September 18, 2012

Boys Writing, or Trying to Write

24,100 8th graders and 28,100 12th graders responded in 2011 to two 30-minute writing prompts that asked them to persuade, explain, or convey experiences.

Overall, only 27% scored at or above the proficient level.

Females outperformed males at both grade levels.

In 8th grade, 37% of girls scored proficient or above, compared with 18% of boys.

I am sad, but not surprised. Boys are wired for more instant feedback and gratification, plus a distaste for over-flowery language, or descriptive, stylistic prose. I know, that is a sweeping generalization and would never hold up in a journalistic venue. 

I would have to say, "In my experience..." or "From my perspective.." But this is my blog, a cross between a textbook on teaching and a journal on innovative but very messy learning curves put to paper.
So boys often say that they can "talk to the prompt" but not respond to it in writing. They think it is because it takes longer, grammar is looming, and spelling leaps out to be addressed. While those are all true, what is also roadblocking them is formal register, which I have written about here before. Both school and work operate at two levels: the consultative and formal. Consultative is a mix of formal and casual register. Example: “I can’t accept the assignment the way it is.” I love Ruby Payne's work on this, in her research on poverty. I was helped greatly by studying her books and hearing her speak when I was doing staff development in rural farmlands of CA.

No simple answers. [But I have many answers! - as those of you who know me are aware of]

Many frustrated parents. Homework is a nightmare for these boys who resist writing, and need coaching about communicating in print in the formal register. In my sessions with such boys, we have to talk it out in their own comfortable oral language, then transfer it to paper, putting faith in their powers of working memory, and THEN spice it up with transition words and synonyms for what just came out of their mouth.

"Describe what your math group did to come up with their answer today, in one paragraph." Actual assignment of a 7th grade boy today. And how is this, from yesterday: "Give three reasons why the cultural system of Mesopotamia experienced periodic breakdowns. Explain how geographic features contributed to these."  Geez.

Many of my kids think good writers are those who sit down and write a novel in a day. 

Many analogies are made, every night, by exhausted parents, to their 9-17 year old sons, about long-term gratification in sports, or electric guitar, or even gaming. They are trying to prevent power struggles. Or portray the amount of work and revision that goes into a piece of art, mastering an athletic skill, or fine-tuning a career path. Best analogy to writing assignments? Composing a song. 

I haven't decided what I think of this new book, and this author who claims to have the switch that turns boys onto writing. A colleague went to his seminar this summer, and said it was all very over-simplified, touting giving boys permission to write gross, violent, fantasy pieces, and that will magically make them skilled at writing other genres. OH!  
Really! If that worked, then why teach any genres at all?

(from an interview with Ralph Fletcher, the author)
According to my research, many boys yearn to write what they read--fantasy. Yet for various reasons many teachers are
hesitant to allow them to do so.That's too bad. Teachers often say to me: "But the writing they do isn't very good!" I reply:
"So what? Let them take a crack at it. At least they're engaged."
I think we could find lots of other genres that would appeal to boys including:
--humor especially spoofs and parodies
--sports commentary
--scary stories or horror
--graphic novels or comics

Well, that doesn't seem like it would prepare them to write a paper in college on the history of architecture, or an interpretation of a tort in pre-law. Or even get a decent score on the NAEP test, above.

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