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It's not what they're teachin' me in school: promoting boys' reading.

Avi Kramer, a 2005 graduate of Vassar College, spent the last year teaching high-school English in the Hunan province of China. He is currently a teaching intern, dorm parent and coach at The Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts. In the near future, he plans to attend graduate school in journalism or fiction writing.

When I was growing up in western Massachusetts, "reading" happened in two places: the classroom at my small independent school and at nighttime when my parents read to my sister and me. The whole deal usually felt static and sigh inducing. There were certain books, despite my reading stupor, that instantly grabbed my attention, pulling me right into their surreptitious worlds (Chris Van Allsburg's Jumanji and The Polar Express, Tomie dePaola's The Clown of God, Jane Yolen's Owl Moon, to name a few). These were stories that I could listen to over and over, but it was the inertia of starting a story, especially those handed to us in school, which made the whole thing seem so dull and daunting. The other forms of reading that I engaged in--the statistics on the back of baseball cards, the exotic descriptions of "Happy Ending" sundaes on the Friendly's Restaurant menu--were not "reading" to me because they didn't involve the opening of a rectangular, paperback or hard-bound book. While I plunged into every new issue of Sports Illustrated For Kids, I hated The Secret Garden in the fourth grade and abandoned it, unfinished.

I felt that reading didn't fit my persona. I was a sports boy with hair always matted down with sweat. My sister Mattea and I fit well within the gender stereotypes, and we had very different approaches to being bookish: she was, I wasn't. She wore pink leggings and had pigtails; I planned my life around the newest Jordan sneakers. I shunned books for basketball and any other sport; she read fervently. She collected American Girl dolls and all the books that accompanied them. They were lined up on her bookshelf and those she was reading currently, the bindings creased and bookmarks sticking out, lay on her bed. She wrote in her journal and could disappear for hours behind her bedroom door. After Anne of Green Gables and the others, she was on to Agatha Christie mysteries. The series kept her reading one book to the next.

I still resisted, so my mother pushed sports books--I liked a few by Matt Christopher. My parents said that it didn't have to be a classroom-type book just as long as I was reading something. With that, I took on a few. The first books I finished outside of school were all basketball-centric: The Jordan Rules, Hang Time, and Drive: The Story of Larry Bird. Later, venturing into other genres, I read The Education of Little Tree, The Power of One, and Anpao (the first book assigned in school that I liked). Finishing these, I felt that I had done something very grown-up, and there was a twinge of real enjoyment in entering the sequestered world of a book that I had only just discovered. But then, invariably, a long time would pass before I picked up the next. I always chose the shortest books on my school's summer reading list and rarely finished them. Or I chose books that I knew had been made into movies, like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman, and I rented the movie instead of reading.

While I did find ways to cheat the system, I was also finding that when faced with the right book, reading wasn't so bad. My mother's openness to non-school reading allowed me to choose what I enjoyed, and I listened to what my father said about his favorite books. In middle school he handed me The Education of Little Tree and The Power of One--they were stacked on the chest next to his bed with tennis magazines and the big, thick biographies he read. He said they were two of his favorites, and he thought I would feel the same. There were scenes that made my heart race, and I would reread some sentences two or three times to prolong the story's unique intensity: Little Tree persevering as a proud, self-reliant Cherokee boy after his grandparents' passing; Peekay boxing against the neo-Nazi who many years before killed his pet chicken, Grandpa Chook. In seventh grade I lent my worn copy of The Power of One to my friend Mikey, who liked it so much he read during recess. With those two books I first saw the connection between literature and life.

Like me, many boys grow up dreading the requirement of sitting down with a book. For most of us it feels like an enforced activity, an insufferable right of passage that all students must do and no one likes. For their book Reading Don't Fix No Chevys, Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm researched the historic aversion that male students have to reading. They conducted interviews with a group of high-school boys from different geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Starting with the assumption that the usual method of teaching reading dismisses action and fantasy books, focusing instead on the Western canon, it is understandable that many boys resist the given curriculum. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most teachers, the interviews showed that the boys engaged in a variety of literary activities on their own that were neither recognized as such nor encouraged by most educators.

Smith and Wilhelm write that many boys are not "overtly literate in the ways visible and valued in schools." One of the boys, given the anonymous name "Bambino" for the study, kept a steady log of his activities outside of school. While Bambino underperformed academically and disliked his classes, he had prodigious interests outside of the classroom. He was a wrestling fanatic, subscribing to multiple magazines and keeping a meticulous notebook of new wrestling moves he had seen. Additionally, "he sometimes offered the latest wrestling news in the form of play-by-play announcing ... in this way, a young man who scraped by doing the absolute minimum of what was required to get by in school did much more than that outside of school, in ways that were entirely voluntary yet very schoolish (e.g. writing summaries)." The authors ask: what if this boy had been encouraged in the classroom to pursue his love and study of wrestling? How might that have changed his perception of school in general?

