Thoughts about Summer Reading Part 15: Oh, That Makes Sense

Picture this…  You just got married to the person of your dreams, your soul mate.  The wedding was perfect and the wedding night was amazing.  Now, you’re off on your honeymoon.  You wanted to do something special yet inexpensive, and so you planned a trip to Pricne Edward Island in Canada.  Driving made more sense too.  So, there you are driving north to Nova Scotia.  The weather is goregous and your beautiful mate is next to you in the passsenger seat when all of a sudden your car starts to make funny noises.  Then, it starts bucking.  Oh no.  So, you pull over and take it to a car fixing place.  And that’s when things start to fall apart.  The mechanic says, “It’s your transmission.  It’s completely shot.  You’ll need a new one.”  Later on, when the transmission is being replaced and you had to cancel your honeymoon because the repairs cost $3,000, the mechanic says, “Hey, if you had a done the regular maintenance on the car, this could have been prevented.”  That’s when you slap yourself in the forehead and say, “Oh, that makes sense,” when what you really want to do is punch the mechanic in the face for being so ridiculously obvious.

So, that was the story of how my honeymoon was ruined by a car.  14 years of marriage bliss and we still haven’t made it to PEI.  Back then, I was young and naive.  I had no idea about car maintenance or oil changes.  I was just happy to have a car.  In retrospect, the mechanic’s advice was completely correct.  If only I had thought about that earlier.  Sometimes, the most sensical ideas are the ones furthest from our thoughts.  

Today, while reading Ralph Fletcher’s epic reference book on getting boys to write entitled Boy Writers, I found myself thinking, ‘Oh yeah, that’s totally right, I need to remember that in the classroom,’ when he discussed how girls like to write about emotions and feelings where as boys like to write about actions and things.  Of course.  Then I started thinking about the various writing pieces my students did throughout the year.  99% of them were fiction pieces about fantasy worlds with lots of action.  They described things in vivid details, but never really got into characterization.  They didn’t examine the character’s motivation or emotional state, but they did describe, in detail, what the world looked like.  However, when introducing a new writing strategy or genre, I used more feminine mentor texts that examined the whys and hows of events and characters.  Boys don’t typically engage with this kind of writing, which is perhaps why I kept asking myself, throughout the year, why aren’t they getting it?  Why don’t they better explain why their character is battling the enemy?  I didn’t understand that for boys, this skill is a difficult one to teach.  At the middle school level, most boys aren’t ready to delve into character motivation.  This, in fact, according to Ralph Fletcher, turns them off from writing.  They want to write about action sequences, fantastical worlds, and adventures.  They don’t want to have to stop to explain why.

That makes total sense.  Why didn’t I think of that?  Well, obviously, this author is published for a reason.  He did the research and has the know-how to write about writing for boys.  Knowing this obvious fact about boys and writing, I feel as though I will better support and help my students grow as writers next year.  I will use mentor texts that address the needs of my students and will be sure genres are more open-ended to allow for creativity and interpretation.  Instead of having the boys write a personal narrative about their lives, they could write any sort of narrative.  Perhaps they could write a narrative from the perspective of a dinosaur or super hero.  I need to be more flexible with topics.  Although a lot of what the author has stated in this book is stuff I already know and do in the classroom, there are plenty of a-ha take-aways for me.  If only I had read a book about car maintencance prior to getting married, perhaps I could have prevented my honeymoon disaster.  However, sometimes we have to be ready to take in new information or it just won’t mean anything to us.  If I had read this book a few years ago, I probably would have dismissed a lot of what was written.  But, now I’m ready.  Clearly, I wasn’t ready to understand car maintencance back then, but now I am.  Too bad.  When it comes to learning from mistakes, sometimes, timing is everything.

Thoughts about Summer Reading Part 14: If it’s Obvious, then Why isn’t it Happening?

After more than 30 years, you’d think that scientists would have found a way to make the beaming up process from Star Trek a reality, but alas, they haven’t found a way to do it, yet.  I’m sure its coming down the pipeline soon though. However, for now, we’ll have to stick with flying, walking, and driving to get around.  Then again though, that futuristic process always seemed far-fetched anyway.  How would it be possible to split an object into its seperate particles and then reassemble it safely?  That’s crazy.  While it would be very cool if we could beam up when traveling, it’s not realistic.

However, the ideas in Boy Writers by Ralph Fletcher do make a lot of sense.  In schools around the country, teachers seem to have trouble engaging boys in writing.  As a teacher at an all-boys school, the ideas he proposes and suggests in his fine book are obvious and already a part of my educational toolbelt.  To inspire boys to write they need to have options and choice.  The writer’s workshop model of writing instruction allows for just that, as the author mentions repeatedly throughout the text.  I employ the literacy workshop model of reading and writing instruction in my classroom to engage my students.  The boys choose what they write about and how they do it.  If they want to write a play, poem, comic book, fiction story, collaborative story, or any other type of writing, they have the freedom to do so.  They love having the choice to write what they want to write.  So, while this method makes sense to the author and some teachers, why do all teachers not use this method of instruction?  Brain research proves to us that people learn best when they are provided choice.  However, despite the obvious data, many teachers and schools still don’t teach writing and reading through the workshop model.  That baffles me.  Even the other English teachers at my school don’t utilize this model of literacy instruction in their class despite all of the research and information with which I have provided them over the years.  Why?  Well, I’m sure all those teachers who operate a writer’s workshop in their classroom can tell you that change is hard.  So many teachers are set in their ways and like having control over their students and the curriculum.  With this method of instruction, the control switches to the students.  Those out-of-touch teachers would probably say something like, “We can’t have the inmates running the asylum.”  It’s time for those teachers to be beamed up to the 21st century or beamed out of teaching.

Another obvious proposal the author made was that boys need to be able to have the ability to use humor and violence in their writing.  In the overly politically correct world in which we live, when students employ violence in their stories, some teachers jump the gun and think, “Oh my gosh.  We’re going to have another Columbine on our hands.”  I get it, violence is scary when we don’t take the time to understand its purpose or rationale.  However, research shows that people who play violent video games, write stories that include violence, or listen to violent music are not automatically prone to going crazy and committing acts of violence themselves.  People do bad things for many different reasons.  If a student writes a story about a superhero and includes a battle scene, as his teacher, we should be excited that he his writring a piece that he enjoys.  This means that we might be fostering a love of writing within that student.  Imagine if we had an entire class filled with students who are able to write about what inspires them in a manner that they choose.  That is what writer’s workshop and trust in your students allows.  We need to show our students we trust and believe in them.  Giving them freedom will create this kind of atmosphere in the classroom.  So then, why aren’t all teachers doing this already?  Again, it comes back to fear.  People are afraid that if they allow students to write silly or violent stories, they won’t be learning anything or will grow up to be violent or crazy people.  That’s not the case in 99% of situations though.

While much of what Ralph Fletcher writes about in his book Boy Writers, is already common knowledge to me, its great to see that other people understand and believe in these ideas as well.  Teaching can be very scary when we allow students to take the reigns, but it’s one of the only ways engagement and genuine learning will take place.  So, let’s believe in our students and guide them through the adventure of learning in a meaningful and trusting manner.