Was the problem that Ron and boys like him were not as literate as the as the girls in the class? Or was the problem that Ron was not as overtly literate in the ways that are most visible and valued in schools?
Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm (in Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys)
About nine years ago I sat at my kitchen table with a giant glass of Mountain Dew and read the book Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys. Actually, I devoured it in one sitting and marked it up with margin notes. The next thing I knew it was 2:00 a.m. and I had only about 4 hours before I needed to wake up for school. Jacked up on too much caffeine with too many thoughts swirling through my head, I returned to my days as a college undergraduate. I spent the rest of the night rereading, taking more notes and thinking like I was prepping for a chemistry exam.
Nearly a decade later, many of the ideas Smith and Wilhelm shared with me that night still resonate. One would think after a decade of concerns about boys’ reading we wouldn’t be so worried anymore. Yet most of us still wonder about how to nudge boys toward the path of a reading life. I believe what Smith and Wilhelm stated above relates directly to the classroom norms we knowingly or maybe unknowingly establish with our personal behaviors. We all have at least one student like Jackson, who announces his presence early in the year with this comment, “Why would I even want to read? I can just watch television or look facts up on the web.” These are the behaviors I have discovered that help me guide boys like Jackson in my classroom.
- You need to walk the talk.
After spending the last 17 years in the company of boys in my 3rd, 4th or 5th grade classrooms and living the last three years with my middle school-bound son, I have learned that most boys can detect inauthenticity in a second. Your boys will know if you are not a reader, and this will not sit well with them if you expect them to read. I am a reader. My class knows this because of my actions. Boys that have been in my room know that I am setting high expectations for them as readers because I have the same level of expectation for myself. They are more likely to set achievable goals and get into a routine of reading if you model your reading behaviors. Being an exemplary reading role model for the boys in your room doesn’t mean you have to like the same types of books as your boys, but you do need to read.
My son shared with me last year that his teacher Mrs. Scott was a reader. He explained, “She doesn’t like fantasy, but she is a reader.” When I asked him what that meant to him, he replied, “She makes me want to read because she reads.” Would you sign up your child for a dance class that is being instructed by someone who doesn’t dance? What if your child’s soccer coach never played the game?
- Respect different types of readers.
As readers we all have our niche. For me it is action-packed fantasy or well-written nonfiction. The choice of some of my closest reading friends is character-driven realistic fiction. Your niche might be vampire-based love stories or science magazines. Part of what makes us who we are is the types of books that put us into a reading zone. Naturally we want our students to fall in love with the books we enjoy. I would be thrilled if every one of my students read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. It has everything I want in a fictional story: fast-paced plot, over-the-top characters, humor, cliff hangers, and the possibility of Greek Gods having a throwdown in Manhatten hooked me from the start. Can you imagine the conversations a whole class of Percy Jackson fans could have? However, if I push The Lightning Thief too hard on boys who have different reading tastes, I run the risk of telling them that my reading is more important than theirs.
I work really hard to be neutral but accepting about what my students are reading, especially during the beginning of the year. I will stretch them as the year moves along. But if Drew is a devoted fan of The American Chillers series or if Jason is passionate about learning as much as he can about tornadoes, I showcase my respect for their choices by allowing them to read these books. By respecting their choices, they are more likely to try something I suggest to them later in the year. If I value what they read, it helps to build the trust I need them to have in me later when I nudge them to expand their reading lives.
- Understand some of your boys will want to talk with each other about their books more than they will want to talk to you, especially early in the year.
Not every boy is shy about sharing their reading life, but many are. There is still an unwritten code that makes it hard for some boys to admit they are a reader, or be vulnerable enough to admit they are not a strong reader. I spend many of the early days of reading workshop taking quick notes while informally interviewing my students about their reading. Each year the reminder that it might take some time for many of boys to talk about reading comes out often during these roving interviews. Here is a typical conference from early in the year with one of my male students:
“Tell me about your favorite book.” (As I flip the page of my steno pad, pen in hand)
“Uh, Wimpy Kid.”
“I read that a few years ago. I remember enjoying it, so why is it your favorite?
“I agree it was funny, several parts made me laugh out loud. Do you remember what your favorite part was?”
(No words, just a shrug.)
“So what are some other books you like to read?”
(Again, no words, just a shrug.)
“Well thanks, Joey. Remember if you need help picking out a book you can ask me or maybe go ask one of your friends.”
When I used to walk away from these conversations looking at a blank page of notes, I would think, “Whoa, Joey is going to be tough kid to work with.” Over time I learned that I need to build a relationship with boys like Joey before they are willing to share. They need to have a level of trust that is just not in place on the second or third day of school. That is why when I overheard Joey and one of his friends a few minutes later chatting about how great the 39 Clues series is, I didn’t get frustrated. I assumed that Joey had already built a relationship with Matthew, and felt comfortable talking with him about reading.
To facilitate the trust-building process in the first few weeks of school, I encourage the class to take short breaks to chat about their reading. During these breaks I join a pair or a group of three students with no notebook in hand. The subtle change of not having an assessment tool in my hand makes it easier to build trust. I am just chatting about books with my students and getting to know them as readers, not keeping notes and evaluating.
- Be honest about not liking some books and abandoning others.
My wife is a reader too, and this is one of the many reasons I love her. She gets what it is like to be captivated by a great story or fascinated by a new piece of information. It is nearly impossible for her to abandon a book. The bookmark in her last book club selection lived on the same page for about two weeks. Somewhere along the way she picked up the idea that you need to finish every book you start. Rationally she knows this is not necessary, but she still is emotionally tied to this learned behavior. A few unfinished books sit on her nightstand and openly taunt her.
Many boys also have this problem. They view success in reading as finishing a book. I think this is why some of them spend far too much time in books that aren’t interesting to them. They don’t want to give up on a book and look unsuccessful. We need to be explicit about the fact that we don’t like everything we read, and we can drop a book that doesn’t appeal to us. In one of my first minilessons of the year, I share how many books I read over the summer and how many books I stopped reading over the summer. I list the reasons why I abandoned a few of the books as honestly as possible. I explain there are too many great books to waste time on one that doesn’t capture your interest.
Working on these teacher behaviors will not guarantee all boys will suddenly be reading late into the night, but they will promote the possibility for dramatic change in student reading behaviors over the course of the year. Remember Jackson from the beginning of this article? During one of our last conversations that year I reminded him of his reading statement from early in the year. He looked me in the eye and said, “I still love watching television and using my iPad, but I also read a lot now. It doesn’t suck.” Not exactly what I wanted to hear at the end of the year, but the response was still a great deal better than “Why would I even want to read?”