Just as Bambino's love of wrestling inspired him to read and write about it, other boys, disinterested in their classroom English studies, studiously followed their favorite sports teams online and in the newspaper. Sports proved to be an important resource. As a teaching assistant, I visited classrooms in which a different boy each day had the assignment of reporting on how the Boston sports teams performed in their games the night before. Most of the boys jumped at the opportunity to take on this assignment, imagining they were John Madden on Sunday afternoon or Stuart Scott on SportsCenter. Yet, while most boys at the private school where I work are big sports fans, not all boys love athletics. Boys have varied interests (not all love sports and sword fights), but without fail every boy is passionate about something. The point is that in order to promote their literary lives, each boy should have the chance in school to pursue his passion, be it ice hockey or the violin, through reading.

Boys have an incredible capacity for retaining funny sit-com quotes, describing a particularly gory scene from a movie or video game, or breaking down an exciting play from the touch-football game they just played at recess; all described in the study as types of "oral literacy." Another form of oral literacy--often dismissed as a harmful influence--is rap music. Middle-schoolers are nuts about it. As long as the lyrics are age-appropriate, rap can truly act as oral storytelling, and there are boys I spoke with who didn't want to name a single book they liked but could rap along a mile a minute to the song playing on the radio in their dorm room. English teachers must acknowledge that those lyrics are just as worthwhile for study as an anthologized short story. The boys memorize their favorite songs, and some write their own. Boys love their music, and regardless of genre Smith and Wilhelm contend that through music they are sharpening their listening skills and engaging with words in a non-academic yet very literary way. If embraced as such, song lyrics and other non-traditional forms of literature can be invaluable teaching tools for educators in inspiring boys who would otherwise be wholly apathetic towards reading.

In talking with middle-school boys, I heard a lot of opinions akin to those in Smith and Wilhelm's study. Bambino's comments on being a wrestling connoisseur resonate with the observations from the boys I interviewed: Bambino was excited to work on what interested him, and, further, he said that he would be more open to the assignments given by his teachers if they would be more willing to recognize and legitimize his interests and knowledge. Similarly, I encountered boys who simply wanted the option of choosing what interested them for their reading material. For example, sixth-grader Harrison said that he hates it when teachers give him books to read.

"Mr. Kramer, I just want a choice!" he told me. "Summer reading is the worst because they give us two books that we HAVE to read. I would've read 10 books if they let me choose!"

Josh chimed in: "Plus, since it's reading for class IN THE SUMMER you have to highlight and take notes and stuff and it totally takes the life out of it."

In his book Connecting Boys with Books, Michael Sullivan provides the easy yet crucial solution: "If you want to encourage boys to read, then you must allow them to choose their own reading." Likewise, in The Power of Reading, Stephen Krashen claims that reading by preference is the only way to develop lasting literary skills.

I asked Harrison what kind of books he liked to read and what he would have chosen for those ten books in the summer.

"Anything!" he responded. "Well, anything with mystery, or action-adventure! I've been wanting to read Eragon because my friends said it's awesome."

"Eragon is awesome!" Brian said, "but the Cirque du Freak series are the sickest books ever!!"

"Yeah!" Josh said, "it's sooooo sweet!" From their tone and energy you would never think these boys were talking about novels, but these were books with characters and plots that truly appealed to their interests.

I asked Brian why he liked Cirque du Freak so much. Darren Shan's books have a lot of nasty little creatures and scenes that make your skin crawl.

"Mr. Kramer," he said, "c'mon, it's about vampires! And it's not cheesy."

Harrison's desire to read what his friends recommended highlights another important finding in Smith and Wilhelm's study: boys are driven by their friends and social networks. They want their friends close by to share what's cool, what's awesome, what's funny, what's shocking. For me, the fun of playing video games at friends' houses was sharing in the graphics, the most difficult levels, the physics-defying moves on the screen--watching, together, as we controlled Isaiah Thomas in Sega's NBA Jam as he swished another impossible three-pointer. My friend Mikey heeded my touts to read The Power of One. Many boys I talked with also sought their friends' advice when it came to reading. In a seventh-grade class, Matt told me that he liked books in a series because "they get my friends reading." Without asking, Matt went on to tell me about The Book Thief in a fast stream of words:

"It's by Markus something and it's all about this girl who lives in Germany in World War II and has to steal books because she is not allowed to read them and she and her friends have midnight raids to get the books! My friends love that book, too."

