Friday, June 14, 2013

Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture: Part 2

Newkirk opens chapter 3 discussing why kids feel resistant towards reading, “ Too often the argument for reading is made by those who have spent their lives as insiders; the pleasures of solitary reading are so obvious, the value of reading so self-evident , that we fail to appreciate how utterly strange reading is to the outsider.”  This is a perspective I often forget. For me, reading is an escape, a source of enjoyment and pleasure. I have loved reading since I can remember being taught phonics. I am a devourer of books.  However, I am an “insider” as Newkirk explains. I need to consider that for many kids, especially my daughter, reading is a constant struggle and a source of punishment rather than pleasure. Newkirk continues to support this position explaining that reading is such a solitary activity. For those who struggle, they are placed away from others they could learn from, understand with, and work collaboratively together to construct meaning. But that is not how reading is taught. Each student is expected to read a book, question, interpret, connect and do it all by himself.  

Newkirk educates his reader on the work on Smith and Wilhelm  who ”stress the centrality of friendship groups in literacy development; boys read books recommended by friends and are more likely to attend to print stories that can be shared.”  So if boys read better with visuals, with action, comedy, parody and wit, and read better with others, why do we ask them to read in isolation?  I have found more of my struggling readers prefer to read in a collaborative group setting where we read and annotate out loud dissecting the text as we make our way through. I know some of my more proficient readers feel as though reading out loud slows the pace down, but I wonder if I reduced the quantity of what is assigned, if they would feel more concerned about their understandings and connections and less about completion.  Newkirk supports my concerns and offers a new direction to think about, “...reading instruction should be embedded in practical social activity and not treated as a subject of instruction...true verbal skill...must be grounded on experience, on activity in physical/social/political world..learning comes primarily from encounters with ‘things’ not ‘words.’”  How can we get reading in our classrooms more about interacting with the text, especially with my all boys class, and less with a lack of interaction? How can we create more active rather than passive readers?

Newkirk brings to light that our idea of what well functioning classrooms will look like if we change how and what kids read.  Kids might not be in rows, completing worksheets, raising their hands, but rather there might be small groups all around the room, some kids in desks some on the floors, some in hallways. Kids could be reading and writing on a wide variety of materials. And there would be constant discussion. As a teacher, I wonder how I can “control” that learning environment?  I think expectations created collaboratively would work best, but would our school administration or district see the same thing I do?  Newkirk explains, “... one agenda of schooling is disciplining the body- teaching the students to assume the behavioral characteristics of students. To sit like students, raise hands like students, pay attention like students, work steadily and industriously like students.”  Do teachers and administrators need to change the conversation about classroom management in order to give kids the freedom to explore reading on their own terms rather than the traditional terms of a traditional classroom.  This makes me think about where I work. It is often noisy, I can hear people typing, talking, joking, laughing, kids yelling in the hallway. But when I go home to read, I have a comfortable chair, a good beverage, and quiet. When I try to concentrate at work on something I really need to focus on, I often have trouble depending on the environment. It isn’t comfortable and I can’t think. But yet that is what I ask of the students in my class when they have to read. They have to sit and endure because it has to be done now and on my terms, “The sad, or perhaps not so sad, fact about human nature is that we all have difficulty persisting in activity that gives us little pleasure, no matter how ‘good for us’ this activity might be.”  So no wonder our kids don’t like to read!  Newkirk offers this advice, “ ...unless we can persuade students that reading is a form of deep, sustained pleasure, they will not choose to read; and because they will not choose to read, they will not develop skills to make them good readers.”  I so agree!!!

Wilhelm talks about boys creating more “dramatic and artistic opportunities for students to make public the envisioned story space they inhabit as readers.”  This could be one way to engage our readers. Also, I think making reading a more collaborative process and giving kids the freedom to choose texts that are appealing might also engage those reluctant readers.

