful motivator that, when harnessed, motivates even the most reluctant boy writers to write more and better: Boys write for boys. Intentionally expand the boy-audiences that boys have for their writing - pair boys with boys, allow older boys to be writing mentors for younger boys, and invite dads to the classroom to discuss writing with boys. Find boy-friendly mentor texts (written by Jeff Kinney, Jon Scieszka, and Chris Crutcher, just to name a few).

  • Revising/editing (W.CCR.5) -Yes, writers need to edit and revise but, with boys especially, don’t belabor the revision process. Talk to students about the drafting process, showing them craft elements and encouraging them to try those strategies in their writing. But for many boys it’s one (draft) and done. That’s okay. Most boys have a finite amount of energy for any one writing task. Build on their strengths. Don’t over-correct. Find the positives in boys’ writing.

  • Use technology (W.CCR.6) - Technology increases engagement for many boys. In fact, boys spend more time on and score higher on digital literacy tasks than on print literacy tasks (PISA, 2012). Technology can also be harnessed to expand audience for writers - for example, boys can web-conference with other boys or men from anywhere in the world about their writing. Additionally, an authentic task like creating a website requires that boys incorporate a great deal of writing with their visuals.

  • Write on a regular basis (W.CCR.10) - The only way to become a better writer is to write....and to write a lot - and this is actually a requirement of the Common Core. To increase the amount of writing boys do, allow plenty of time and flexibility for genres that engage boys - fiction, fantasy, sports, spoofs/parodies and comics/graphic novels.

Beyond the Standards: Teacher Mindsets for a Boy-Friendly Writing Classroom:

Standards aside, there are a number of essential teacher mindsets and corresponding practices that are critical to boys’ success in the writing classroom. Think about your degree of comfort with these strategies and discuss them with teammates. These strategies can also provide the guidance and reassurances that parents need when helping their sons with writing:

  • Get boys excited about writing. Focus on increasing their engagement first; the quality will come later.
  • Be more accepting of violence in writing (with common-sense limits).
  • Celebrate the quirky humor in boys’ writing.
  • Drawing, even for upper grade students, is an excellent way to plan out writing.
  • Messy handwriting is a developmental issue which can quickly become a bone of contention. “If you can read it and I can read it, it’s good enough.”
  • Be inclusive about what writing you allow kids to read aloud in class. If you allow only sincere, realistic, emotional pieces to be shared, boys will turn off.
  • Show an interest in the writing that boys do at home for fun.
  • Take the long view. Be patient. Don’t expect great writing right away.

Keep Students at the Core of the Common Core:

In the hustle and bustle of figuring out what the standards are, what they really mean, what will be on the test, and how students will be scored, the most important conversation can get lost - who the students are and what makes them tick. As professionals, it is our job to ensure that learners are at the core of the Common Core work.

As you do your preparatory work for Common Core then, we challenge you to craft a boy-friendly writing classroom in the process. Incorporate strategies that engage that fidgety, imaginative, edgy, boundary-pushing and sometimes downright reluctant boy writer. Because, if you can bring out the writer in that boy, well, you’ve pretty much got them all!

What makes your boy writers tick and how can your Common Core writing lessons get them excited about writing? We’d love to hear your boy-friendly writing ideas!

Kelley King is a school principal, international consultant and author of three books on gender and education. Her most recent book, Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School was released by Corwin Press in 2013. Kelley’s success as a school leader in closing the gender literacy gap has been featured in Newsweek magazine, in Educational Leadership, and on the Today Show, as well as in various other national and local media. www.boyfriendlyschools.com. Contact her at kelleykingpd@hotmail.com.

Ralph Fletcher has devoted his professional life to helping teachers find wiser ways of teaching writing. He has written many for young readers including Also Known As Rowan Pohi, The One O’Clock Chop, and Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid. Ralph has authored several professional resources for boy writers including Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices, Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know and Dude, Listen To This! (an instructional video available from Stenhouse). His newest book, Making Nonfiction from Scratch, will be published by Stenhouse in the winter of 2015. www.ralphfletcher.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FletcherRalph.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.