One of the reasons I love Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series so much is that it provides choice for young male readers. In a bookstore filled with female protagonists, Maberry offers a cast of strong male protagonists alongside the strong females. Benny is so identifiable and Tom is a great role model.
Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Sara Kajder. Sara has worked in both university settings and in grade schools, but has loved working with middle school learners. She has a background in English literature and received her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. Also important to this blog series, she’s the mom of two boys. As an educator and a parent, she understands the unique challenges in fostering interest in reading among the boys. In this guest blog she tackles the gender gap in literacy. As she points out, examining the choices that our kids are making in reading material is key to fostering their interest. Maberry’s books have been a great choice for us.
“I teach eighth grade English in a curriculum that is chock-full of the standard-faire… Grammar. Vocabulary. Etymology. Writing. And, oh yeah – reading. Lots and lots of reading. For some reason, this seems to be the area in which I receive the most “Bless your heart” comments when catching up with old friends or describing my work when meeting new ones. This is followed by a nod of a head, a sigh, and the lament that “Those boys just don’t read…”
Looking across my summer reading list last night, some bits of that did look to be true. In a randomly chosen class of 18 (with 12 boys and 6 girls), the female students out-read the boys by 3 books to 1. According to their initial reflective writing, 3 of my 12 boys were gregarious readers with the other 9 quick to embrace the title of “non-reader.” Their entries describing their reading were notably brief, as was their list of favorite authors, books re-read, and time, on average, spent reading each day.
Here’s the thing… None of this surprised me. And, bigger – I, and loads of reading scholars and researchers, believe that a real literacy gap doesn’t exist. Yes, some boys can take longer to learn how to read. And, yes, significantly more boys than girls, especially adolescents, will label themselves non-readers. However, given the opportunity to self-select titles from lists which understand their interests, my male students will rise – and quickly. ALL readers become better readers by reading more, whether they are girls or boys. I work hard as an English teacher to build reading communities in my classroom, so boys have the opportunity to recommend books to one another (as we all know that peer to peer connections are infinitely powerful). My role is to support, to facilitate, to know students (and books) well enough to know what might ignite a particular fire in a reader, and to constantly seek out model readers with whom male students (and female ones, too) can see, question, hear, and emulate.
Readers who are skillful, passionate, habitual and critical grow from powerful interactions with texts that actually act on them. My boys don’t usually get that from the now abundant female-protagonist, post-apocalyptic YAL that line the shelves of our local bookstore. Their choices do fall into some of the patterns/myths that you’d expect – nonfiction abounds alongside graphic novels, science fiction, and the growing list of series about sports and adolescent athletes. Independent (read: not on the school-approved list) choices this summer ranged from Conan-Doyle’s The Hounds of Baskerville to Meyers’ Fallen Angels to Lovecraft’s Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. They weren’t drawn to Sarah Dessden’s approach to writing about relationships, but they did connect with Walter Dean Myer’s work that does explore relationships between men across contexts ranging from scenes of combat to competition the soccer field.
We discussed their choices in class today, and the predominant message was one that centered on the power of choice. Building life-long readers is about helping students to make smart choices about their reading. Adult readers revel in our idiosyncrasies and expect the freedom of choice. The boys in my classes need to do the same. Students talked about making reading easy and inviting, which often means backing off of our expectation that all texts be “literature” and making room for alternative modes and media. Even bigger, my students talked about time. We live in a time that is marked by speed and an odd push to make sure that we schedule every second of our children’s time. Malcolm Gladwell talks in Outliers about expertise as something that can only happen once we spend at least ten thousand hours engaged in a particular practice. From school, most of my students head to at least two athletic practices (or a game) per evening, not counting the time needed for homework and other commitments like music and rehearsals. Reading stamina is important. You can only get it by reading regularly and building the “muscle memory” that helps students identify what makes good writing work. Summer seemed to provide the single space for the majority of my boys to slow, to pick up a book, and to get lost in story.
All readers deserve the opportunity to become better readers. Choice, time, and stamina… I’ve written all three into a heading for my planning book for the term, and, just as importantly, I have them saved as a prompt to remind me as a mother of two boys to foster growth in my own sons. It’s amazing what we can learn from kids when we listen to their practices, their choices, and what they have to say.”
Many thanks to Dr. Kajder for taking the time to talk with us!