Monday, October 24, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Boy Writers

One of Ralph Fletcher's more academic works, this is definitely worth a read. He goes through all the statistics on boy writers - and time after time, girls are scoring significantly higher than boys on writing assessments. Calling this a "failure to thrive," he details potential reasons for this achievement gap and lays out practical ways of meeting the needs of our boy writers.

"I wanted to write a scary story but my teacher made me stop writing it. She said it might freak out the class." -4th grade boy, as quoted in Boy Writers (p. 41)
A way of raising the value of writing for all our writers, choice is essential in getting our male students to write. Fletcher goes on to point out that the testing frenzy has undermined the value of choice in writing for all students, but goes a step further and notes that boy's choices tend to be deterred even in classrooms that value student voice and choice in writing.

Monsters, aliens, hero stories, war stories, violence, drugs, military situations, injuries, hurting someone else, sports, dislike for school and/or teachers, four-wheelers, Captain Underpants, comics, physical challenges, destroying evil characters, video games. Just a few of the topics teachers mention their boys want to write about. All have a potential element of danger. In this post-Columbine world, I have to admit, I wondered how and when to draw the line in my own classroom.

I had two brothers and a son, so this chapter in the book comes as no surprise. Captain Underpants, Super Diaper Baby, Wimpy Kid, Walter the Farting Dog. The popularity of these books points to boys ever-lasting love affair with anything that has to do with butts and farts. Heaven knows my son thinks the funniest answer to any question is, "Buttcheek." Fletcher persuades his audience to allow boys humor in their writing, building it up as "voice," and taking things on a case-by-case basis as to when they go too far.

This is undeniably a huge part of boys too-often dislike of writing class. Handwriting can be such a laborious task for many of our boys that the physical act of getting letters on paper overrides their ability to actually focus on the content of their writing. I remember once reading that while we began teaching handwriting in kindergarten (or before!), boys are actually not physically ready for the fine motor act of handwriting until the age of 7 - much later than girls. This difference is apparent long after kindergarten - and I think as teachers we have a tendency to focus on the handwriting (after reading countless essays, it can get a little tricky.) rather than the content. Fletcher encourages teaching keyboarding and using technology to ease this, while continuing to focus on the strength's of our boys writing.

"You suck." "That bike is nasty." Put-downs. Slang. All language commonly found in boys' writing. Fletcher encourages us to encourage their use of descriptive language and be flexible when allowing students to use slang in writing. I would say this goes to knowing who your audience is when writing someone.

One important part of this chapter. Fletcher notes that many of the boys he interviewed during the writing of the book strongly remembered criticism they received on their writing - even comments we may, as teachers, view as passing ones, or "constructive criticism." He points out the power of a positive comment, as a route for students continuing to build on their strengths. I would say this goes for all our students. It can be hard, at times, to find lots of positive in student writing samples when errors glare out at us - something in us hardwired to find the stuff that needs "fixed", perhaps. But a comment about a great lead, or incredible imagery, can take our boy writers a long way. Many students he interviewed remembered seemingly small positive comments given to them from past teachers - even years later.

Boy Writers is a thought-provoking book for anyone who has ever attempted to teach writing to a diverse class that includes boys with all different interests and abilities. He definitely gives us stuff to think about - something I think is maybe particularly interesting for elementary teachers - since so many of us are female.

1 comment:

  1. I really love this blog post and I really loved your presentation on "Boy Writers!" I am a huge Ralph Fletcher fan and you definitely got me interested in reading this book! I really connected with you because I am currently interning at a middle school and the boys are just not motivated to read and it just kills me! Then again, like you stated the language and topics they want to write about seem like awful choices but they're boys...that is just how they are, and I get that. I always feel pressure when I cover their classes and they have a free write journal entry because I never know what they are going to write, but if we as a community of teachers don't encourage and try to change this, all our boys will be discouraged,and that will be really sad.