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Books boys can't resist

By Samuel Reed III on Aug 3, 2012 12:01 PM
Photo: USA Today via ABC News

LeBron James reads "The Hunger Games" during the NBA finals against Oklahoma City.

“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.

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2012 3:36 pm

Iin today’s world, so many more issues affect our teens. The world flashes rapidly past them. They are bombarded with images from television, video games, and social media networks. Tumblr, Pinterest and YouTube rule the day. A recent National Endowment for the Arts report provided some alarming statistics on young adult reading trends. According to the report, reading is declining as an activity among teenagers and even when reading does occur, it often competes with other media. Here are some of the dismal facts:
• Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers
• The percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period
• 58% of middle and high school students use other media while reading
• Students report using media during 35% of their weekly reading time
• 20% of their reading time is shared by TV-watching, video/computer game-playing, instant messaging, e-mailing or Web surfing

With all this going on, it really isn’t surprising that the U.S. has seen a significant drop in reading ability among teens, even as reading scores of elementary students have risen! This leads me to believe that what’s important in young adult literature today is its ability to capture the reader. If you are a parent or teacher trying to get a teen to read try the fantasy or action adventure genres - two great choices are Ourboros by Christopher Turkel and Billy Purgatory: I Am the Devil Chicken by Jesse Freeman.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2012 7:11 pm

So good to read some positive news about education. Thanks, Sam!

Lisa Haver

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on August 3, 2012 7:18 pm

Yeah Sam, I agree. It is really nice to read something which is actually about teaching and learning. As a former high school reading teacher, I can't say enough good things about your article.

I also can't say enough about the importance of what you say. You speak of a best practice to develop authentic growth in reading ability.

I would have loved to attend your workshop. Give us the heads up next time.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2012 8:47 pm

Good read! Thanx Sam

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 4, 2012 7:36 am

Sam, thanks for sending and of course I heartily agree. Reading has declined due to the increased "instant" gratification of computers, digital TV selection, etc. I read with great interest Danny Brassell's ten strategies and in an ideal world of parent involvement, these would work. In fact my husband read to both of our kids at breakfast (30 minutes) until middle school. I speak to as many of my students' parents as a can reinforcing the idea that it does not matter what their child reads, even game magazines... as long as they are reading. I tell them to go to the store and let their child pick out their own magazines. Money, time, parent initiative are all issues that effect the students - both girls and boys alike. In addition, current books that deal with " real- life" issues that our urban children experience are needed in the classroom. But alas, as you mention we are too busy teaching to the test!

Submitted by Debra Migden (not verified) on August 4, 2012 8:53 am

Very informative and insightful article. Thank you Sam.

Submitted by Melinda Long (not verified) on August 4, 2012 8:42 am

I enjoyed reading your article. I attended and presented at the Shenandoah Conference and was thrilled to hear input from teachers and authors. I don't often get to listen to other authors when they speak so it was a treat. I was especially impressed by Bob Shea and really understand why boys would love his books. Getting boys to read has been an ongoing battle for years. My own son fought with reading disabilities and would only pick up books that truly grabbed him from the first line. He became a fan of nonfiction as well as Rodman Philbrick and eventually Hunter S. Thompson. He's now 21 and reads more for college requirements than for pleasure, but still, the spark is there.
It seems to me that we often grab male readers in elementary levels but lose them in middle and high school. Just something we have to keep working at.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on August 4, 2012 10:11 am

Thanks, Sam. I agree that we have to give our students choice in reading material and have the types of books that interest our young men. Thanks for the list of authors to check out.

Submitted by Kathleen (not verified) on August 4, 2012 12:52 pm

Thanks Sam! This message is so important. I will keep your piece and these resources in mind as I head into my 9th grade English classroom this September. I also got some good ideas for getting my 9 year-old nephew (who is a verrrry reluctant reader) psyched about reading. He is a student in the School District of Philadelphia, and last year, when my husband asked him, "Why do you think people read?", he answered, "So they can do good on the tests." Ughh! We definitely need to change the message we're sending our young people about reading.

Submitted by TeacherT (not verified) on August 4, 2012 2:00 pm

I'd like to recommend the Jerry Pallotta books for your nephew (not the alphabet collection, although they're beautiful and full of information) with the titles such as "Polar Bear vs. Grizzly Bear- Who Would Win?" Mr. Pallotta has a whole collection, each book with a different scenario- great white/killer whale, king cobra/komodo dragon (I think). I teach 2nd grade and my boys LOVE these books. The weaker readers pair up with stronger readers and they devour the books together. I have to replace some of the books, because they disappeared last year, but it's a relatively small price to pay to actively engage so many of my boys in reading.
I also purchased some chapter books this past year, that both the boys and girls enjoyed reading, and maybe your nephew would like them- the "Franny K. Stein- Mad Scientist" books by Jim Benton, and Dan Gutman's "My Weird School" collections. They have catchy titles and they're not informational, like the Pallotta books, but the kids couldn't get enough of them.

Thanks for the article and the information. If we really want our students to become readers, we have to consider what motivates them, not as groups, but as individuals.

Submitted by Stephen R. Flemming (not verified) on August 5, 2012 10:55 pm

This really was refreshing to read!!! Teaching/learning!!! I read Dr. Brassell's piece and it was reassuring that many of the suggestions take place in room 105! To develop the love of reading, we take a minimum of 10 minutes each day at the beginning of class to read WHATEVER WE WANT! There are times we've gone to 30 minutes without realizing it! I don't tell them what to read. We have baskets labeled with genre not reading level, no color codes! Comics, animals, magazines, Black History, cook books (which both boys AND girls raced for each day), poetry, newspapers, etc etc etc.

Suggestion: cut out the comics from newspapers and paste them on paper or card stock then place in sheet protectors and place in a 6th graders loved it!

THIS is what it's all about! Gosh I love teaching!!!! They in turn come to LOVE learning after a few weeks in the Flemming literacy block!

Submitted by Ms. Mattie Davis (not verified) on August 5, 2012 10:29 pm

What a wonderful post, Sam! As educators, we must do all we can to remind others of the precious cargo we hold. Our children are worth much more than a test score... and if we must use tests to hold folks accountable, let's make sure those tests are highly valid (NAEP-better than PSSA).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 6, 2012 12:53 am

Certified school librarians with administrative support select and share resources that provide choice for all students in a school;
model and encourage reading for both academics AND pleasure;
collaborate with classroom teachers to provide varieties of appropriate resources and programming to capture the attention of ALL students; promote a reading culture within the school community.
Masterman, Central, Girls' HS and Carver E&S HS each has a full time certified librarian. There were only 42 more throughout the District during the 2011-2012 school year.
Tell me, is something valuable missing here?

Submitted by Anxious Teacher (not verified) on August 6, 2012 8:53 am

Thank you for discussing a subject that doesn't get a lot of "press.". I also teach 6th grade and struggle with available choices for my boys. For all of my students, I do encourage them to choose an "easy reader" if they struggle since, when the text is very challenging, many of them spend too much time decoding leaving them with little energy to comprehend...and enjoy...a good story.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on August 6, 2012 11:13 am

Reading, like so much else, has fallen victim to the high stakes testing regime.   Thanks for this reminder of the importance of reading for pleasure and the need to root teaching and learning in the life experience of our students.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 6, 2012 11:15 am

They need to bring back DARE, drop everything and read, half an hour a day.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 6, 2012 11:00 am

That would be DEAR. Dare is anti-drug education.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 6, 2012 11:56 am

That would be DEAR; Dare is anti-drug education.

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