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Response: Helping Boys Become Stronger Writers

(Note: This is the third post in a multi-part series on teaching writing. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

Katie Ciresi asked:

What advice can you give to help teachers be more effective in helping students become better writers?

This series is a companion to last year's five posts on Helping Our Students Become Better Readers.

I began this series last week with guest responses from Mary Tedrow, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. On Monday, another three educators -- Aimee Buckner, Carolyn Coman and Tanya Baker -- contributed their ideas.

Today, educator and author Ralph Fletcher shares his ideas on how we can specifically help boys become stronger writers.

Parts Four and Five of this series will be published next week.

Response From Ralph Fletcher

Ralph Fletcher is the author of Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know (Henry Holt) and Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices (Stenhouse):

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 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, 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 offbeat, subversive humor. That's why Captain Underpants and 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, for instance, will give boys 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. 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.

Thanks to Ralph for contributing his response.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I'll be including them in a future post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for Part Four in this series on Sunday....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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