January 2014 | Volume 56 | Number 1
Boys Can Write! Pages 1-6-7
Boys Can Write!
Pedro's story about a mother who suffered from physical and mental abuse tugged at readers' emotions. Its power probably derived from truth, as Sarah Rafael Garcia believes the story was based on real life.
An accomplished author herself, Garcia founded the Barrio Writers project in 2009 as a way to help teenagers express themselves creatively while also building their writing skills. The project, which operates in Texas and California, consists of free workshops and produces an annual anthology of student work.
As Garcia discovered, writing—especially creative writing—allows boys to share thoughts and feelings they might not otherwise feel comfortable sharing. It can also bring to surface a deep sense of pride. Another Barrio writer sent a copy of the anthology containing his work to Mexico to be buried with his grandfather, who had just passed away.
Boys often fall through the cracks when it comes to writing, yet these two examples illustrate some basic truths:
- Boys have stories to tell.
- With the proper encouragement and instruction, boys can write effectively.
- Boys can learn to view writing as a positive experience.
Gender GapData support the generalization that boys don't write as well as girls. According to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 8th and 12th grade girls outperformed boys in writing by double digits.
William G. Brozo, a literacy professor at George Mason University (Va.), notes that the gender gap is larger in writing than in reading and that it is most pronounced among low-achieving students. "We must focus our attention on the boys who are the neediest," says Brozo.
Gender differences also extend to attitudes about writing. NAEP results showed that more than half of 8th and 12th grade girls listed writing as their favorite activity, while only about a third of boys agreed.
It's not that boys are inherently less able to write than girls, but rather that boys tend to learn differently. For instance, in Boys and Girls Learn Differently (Jossey-Bass, 2011), Michael Gurian points out that girls tend to develop complex language skills earlier than boys, and they also absorb more sensory data. Furthermore, girls generally have longer attention spans and can sit still for longer periods of time. Boys tend to be less focused and more active. Unfortunately, school instruction is typically more attuned to girls' strengths.
Kathleen Palmer Cleveland, author of Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School (ASCD, 2011), says educators sometimes fall into the trap of thinking, "All boys are the same; all boys are struggling; all boys have the same problems." Instead, she considers the issue through the lens of learning styles. As one example, she notes that many boys learn best by not only taking in information, but also having the opportunity to talk about it. Yet teachers may not always have the time to include such discussion.
Models and MentorsExperts say boys need males to model the importance of writing; however, such role models are rare in schools, especially at the lower levels. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, only 2 percent of preK and kin-dergarten teachers, 18 percent of elementary and middle school teachers, and 42 percent of secondary school teachers were male.
One way to engage boys is to establish reading and writing clubs directed specifically at them. As many as 100 boys willingly gave up recess to read and discuss books in principal Mike Shaffer's weekly book club for boys at Lincoln Elementary School in Fort Wayne, Ind.—especially when he brought his Harley motorcycle to a meeting and let boys who did book talks sit on it. Shaffer also started a "Boys Read" section in the school library and let each boy select what he wanted to read and discuss. "Be prepared to put books in front of them that they want to read, not what you want them to read," Shaffer advises.
The 2nd grade boys who participated in Michael Williams's after-school book club at Mountain View Elementary School near Harrisburg, Pa., continued meeting with their teacher all the way through 5th grade. Although the club didn't include a specific writing component, Williams believes participation helped boost the boys' writing skills by exposing them to good writing in different genres. A wealth of research supports the idea that strong writers read more often and tend to be strong readers.
Capitalizing on Boys' InterestsBoys often are drawn to nonfiction and alternative forms of writing. To engage boys, many teachers use action and adventure stories, comics, graphic novels, humor, and high-interest nonfiction.
"Boys love things that can kill you," says education consultant Diana Cruchley of British Columbia. Think "spiders, not turtles; tornadoes, not clouds; [and] sharks, not whales." But she adds that many high-interest topics are gender-neutral. "Having boy appeal does not mean that something doesn't also appeal to girls," she notes.
When Melvin and other male students in Marisol Castillo's 9th grade language arts class at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., resisted reading The Taming of the Shrew, she decided to change her approach.
