Friday, September 6, 2013

           Bringing The Boys Into Your Writing Community

I’ve spent most of my professional career helping teachers find wiser ways of teaching writing. In the past few years I’ve become interested in how we might do a better job of engaging our boy writers. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that boy writers are struggling. According to the most recent NAEP test results (2011) 38% of 8th grade girls scored “proficient” or above—only 18% of 8th grade boys scored proficient. The tips that follow will help nourish all writers, but boys in particular will benefit.

         *Try to understand boy writers instead of judging them.  

        Let’s face it: elementary teachers, who are overwhelmingly female, may not always “get” boy writers and their quirks, strengths, and struggles. Sometimes we may look at boys as defective girls (I confess that I have done this myself), try to notice what unique strengths boys bring to the table.
Boys and girls really are different, and I’m convinced that some of that difference is biological. A mother I know has two girls and two boys. She told me: “The boys made sound effects, revving  their toy trucks, for instance, almost from the moment when they could vocalize. My daughters never did that.”
Boy writing often differs from the writing created by girls. (For instance, in his book Why Gender Matters Leonard Sax points out that in their drawings, little girls draw nouns whereas little boys draw verbs/action.) Try to appreciate the difference.

         *Tune in to boy’s humor. 

         Your relationship to your male students will improve substantially if you can broaden your sense of humor. Boys revel in humor that's offbeat and subversive. That’s why books like Captain Underpants and TV shows like The Simpson’s are universally adored by boys.

         *Embrace choice. 

         Once upon a time choice was a staple in writing classroom but as I go around the country I’m sad to report that I see less and less real choice in writing classrooms. This is so unfortunate. We all know the power of a “just-write book,” but what about the power of a “just-write topic” for writing? We must allow boys the opportunity to choose what to write about and how to express themselves.

         *Bring boy-friendly mentor texts into the classroom. 

         A book like Jon Scieszka's Knucklehead will resonate with boys and give them an image of what their writing could look and sound like.

         *Build on strengths.  

        When a boy’s story gets covered with corrections, he will get overwhelmed and discouraged. Praise is a crucial ingredient in nurturing boy writers. It’s important to find something the student has done well, and point it out to them. 

         *Let them see you write. 

         And share your writing with your students. It sounds simple, but it’s so important. This will earn you major street cred! Boys will respect that you’re taking the same risk that they are taking.

         *Don’t punish boys for poor handwriting.  

        Primary age boys lag girls in small motor coordination, which contributes to messy handwriting and puts them at a disadvantage in the classroom. That's a developmental issue, not a character defect! Try not to make handwriting a bone of contention. “If you can read it, and I can read it, it’s good enough.” The world seems to be moving inexorably toward keyboarding, so handwriting should become non-issue in the future.

         *Be realistic about revision. 

        We should talk to students about the drafting process, showing them craft elements and encouraging them to try those strategies in their writing. But for many boys it’s one (draft) and done. That’s okay. Don’t belabor the drafting process. Most boys have a finite amount of energy for any one writing task. If you watch carefully you may notice that a boy will use the new writing strategy on his next piece of writing.

         *Go for engagement first; the quality will come later. 

         A teacher friend recently told me this story:
         I could tell that my boy students were already turned off when we started writing workshop at the beginning of the year.
 “We can’t write what we really want,” they said. “Like, we can’t have any shooting, or stuff like that.”
         “I’m not so sure about that,” I told them.
         The boys looked at each other, surprised. One boy asked:
         “Could we have, like, a story with us shooting at some aliens?”
         “I don’t see why not,” I replied.
         The boys stared in amazement. “Really?”
         “Would it be okay if we had to blow up their planet?” another boy wanted to know.
         “Sure,” I told them.
         The boys were ecstatic. And off they went, passionately writing their sci-fi stories.
         If boys are already checked out, how successful can we possibly be at helping them improve their writing? Moving toward them, embracing the passions and the things that move them, seems like a small price to pay if we are serious about our goal helping boys become life-long writers.

       For further reading check out my books Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know (Henry Holt) and Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices (Stenhouse).


  1. I love this! Thank you! Great reminders for the classroom.

  2. You have hit on a sore spot with me. I struggle with my boy writers so much. I allow them to put in the violence, but I'm constantly questioning it. Can you write me a story with no blood? I often ask. I also find that many of them write the stories of the games they play. But I must say one of my greatest success stories was when a dyslexic boy was drawing (and sometimes writing) a story about some army ants. When I announced it was time for writer's workshop, he would cheer. I need to remember your words and keep them close to me everyday for the sake of my boys.

  3. I celebrate the moments when boys open up their notebooks or make their own. Embracing choice as you said is so key to helping teachers embrace the challenge of teaching boys. I liked how you said it straight out, "sometimes we may look at boys as defective girls." In the writing world I believe this to be true. Thanks for taking so many steps to changing this way of thinking.

  4. Thank you for this! This is a great reminder.
    I teach Kindergarten and I often struggle with engaging my boy writers. For example this past writing unit was on telling stories about our lives. The students loved writing but many times the boys wrote made up or pretend stories (At this point in the year, I was just happy they were writing). How do I find the balance of teaching Kindergartners the craft and what and how writers write but engaging my boys? Do you have any suggestions?

    1. I've taught 3rd and 4th grades. I've allowed the kids to make up stuff even for what we once called personal narratives. I've found they do better writing when they are free to make stuff up. In fact, I suspect that's what a writer does, even when he is writing the "truth" about his own life. We even turn it into a bit of a guessing game sometimes: figure out what really happened and what was made up. I've come to see that probably all writing is fiction that emerges from having lived a real life. Both the boys and the girls like that freedom to write themselves into a bigger (or different) life than they currently lead.

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