Let’s talk about the freedom of boys to choose texts, “Boys traditional favorites-information books, humor, science fiction, and action stories- are often treated as subliterature, something that a reader should move beyond as he moves towards realistic fiction with thematic weight.”  and Wilhelm argues that “in fact, many students who classify themselves as non-readers read quite a lot; they see themselves as non-readers because they don’t read extended works of fiction.”  In many cases, I don’t see boys advocating for themselves as readers or as students.  I see them complacent to not excel at reading or writing. But, I wonder, if I changed the type of material boys read in class, would that make a difference. Would doing away with the old canon of literature, books that I read when I was in school make boys want to read. I have to say in my own defense, I have tried more modern texts with my students. My boys read Into the Wild, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and we watch a lot of modern videos to accent what we are reading. But could it be the sheer length of the material is too overwhelming?  I can’t imagine giving up reading in class, but maybe I need to rethink what and how we are reading?  What if boys in class are reading The Simpsons to learn about satire? What if I have them read Calvin and Hobbes to look at examples of illusion, parody, and humor?  What if we read box scores from the paper to learn how to read various forms of charts and graphs?  

Newkirk makes this same assertion, “I am challenging the claims made for this literature and the implicit (or explicit) moral hierarchy that sets this type of reading above more popular forms of literary activity.”  This isn’t to say that we should give boys in our classrooms free reign. In fact, “‘Choice’ implies a form of freedom to go outside the range of the conventional and appropriate; yet, the ‘good’ reins it in, establishing a boundary within which choices must be made in order to qualify as ‘good’.”  Newkirk quotes from Graves who indicates that kids should “be encouraged to search their lives and interests for compelling topics”- I agree but I often find this is where trouble arises. Kids don’t know what they like. They know what they don’t like and will let you know, but often times, because of a number of factors, kids don’t know where to turn to find books that will inspire them or light the fire within. Is it because they have never recieved choice before so they aren’t sure what is appropriate or ok? Or is it because they haven’t been expose d enough of life to know what their passions are?  I agree with the sentiment, I just think it is a great thought not grounded in practicality. And so this is also where my struggle lies. I want kids to have the choice, but I often have to help them find something they are passionate about because they say they don’t have passions or interests. Or if they do, there is nothing to read about it.  

This same lack of passion in their reading can also be applicable to their writing.  Kids struggle at finding topics that interest them, that spark a thought to write about. Instead, they often end up confused at what to put down to complete the assignment.  Newkirk discusses Lucy Calkins work with memoirs indicating the importance of kids writing what they know, “in effect teachers can help children claim a childhood through the act of writing, through shaping and reliving experiences with grandparents, siblings, hobbies, and pets.”  TV also offers a plentitude of ideas for kids to write about but many dismiss TV or “discount the potential value..the end result may cut them off from the most powerful and pervasive narrative forms the know.”  Maybe dissecting plots on well written shows (West Wing) or even humorously satirical pieces such as the Simpsons. But can TV be seen as literacy?  I would argue yes given the correct instructions for its use in the classroom. We aren’t asking kids to just watch TV but asking them to think critically about it, to find inspiration in its shows and construction, to examine each program for its writing forms and content.

Even comic books have enormous potential as a learning tool. To understand Gary Paulsen’s Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes’ rants in strip form, one must understand the humor of their creators.  We can use them to understand characterization or form.

And using these different forms of writing, kids can learn to write more authentically and passionately. Newkirk warns of limiting our students to only realistic fiction which is typical in classrooms, “teachers prefer realism for at least two reasons. First, students are moving towards kids of writing we voluntarily read (we don’t have to pretend). Second, realistic fiction depends on the intense observation of lived experience, attention to relationships, language, physical appearance, and personal reactions and judgements.”  Boys are able to transcend their existence and give themselves power that they obviously don’t hold as kids. They can even mock the power that is held over them in their own lives .

Newkirk hopes at the end of these chapters to have argued successfully for his reader to think about “the place of literary realism and moral sensitivity as the ultimate goal of instruction. This preference reflects the literary taste of an educated elite, and with its focus on nontechnological experience, it helps allay fears that children are missing out on “an authentic childhood” amidst the clutter of consumer goods and media seductions...Maybe the best we can do is to recognize the fact that we are located and limited, and that our views of literacy are not inevitable, but connected to social-class tastes (and distates) and desires and anxieties.”

I am left thinking at the end, how can we have boys read and write more authentic pieces? How can we help them develop the skills of parody and mocking? Can they write satirical pieces that still fit the common core standards? can they create arguments with research while still maintaining a sense of humor?  and will they find issues that are meaningful and connected to them and their passions?

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