Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture
Thomas Newkirk in his book, Misreading Masculinity hopes to helps schools and teachers re-examine their practices in assigning literature and writing tasks to students. Newkirk hopes to shed light throughout his arguments on the detriment teachers are doing to students, specifically more male students, by limiting our definitions of literacy. Newkirk argues throughout his book about the power of visuals, pop media, and violence in young people’s lives and how teachers steer children away from those types of literacies because they are afraid of the negativity and low culture these texts employ.
Newkirk argues, “...that too many of our schools are failing too many of our boys, particularly in the area of reading and writing. By defining, teaching and evaluating literacy in narrow ways-even under the banner of choice and a student centered curriculum- we have failed to support or even allow in our literacy programs the tastes, values, and learning style of many boys. More specifically, we have discouraged, devalued and even prohibited the genres of reading and writing that are most popular with many boys, stories that include violence, parody, and bodily humor.” Newkirk argues heavily on the side of allowing boys to include violence in their reading and writing because “ there is no logical line connecting reading and writing about violence with acting violently.” He goes on to say that “ boys almost never simply reproduce in their writing what they have seen in movies or on TV- they transform it, recombine story lines from various media, and regularly place themselves and their friends as heroes.”
Newkirk’s arguments hit home for me. Growing up with three brothers, a couple of whom were not engaged readers, I could see their draw to stories of good and evil in movies such as Star Wars or Louis La’Mour westerns or re-enacting stories they would see from cartoons in our play outside. Additionally, I saw with my brothers dislike with reading grow as they were asked to read what the teacher wanted the entire class to read or write about prompts the teacher assigned. Even today in my own classes, I rarely give my all boys class a chance to read about whatever they want except for our weekly PLNs. I often see them struggling when they are given free choice to know what they want to read. Is that because they have been without a choice for so long that they don;t know what they like anymore. And with writing, often there are prompts that I have them write towards rather than allowing them to write whatever they want. Why?> Because my state, district and national curriculums tell us what kinds of writing they need to master and I want my students to be successful mastering those curriculums.
Also, I agree with Newkirk’s argument about kids not simply reproducing what they have seen into their own writing. I think that is one of the amazing parts of being a 21st century learner. All learning is a mashable event combining the text, audio, media, visuals from a wide variety of sources into a new view or understanding. So as I read Newkirk’s words, I am left wondering: do I agree with what he is saying? is his argument about violence in literature true? should I bring in more visuals and free choice to my students? what if they won’t pick appropriately challenging texts or prompts to write or read about? Newkirk asks his reader to question as well “ what counts as literacy? how can we learn about, appreciate and make use of the narrative affiliations of potentially alienated boys? How can we tap the interests that exist on the other side of the partition?”
Chapter one explores the crisis of boyhood that all parents and educators worry about: “How do we balance the social appropriateness and boys’ attractions to fantasies of conflict and violence? And who is to decide what is appropriate? on what criteria?” I think about growing up with G.I.Joe, Star Wars, HEMEN and my parents recollections of old westerns with cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, etc... If there were times that these rights and wrongs, good and evil of society were deemed acceptable, why do we now think these battles are too violent and inappropriate for our kids? Watching Little Rascals with its racially segregated characters, or Bad News Bears with its inappropriate language in today’s standards, can these be seen as classics, but the violence of Marilyn Manson, rap lyrics of Eminem seen as not? I clearly don’t have the answers to any of the questions I am posing, but I know Newkirk’s work really made me think as a teacher and parent of two boys.
Chapter one left me thinking about how I can allow my students to write, read or see more violent pieces? How can I justify what I am doing in light of a post-Columbine era vigilance towards eliminating violence in our student’s learning? Everything I read from Dr. Meg Meeker’s work on Boys Should Be Boys as well as the work from Raising Cain and The Wonder of Boys seems to point to giving kids positive role models in their viewing and reading. So, how are we supposed to balance the two? We need to give the kids the outlet to express their emotions, and hold them accountable when they have crossed a line to inappropriateness. Can we do that? Would I rather err on the side of getting kids to read and write with material that isn’t as challenging in hopes that they would one day self-select more classic and challenging pieces? Or would they be like my own voracious reader son who only selects mysteries and balks at any attempt to get him to read something of more literary merit, but when given a text such as Sherman Alexi’s Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian, loves it and wants to read more. Why? He loves the language and inappropriateness. Can there be a pairing of the two? Can we find a place or better yet the time in our classrooms to inspire kids to pull from “high culture” pieces and connect them to their reading of low culture pieces? Or is it like Tovani suggests in her books about reading that we need to be reading shorter pieces to engage our struggling readers?
Newkirk of course argues that we need to feed kids’ desires. We need to pull kids into reading and writing what they love. Otherwise, we are in no better place, and probably worse than we are now considering the great disparity between boys and girls standardized reading and writing scores. If we can’t engage boys in the first part with just getting them to read and write, how are we ever going to get them engaged with reading and writing when they will need it for exams, papers, college entrance essays, reports for work, etc...
Chapter two focuses on the gap between boys and girls in their learning. Newkirk speaks about how boys struggle in school is often misinterpreted. Girls are just better at following school rules and doing school. Newkirk argues against the kind of attention given to boys at school in comparison to the kind of attention given to girls. He puts forth the argument that boys are given often behavioral attention whereas girls are getting attention in regards to learning issues. New kirk even argues that, “Even more positive attention (e.g. calling on boys more often than girls) may not be the great advantage it has been made out to be, because success in school (and, one might add, in the workplace) is dependent on other traits- perseverance, goal setting, enjoyment of reading and writing, ability to collaborate, and attention to detail- none of which are really fostered in discussions where students bid for the teacher’s attention.” So knowing all of this, as well as knowing how far the boys are behind the girls in my own school in terms of reading and writing, I realize something has to change to close this gap. How can we get boys reading and writing more in order to move the boys along?
Newkirk also spends time discussing the self-esteem issue associated with boys and girls in school. I found this portion especially interesting considering my own daughter and sons perceptions of school. Newkirk articulates, “Females reported better behavior in class; they rated themselves as more conscientious and harder workers than the boys did. They received higher grades than the boys. Yet the boys claimed to be more satisfied than the girls with how smart they were. The adolescent girls in the study did not reap the self satisfaction their achievement would seem to merit, while boys took satisfaction that was not firmly grounded in real achievement.” In my house, Jackson, my oldest, is a gifted learner but often doesn’t work hard at school since learning comes easily to him. Whereas Emma, our daughter, continues to struggle in school day after day spending many recesses inside getting questions answered or seeking additional clarification. Her perception of school even when she does succeed is very different than Jackson. She will work her butt off for a 3 on an assignment whereas Jackson could care less about the grade, unless he doesn’t get a grade he feels he deserves than he is upset. But he is much more satisfied with working less. Newkirk sums this up by saying, this delcine amtters more for girls because school matters more to them. It matters less to boys because school matters less to them.” This leads me to thinking, “How can we get school to matter more to boys?” Is it even possible in order to close the gap?
Newkirk states at the end of chapter two, “this male cynicism about schooling may come from a powerful residual sense of male entitlement-an unarticulated belief that the traits of traditional masculinity (aggressiveness, competitiveness, physical strength, gregariousness, an outgoing personality) will more than compensate for any educational deficiency. These after all are the real traits valued in the real world. Males are more likely to view schooling in general (and specifically literacy) as artificial, even unmanly.” This leads me to think we need more male role models in school connecting boys with their love of reading and writing. How can I find more males to inspire my students to read and write?