Subsequent reading assignments included American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and stories from Junot Díaz's collection Drown. "Just bringing in the teenage male perspective was huge," Castillo says. Soon, Melvin organized a competition to see who could write the best essays about reading assignments. Some students even began writing for pleasure, turning raps into rhymes.
"The process reminded me how important it is to teach skills rather than content," Castillo says. "The avenue to get them there isn't as important as getting there."
Boosting Confidence, Mastering MechanicsBoys tend to fear failure, and many find reading and writing challenging. "If they don't feel safe, they aren't going to try," Cleveland says. "It's imperative, especially early, to build in some kind of success so they keep going."
"Just the basic process of writing can shut a boy down," Cleveland adds. The creative part of the brain clashes with the part that worries about the mechanics. One way to address this, she says, is to "chunk the process." First, work with students to get the ideas out, maybe in a group discussion. Then, focus on the nuts and bolts of the writing process.
Sometimes getting started can be the hardest part. When giving writing assignments, Cruchley offers three potential topics, and she includes images to spark students' creative juices. She also takes advantage of boys' fascination with humor by encouraging them to write jokes or bring in a funny picture book and model the same style of writing.
In a forthcoming ASCD book on struggling writers, David Campos describes a protocol that uses writing prompts, student responses, assessments, and 30 specific strategies to help students with the six key traits of writing. But even while helping students develop skills, Campos stresses the importance of engagement. "Make sure topics appeal to boys," he advises. "Survey the kids to see what they like."
Williams encourages struggling readers and writers to work extensively on one piece and then share it with the class. "Sharing in the author's chair is a huge confidence boost for them," he says.
Building Identity as WritersTo help students see themselves as writers, Marcelle Haddix, an English professor at Syracuse University, started the Writing Our Lives project. These free writing workshops and an annual conference help students in grades 6–12 see writing as an integral part of their lives.
Because many students—especially males—do not see the value of writing, Haddix brings adults to the conference whose jobs require different types of writing. She also holds workshops on college application writing. "Students have to see writing as part of their everyday lives," she says. "We try to legitimize the writing students are already doing. This includes blogging, websites, journals, and poetry."
It's also important for students to develop their voice and maintain their cultural identity. "Keep in mind that attaining a sense of identity is a central concern of adolescence," writes Alfred Tatum in his book Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males (Stenhouse, 2005).
"We try to see ways they can bring themselves and a sense of their voice into their writing," Haddix says. "Both boys and girls want the opportunity to tell their stories and write about their lives. With boys, the key is to focus on genres and topics of interest and relevance to them." For instance, in a 2010 summer institute designed for black boys in grades 5–8, she spotlighted graphic novels, comics, sports, and music.
"Technology and visual literacy are very important to boys," Haddix adds. During a digital storytelling workshop she organized last spring, two 8th graders created a mini-documentary focusing on black boys and violence in their community. They wrote the script, shot and edited the film, added the titling and subtitling, and did the voiceovers. "They just blew me away by how they used the technology to tell their story," Haddix says.
That's just one example of what boys can do—with the proper opportunity and encouragement. As Ralph Fletcher says in Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices (Stenhouse, 2006), "We must begin by coming to grips with the qualities boys bring to the table. To the extent that we really understand them, we can become more skilled, more complete writing teachers."
Author's Note: Pedro and Melvin are pseudonyms.
How to Support Male Writers✔ Help boys respect writing as a "guy thing." "Show them literature written by men who write for their grade level," advises David Campos.
✔ Model writing for students. Take time to write alongside students, and share your writing with them.
✔ Tailor assignments to capture boys' interests. Motivate boys by encouraging them to write humor, comics, and graphic novels.
✔ Find ways to incorporate writing across genres and across the curriculum. With its emphasis on writing opinion pieces, informative/explanatory texts, and narratives, the Common Core State Standards for writing lend themselves to use across subjects.
✔ Give assignments that allow boys to tell their stories and support their cultural identity. Sarah Rafael Garcia uses writing exercises that have students describe their culture and their family and think of aspects that make them proud.
✔ Encourage students to share their writing. Reading from an "author's chair" works well for elementary students. Older students might publish their work on blogs, Facebook, or web pages.