I asked Nate, another sixth-grader, about his favorite type of books.

"Scary ones," he answered right away, "where people die!"

"Why dying?" I asked, a little taken aback.

"Simple," he said. "It's action-packed, it's interesting. Most important, it's not boring."

Sullivan suggests that when choosing stories for boys, "try not to shrink from a little gore." Shoot-'em-ups, battles and blood are all exciting, very visual and TV-like. Boys like Nate want stories with immediate visceral feedback, something highly observable, a story with a plot and climax instead of introspection. And they obviously want something they can understand. Many boys in one English class described their currently assigned book, The Hobbit, as being "way too complicated."

Nate told me that he still wouldn't pick up a book for fun. Video games or sports were better, but he did say he liked sports books if he had to read something.

"But," he said, "I only like them when I'm in the middle and it's interesting."

John jumped in: "Yeah! Why start a book? It better look really cool."

I thought about John's question. Because there are always more enticing options for how to use free time, what boys have available to read must excite them with a topic they love and a story that they can relate to, whether it be conquering an ancient world or kicking a soccer ball. If the look of the book and the subject matter always turn them off, reading will forever seem like an obligatory, tedious activity.

I asked John and Nate about the reading they did in their English classes.

Nate said, "School books are usually about philosophy and I hate those."

But it's never just one genre that boys love or hate. While Walter, an eighth-grader, told me that he reads only fantasy (and plans on writing his own fantasy novel someday), Cameron said that he likes "only books that are realistic--I hate all the dragons and medieval creatures." Growing up, I loved Calvin and Hobbes, but I always skipped over the ones in which Calvin philosophized and those in which he and Hobbes went into outer space or back to prehistoric times. I was very sure about the ones I liked and the ones I didn't. Water balloons flying towards Susie's head: always good. Driving Ms. Wormwood crazy: brilliant. Death defying sledding with Hobbes: the best.

Not all the boys had the same interests, but every student that I talked with professed to have a singular passion that they enjoyed reading about. In a ninth-grade class, Bobby's favorite book was The Call of the Wild, Tyler chose Through Cougar's Eyes, and Evan said "books on sports." Andy didn't look up but answered my question with, "I'd rather read magazines." Taylor said he preferred nonfiction articles in Sports Illustrated and that he liked The Andromeda Strain but only read it because his teacher said he had to choose fiction. I asked Mike--a student appearing to be much more interested in rap, football and girls than reading--about his choice of Life of Pi.

"I don't know," he said. "It's weird. It just makes you think a lot. I forgot about everything else when I read that book."

I asked him if he read it for his English class.

"Nah, man," Mike shook his head, "a friend told me about it, and I just started it one day. That was all it took."

I visited one sixth-grade class in which the teacher was having his students write in their journals. He gave the students two topics to choose from: write about a time you were brave; or, if you could be any character on television or in a movie, who would you be and why? In a classroom of 15 boys, all but two picked the second topic. Questions flew at the teacher:

"Can I be a character from a video game?"

"Can I combine two characters from two different movies, like a split-personality thing?"

"Can I use Roger Clemens when he was on The Simpsons?"

The boys huddled over their notebooks and wrote eagerly. In middle school, I loved to flip through The New Yorker and read only the cartoons, but when the magazine reviewed Speed, a movie that my father took me to see on opening night, I read the entire review and loved it--along with the fact that I could relate the words to specific scenes from the film. When boys can connect the world of media, entertainment and pop culture with English class activities like reading and journal writing, they are excited and willing to do the work. Sports are key, too, and the "idiosyncratic language of sports," as Sullivan describes it--specific plays, position names, offensive sets, etc.--provides another venue for boys to explore their own literariness. He goes on to say that shunning so-called "junk" reading like sports articles, comics and fantasy novels does a disservice to boys growing up. These media are in fact the perfect way to tap into their interests in order to promote reading.

If adults exhibit a love of literature then kids take notice (my father's stacks of biographies and tennis magazines), and reading to children is indispensable in fostering young, and later adult, readers. "Reading to kids," Sullivan writes, "sparks a love of story and helps to develop a hunger that only reading can satisfy." I first saw a little of myself in spiky-haired Calvin and quiet Little Tree, and now I can see a lot of myself in Cormac McCarthy's Billy Parham and Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway. Those connections come only, exclusively, wonderfully from reading what we choose to read and loving it.

Works Cited

Krashen, Stephen. The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1993.

Smith, Michael W. and Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys": Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2002.

Sullivan, Michael. Connecting Boys with Books: What Libraries Can Do. Chicago: American Library Association, 2003.
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Author:Kramer, Avi
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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