Saturday, June 15, 2013

Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture: Part 4

Newkirk closes his book discussing humor as well as reiterating his arguments regarding the need for us in education to reconsider what and how we teach reading and writing.  Humor in my own family varies from person to person.  My kids have a great sense of humor, but often times borders on what Newkirk would call bodily or sarcastic humor, where as my husband and I have more of an adult sense of humor. Neither is bad in Newkirk’s view, but often kids are told their sense of humor regarding their bodies or their mocking forms of humor against those in position of power are inappropriate. I know I have uttered those words MANY times.  

Newkirk explains the history behind males sense of humor, “ deals with the body in ways that are designed to make adults uncomfortable- that’s part of the point. It flaunts the code of embarrassment or shame; it directly attacks the social conventions that says which body aprts must be covered, which bodily acts must be hidden from public view, and which bodily noises must be silenced.”  Newkirk argues that teachers should allow these forms of humor to enter the classroom because of the energy that accompanies it.  These forms of humor create community amongst students.  

This is especially important in middle schools when kids find their bodies changing all the time. Having them suppress their bodies rather than bring in their insecurities only sends the message that our bodies aren’t ok and the things your body is doing isn’t ok as well.  Bodies can be the greater leveler amongst all- from cool kids to nerdy kids, teachers and students, kings and queens- we all have bodies!

Newkirk supports helping kids find control or power over their position in society. He argues that one way to do so is by allowing kids to use parody in their writing.  Boys can find their own place in this world by distancing themselves from aligning with the perfect model of the various groups they belong to, “Boys are often in the difficult position of maintaining their standing as sons and students while at the same time distancing themselves from ‘sincere’ behaviors and language that they see as threatening and ‘overidentifying.’ Parody is one way of meeting both these demands. “ I see this in my oldest. He often finds schoolwork laborious and unmotivating. This past year, he was assigned the task of writing a series of poems. Something he really didn’t want to do. He ran out of ideas, and asked me about writing slam poems. I have a few students who have been successful in writing their own and told him some of their techniques. He took his frustration with the parapros on recess duty and turned it into a slam poem. I was impressed. Of course, he was worried about the grade he would receive on it as a result of its negative look at their overprotectiveness, but I stressed that the teacher would support him because he was completing the assigned task. He was able to parody something he was a part of and let out frustrations as a result of the open endedness of the poetry work.

Newkirk addresses concerns that some have over the mocking nature of such high interest books such as Captain Underpants.  He says, “ Boys will read Captain Underpants, but not to find real-life models to imitate any more than my generation wanted to literally imitate The Little Rascals.  The attraction of this form of parody comes out of a sense of power imbalance: Even in the most benign school, students are controlled by adults. Time, space, speaking rights, choice of activities-all are ultimately controlled by those in power. And sometimes this control is not so benign.  To be completely compliant is psychologically dangerous, for in overidentification we lose a sense of self; we become the institution. Mockery is a necessary form of underlife, a way of resisting the full embrace of the institution, even if we are fundamentally loyal to that institution.”  We need to find a place for our students to use parody, humor and mockery in ways that allow them to feel as though they are building their own self. Maybe kids can look at all the aspects of their lives that are part of their identification and not only parody those, but parody themselves at the same time. I feel as though this would create a much better classroom environment because they are putting themselves on the line as much as the idea they are making fun of.  

By rethinking what schools look like for boys and girls, and rethinking how we teach reading and writing, we can change our children’s perception of school. Newkirk explains, “ in the end, a broadening of the literacy spectrum will not only benefit boys; it will benefit any student whose primary affiliation is to the ‘low status’ popular narratives of television, movies, comics, humor, sports pages, and plot driven fiction.”  We need to move past including only the thematically heavy forms of literature that, “features introspection and the expression of feeling, that engages readers with significant moral issues and that helps promote a tolerance for diversity” and pair them with others forms of fiction to including works that connect with our students that are engaging and high interest. Works that give our kids choice. Newkirk isn’t arguing about abandoning the old canon but finding a place for both within the curriculum.  Spend time exploring the other sources.  

Additionally, Newkirk discusses the importance of boys being able to visually tell their stories either through storyboards, cartoons or telling board where kids can animate their words. This is especially important with boys to allow them to visually show their learning.  

Newkirk closes discussing once again the importance of allowing kids to bring violence into their learning.  Violence should be redefined or defined together as a class to set acceptable limits. He revisits his claims:
  • Writing that causes teachers or classmates to feel threatened or belittled is inappropriate.
  • Violence in the media-and its effects on us-should be a topic of discussion
  • Is it violence or comedy young writers are after- or both. Action writing that is most successful with peers is that which successfully employs humor in the form of slapstick, parody, exaggeration, or comedic exchanges among main characters
  • Action writing is a channel for male activity
    • this form of fiction becomes a ways of assuming freedoms, powers, and competencies that the writer doesn’t possess in real life
    • the pace of the narrative is quick
    • the writing works to celebrate and solidify friendship groups
    • the writing often moves to the exaggerated, extreme, and absurdl the slapstick; even the silly
Newkirk also cautions teachers regarding limiting students’ obsessiveness over writing over and over again on the same topic. He stresses that ” in many cases teachers do not share any affection for the models these students are working from, so it is hard to imagine the pleasure of the genre itself, let alone the pleasure of repeating a story type dozens of times.”  He comes to their defense:
  • obsessive writers rarely create exact reproductions of the visual models they enjoy- they are transforming them and mixing them with our cultural worlds often involving their friends
  • they are rarely exactly repeating themselves, although the innovations may not always seem significant to the adult reader
  • what seems like obsessive repetition to the outsider does that feel that way to the child absorbed

Newkirk also cautions against the standardization of our curriculums,” the reform movement at work in US schools clearly sees standardization and uniformity as central to the goal of ‘not leaving any child behind....writing instruction comes to resemble test taking- a prompt-and-rubric approach, tightly times and lacking in any social interaction...the reliance on rubrics also can short-circuit the task of response to the point where it seems that no human response is going on at all.”

Newkirk closes quoting from Quintilian, a legendary Roman writing teacher:

Let that age be daring, invent much and delight in what it invents, thought it be often not sufficiently severe and correct. The remedy for exuberance is easy: barrenness is incurable by any labor. That temper in boys will afford me little hope in which mental effort is prematurely restrained by judgement. I like what is produced to be extremely copious, profuse beyond the limits of propriety.

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