“Books Boys Can't Resist” was the theme for the 27th annual Children's Literature Conference at Shenandoah University in Virginia that I attended June 25-29, not a week after school ended for summer vacation. In addition to attending the conference, I was invited to present during a special afternoon workshop.
The conference was jam-packed with sessions led by award-winning authors and illustrators. Participants learned about the reading, writing, and creative process of preeminent “dude” authors and illustrators: Avi, Gary Schmidt, Ralph Fletcher, Brian Floca, Daniel Kirk, Bob Shea, Melinda Long, Danny Brassell, Charles Smith Jr., Sneed Collard III, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Jarrett Krosoczka, Phil Bildner and Dan Yaccarino. OK, some of them were women.
Dr. Karen Huff, director of the Children’s Literature Conference, has cultivated a loyal following of mostly elementary school teachers and librarians who attend the conference year after year. The conference also attracts many Virginia and D.C.-area teachers and education majors interested in earning course credits. Given the conference theme, I was expecting that the 225 attendees would include more men than the half-dozen who showed up.
So here's the question that begs to be asked: How are boys going to be motivated to read books they "can't resist" if there are not many “dudes” who model the love of reading?
Role models are important. During the NBA finals, one of my 6th-grade male students bragged to me, “Mr. Reed, did you see my 'dad' reading a book before he crushed the OKC [Thunder]?” When he saw the puzzled look on my face, he endearingly said, "LeBron James is my dad." Then I recalled the picture of LeBron James reading “The Hunger Games” in the locker room. And thought, wow, what an endorsement for reading.
But “King James” shouldn’t be the first reading role model for young male students.
Although reading should start at home, both parents and teachers have an awesome responsibility of modeling and cultivating the love for reading. First and foremost, students need to have books that meet their interests. Unfortunately, however, in our push to improve test scores and maintain tougher standards, students are reading fewer books for pleasure.
Part of the problem in schools is that many of the reading tasks assigned to most students do not match their interests or reading identities, particularly our young men of color. As I commented on Ben Herold’s article “Tougher standards, better readers?”, tougher standards that do not address students’ reading interests will not improve students’ outcomes.
So how do we grapple with our male students’ reading identity, which seems to impede them from embracing the value of reading?
Herold’s article featured a George Washington High senior, Zach Morales, who keeps quiet about his love of reading. Or take a boy I'll call Anthony, one of my 6th-grade male student leaders. Anthony likes working on cars and reading car magazines. But he doesn’t count car magazines or books about cars as reading or related to school.
Zach hiding his interest in reading and Anthony's struggles to find books that validate what he cares about reflect the challenges that many young male students face because of hyper-masculine identity. I recall Anthony's refrain: “I am not going to have to know how to write or need to read books because I am going to work on cars.”
Anthony’s stance reminded me of David Kirkland’s article “Books Like Clothes: Engaging Young Black Men with Reading” (Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, November 2011). Kirkland posits that Black men wear books like clothes. Derrick, one of Kirkland’s interview subjects, explained, “Beowulf must not have fit him, because he wasn’t wearing it.” Derrick, like Anthony, doesn’t read Beowulf. “Who… is Beowulf? I’m not gonna need [to know] Beowulf to get a job”.
During my workshop at the Children's Literature Conference, I shared some results of an informal reading survey I had my 6th graders take. (My 6th-grade class was dominated by 23 young males, compared to the eight less-vocal females.)
The survey revealed that most of my students view school as a one-way transaction. For example, most indicated that the School District or their teachers decide what they learn, what they read and how much time they spend on a task. Reading and learning should be dialogical and social. Schools should be a place where students and teachers collaborate on what they learn and read. Overwhelmingly, students indicated in the survey that teachers should make reading and school fun.
Of all the conference speakers, Danny Brassell offered some of the most concrete strategies to engage boy readers with his “Ten Ways to Get Boys Reading.” Brassell, a former teacher and administrator and a professor in the Teacher Education Department at California State University, is the founder of The Lazy Readers’ Book Club. Brassell writes that:
“Girls will read books about boys. Boys will not read books about girls. Yes, that is a generalization, but any astute educator will agree with me. We need to understand that boys can be fickle readers, and one of the best ways to attract a boy to a book is to put a corpse on the cover or 'diarrhea' in the title."
So what is the big takeaway on getting struggling and reluctant boys to read?
Choice is important. If our young male students want to read about sports, cars, and gory stuff, then we need to create value for this type of reading in schools.
Modeling reading habits is important. Images of parents and teachers reading for pleasure are as powerful as LeBron James reading before winning an NBA title game.
Back off hounding teachers and students. Accountability is one thing, but narrowing curriculum and making tougher standards to improve test scores will not motivate students to read more. And if students don’t read more, they will not improve their test scores.
Identity matters. Just as we celebrate sports culture, we need to validate a reading culture. Ultimately we need to figure out ways to make reading fun and cooler!
In a future blog post, I hope to do a Q & A with Danny Brassell to gather more tips about engaging young male readers. I also am considering starting a book club that will appeal to young males. I invite others to share any strategies that engage both young male and female students to read, write, and think.