May 01, 2003 6 min read
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Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture
by Thomas Newkirk
(Heinemann, 224 pages, $19)

In the early 1980s, an essay titled “The Old Birch,” written by a 3rd grader, was read at conferences on teaching and writing across the country. In it, the writer mourns the loss of a beloved tree that has been cut down. She vows to keep the tree alive in her memory and, by implication, through the essay. Teachers found “The Old Birch” moving, and many went back to their classrooms determined to get the same kind of sincere, heartfelt writing from their own students.

Newkirk, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and a literacy expert, cites this story in his important new book as an example of how thoughtful, emotionally charged student writing gained a privileged, even politically correct, status in American elementary classrooms. The problem, Newkirk writes, is that while teachers admire such writing, many children, particularly boys, do not. These youngsters—Newkirk’s focus is students in the late elementary grades—often prefer to write and read adventure stories seething with violence, mockery, and grotesque exaggeration, stuff educators tend to disdain.

In today’s post-Columbine environment, many teachers stop boys from writing anything suggesting violence or aggression, Newkirk observes, even though great literature, from Beowulf to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is rife with these elements. By making such writing seem unacceptable, teachers are unwittingly “feminizing” literature, he argues. One boy who wishes he could write about the hunting he does with his father tells Newkirk that his teacher “just wants us to write about sunny days and stuff like that.”

When boys are put in this kind of position, they sometimes give up on reading and writing altogether, believing, Newkirk claims, that “literacy is not a form of activity, but a pallid substitution for activity.” The result of such attitudes accounts in part, he suggests, for a growing literacy gap in this country. On key measures such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 8th grade girls outperform boys in reading and writing by a substantial and ever-widening margin.

Does this mean students should be permitted to do whatever they want in class? No, Newkirk asserts, especially if the work results in material deemed threatening to others. But, he adds, it rarely does. In student writing, violence is almost never purely nihilistic but framed, like old Gunsmoke episodes, in terms of good vs. evil. And Newkirk sees the over-the-top parodies boyslove to produce “as a necessary form of underlife,” a way to resist the full embrace of the status quo, even as theyremain fundamentally loyal to it.

Schools, Newkirk writes, should open their curricula and permit students to explore “school-sanctioned narratives” and other forms of “narrative pleasure,” such as jokes, gossip, parody, and the sports page. He also wants teachers to “acknowledge the complexity of ‘violence’ in reading and writing.”

His interviews with boys suggest that what intrigues them is not graphic violence but rather stories full of action and adventure, often exploding with cartoonish Jackie Chan-type feats. In fact, most youngsters, he notes, quickly back away from what they see as truly scary.

Although focusing here on boys, Newkirk is essentially making the case for letting children be children, in literacy pursuits as well as in play. Teachers, he believes, should abandon the trend of foisting adult literary ideals—subtlety, irony, emotional intensity, and the like—on kids and allow them, instead, the pleasure of their own interests. “Unless we can persuade students that reading is a form of deep, sustained pleasure,” he writes, “they will not choose to read; andbecause they will not choose to read, they will not develop the skills to make them good readers.”

Power and Accountability in America’s Schools
by Richard M. Ingersoll
(Harvard, 345 pages, $39.95)

Ingersoll, an associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, begins this engaging volume by describing his experiences as a teacher at both Canadian and American high schools. Without a doubt, he writes, teaching in Canada was far superior. While educators there are treated with respect and granted substantial autonomy, American teachers, he observes, work “in adversarial places” and have “far less input into how their schools operate.”

Despite widespread reform efforts in the 1980s to professionalize American teaching, Ingersoll presents evidence from interviews and government data showing that U.S. teachers have no more control over their work now than they did 30 years ago. This lack of control is somewhat paradoxical, he writes, for teachers are largely free to do what they want once their classroom doors are closed. But much of this freedom is illusory, Ingersoll argues, because American teachers have almost no control over the things that matter most, like the curriculum and schoolwide discipline. Many don’t even have a say about the courses they teach.

As Ingersoll sees it, then, U.S. teachers are much like factory foremen squeezed between the bosses (school boards and administrators) who set production goals and a workforce (the students) often less than enthusiastic about the job at hand. Unfortunately, with accountability-obsessed policymakers issuing more and more edicts about what andhow schools should teach, this situation is unlikely to get better anytime soon.

Advice for Teachers from High School Students
by Kathleen Cushman
(New Press, 240 pages, $24.95)

One of the more discouraging aspects of education reform is that the people leading the charge rarely ask students what they think of their schooling. Recognizing this situation,Cushman, an education writer now working for the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, solicits the views of some 40 diverse teenagers from New York City; Providence, Rhode Island; and the San Francisco Bay area.

These thoughtful and articulate young people offer insights about a range of school-related subjects, including classroom behavior, student motivation, and teaching styles. While the students don’t speak with one voice— their views differ widely—consensus does emerge on some key issues. Most agree, for example, that it is more important for teachers to be respected than liked. As one girl tells Cushman, “It doesn’t work when a teacher tries to force the connection or tries too hard to relate to us.” And they also concur that when it comes to teaching, there is simply no substitute for passion and the determination to push students despite resistance. “If you just keep teaching, you will eventually reach someone,” one boy says. “We’ll put in the effort to connect with you.”

One of the wisest observations in the book comes from Cushman, who, having weighed the students’ comments, writes that the best teachers “not only know their material well but also notice and respond sensitively to the people they serve.” Young peoples’ attitudes and behavior change from moment to moment; effective teachers, Cushman concludes, take the temperature of the room and adjust accordingly.

—David Ruenzel


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