It does not have to be this hard. If we do our jobs right from the time boys are young, teaching reading and writing in ways that engage boys, it does not have to be a competition, and parents will not have to wring their hands wondering what went wrong, or feel their hearts break watching their sons fall short of dreams they are perfectly capable of achieving. ~ Michelle Rhee, Former Chancellor, DC Public Schools
In a recent post, (Where the Boys Are) I recounted growing acknowledgment in our country of an alarming and widening gender gap in literacy which is recognized as a global issue. Many theories abound as to why, and some have found their way into acceptance by educators, then taken the short but permanent hop into assumptions. Richard Whitmire outlines these theories in a chapter titled “The Blame Game” in his book, Why Boys Fail (2010):
• “My Boy is Forever Lost to Video Games!”
• “It’s A Lack of Male Teachers”
• “It’s (Only) Minority Boys”
• “It’s A Medical Problem (ADD, ADHD, Autism)”
• “It’s That Homework Helps Girls, Hurts Boys”
• “It’s That Feminized Classrooms Turn Off Boys”
•”It’s That Too Much Testing Hurts Boys”
• “It’s The Toxic Culture”
• “It’s The Boy Code Morphing Into The Guy Code”
Whitmire rejects all these theories as primary causes for “why boys fail.” So does Nancie Atwell, quoted in the previous post, who concluded the same thing as Whitmire: if a teacher, or a school, or a district builds a culture that allows NO student to slip through the cracks, boys and girls, then boys will be carried along with the wave, and gender gaps evaporate. Both do acknowledge that all the above-listed observations have some truth to them, but they believe they are symptomatic, not causal, all linked by fundamental literacy problems.
So how do we teach reading and writing in ways that engage boys? With Whitmire’s findings in mind, and Atwell’s admonition to not distill boy readers from a solid formula for engaging ALL readers, I think it’s a good time to revisit what we have learned about our own Read 180 Guiding Question in Thompson for this year: How do we create readers? Some percolating principles:
1. Provide R180 students a literacy-rich classroom–having and displaying many genres, titles, and choices convey the implicit message that books and magazines are valued and essential in this classroom
2. Know your students–their interests, their strengths, their passions, their vulnerabilities; this not only connects them to you and thereby your mission for them, but drives your search to find books they will read
3. Bestow the power of choice–guide students, make suggestions, and above all, provide a wide variety of print materials from which they can choose; support their choices, let them abandon books, knock yourself out to find others that capture their interest, make your quest be to put that one “book that hooks” in their hands to set them on a path to finding joy in reading
4. Make time for students to read independently in class every day a valued, protected component of the class structure and culture–Read 180 design provides 20 minutes. If you have more than a 90-minute block, consider giving the extra minutes over to the independent reading zone.
5. Readers are not made on the computer–targeted and differentiated practice in fluency, phonics, vocabulary, and spelling all work to make the act of reading accessible and fill in decoding gaps–but it is not the endgame, and students deserve to understand this.
6. Reading broadly, widely, and consistently leads to reading deeply and significantly improves reading prowess over time more than any other instructional reading practice. Most important, a heavy dose of independent reading grows the potential to make wanting to read a “habit of mind.” Nancie Atwell refers to creating “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical” readers.
7. Make time to think, talk, and write about books and reading. This enhances, boosts, supports, provides scaffolding and substance for response–teacher to student, student to student, within small group, within large group. Such structures grow thinking, build background knowledge, and give students the time, place, and freedom to try out ideas. (Remember the Socratic Seminar model?)
Other principles will emerge, but these seem to be formulating an essential core by which to evaluate our instructional practice in R180. A cautionary note must accompany our list: one unfortunate corollary to good reading intervention intentions concerns time.
In some schools, R180 students have a 90-minute block–this is good. Then they also have 90 minutes for their grade-level Language Arts and Reading class (Literacy, English, etc.). This sounds good–more time spent in literacy, logically should equal increased achievement. But the data is spotty, at best, on this fix-it strategy. We can find schools and districts around the country where it’s worked, and many where it has not. Researchers are split. A cursory look at our own district data is inconclusive–at best. Why is this? I believe one thing we have to remember is that students are placed in Read 180 in the first place because they are not experiencing success in the “regular ed” or grade-level L.Arts classes. So when in some schools, in addition to R180 they are re-seated in a literacy class–where they may not ever have experienced success–it’s incumbent on everyone to consider carefully this formula. Very specific questions should be considered.
1. Is the student missing out on electives such as art, music, PE? If a middle-schooler is deprived of one or all his elective opportunities, this might work against any increased success in the content areas. Research abounds as to the positive effects on the brain and learning these activities have. If the student is a 6th-grader, he has recently come from a day of 3 recesses, art, music, PE, computers, and maybe foreign language–a rich tapestry essential to, at the very least, liking school.
2. Is he missing Science or Social Studies? This is the question: would the instruction in either or both these classes support, enhance, or hinder a student struggling with reading and writing? If the opportunity to learn how to access engaging content is found in these classes, that should be weighed against a double-dip of literacy per se.
3. Will there be the opportunity in L. Arts for this student to grow in reading and writing?
These are issues to ponder when making decisions about “double-dipping” Read 180 students. Constraints in scheduling and FTE further complicate. Middle school team schedules might have to be manipulated for individual students. But underlying all these decisions, be assured that in the capable hands of committed teachers, the Read 180 instructional model is well able to stand in as a student’s literacy class; it works well in melding the new literacy standards with the individual needs of students. And, the program has all the pieces and parts to ensure that reading and writing can be taught in ways that engage boys and girls.
By the time struggling youngsters get to middle school, this is hard. But it is absolutely essential.