Gender and Book Choice

This is a post I started a while back but never finished. I’ve rewritten portions to post it today.


One Tuesday afternoon in February, I read Anne Ursu’s post on the Nerdy Book Club blog about her new book, The Lost Girl. There were a lot of interesting ideas in there, but what really caught my attention were the fifth and sixth paragraphs where she criticizes the idea that boys won’t read books about girl protagonists, that books about girls are somehow a threat to boy readers. A couple weeks earlier I had read the exchange on Twitter that likely prompted those comments, where another author blamed books like this one for all the boys who don’t read. In my class, there are some books that are more popular with one gender than the other, but overall this idea didn’t seem to line up with what I see each day. So, I asked my students. I pushed back the reading roundtable discussion topic I had planned for the week and instead introduced one inspired by this post.

The next day, we read Ursu’s post together in class, and I introduced our discussion question: Does the gender of the protagonist ever matter when it comes to choosing a book? Is there such a thing as a “girl” or “boy” book.

At the end of the week we had our discussion. About ⅔ of students said the protagonist’s gender never plays a role, a few said it almost never does, and about ¼ said it might sometimes play a role. Students were almost unanimous that the idea of “girl” and “boy” books wasn’t really a thing.

A number of interesting ideas came out during our discussions. First, our conversation was a good opportunity to break down gender stereotypes that some students were holding onto. A few girls mentioned books with love stories as ones they didn’t think boys would want to read. At first, a boy agreed with them until he was reminded that he had read Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped earlier this year and really liked it. He changed his mind. Over the course of our discussion, students talked about the idea that not all girls and boys are alike. They realized that while it was true that some boys didn’t like love stories, it was equally true that some girls didn’t like them either. It wasn’t so much about gender, just about personal preference. They realized this was true of other types of stories too.

Another interesting comment came from a girl named Kennedy who said she loved the opportunity to see things from a different perspective, to read books about characters who are different than she is; gender is one of the ways a character might be different. Kennedy’s comments echoed a portion of Ursu’s blog post where she writes:

And we are limiting boys’ opportunities for empathy when we exclude girls’ stories from them, not to mention conscribing boyhood in a toxic way. Not to mention that, as we’ve seen again and again in our country, we are complicit in all kinds of terrible things when we tell boys they should not be interested in girls’ stories.

Something else that prompted an interesting discussion in each class was the idea of relating to the main character. Most students decided that while gender might play a role, a character’s gender is only a small part of him or her, and ultimately, there were many other factors that were more important in whether or not we can relate to the main character. One boy even mentioned how he found it much easier to relate to Tris’s way to thinking in Divergent than Gregor’s way of thinking in Gregor the Overlander and the other books in that series.

A final comment that I continued to think about came from a boy in my second block. He talked about one of the first times, a couple years earlier, when he had read a book with a female protagonist. At the time, he said he was a bit hesitant to try it because he wasn’t sure he’d like it. However, he has since realized it wasn’t a big deal. This year, he’s read a number of books with female leads.

As I thought about his comment, I think I realized something. The big problem we have with boy readers is not the books being written; it’s that too many schools have failed them. When students come up in a system that denies them choice in what they read, when they aren’t in classrooms that provide access to a wide range of books, when they aren’t introduced to lots of different titles by their teachers and classmates, when they aren’t provided with time to read, and when they aren’t encouraged to take risks in their book selections, it’s easy for them to assume they won’t like something, that a book about a girl won’t be interesting. However, when they’re in classrooms that provide all of those things, they will try books about all kinds of different characters, and they will realize that they can enjoy and find value in all kinds of stories.

Among my seventh graders, there’s virtually no difference in terms of how much the boys read compared to the girls. And this year, boys have read and loved books like Breakout by Kate Messner, Sweep by Jonathan Auxier, Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder, Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, the Keeper of the Lost Cities series by Shannon Messenger, and way more titles than I could ever list here. The same is true of girls reading books about boys. If we make sure they have access to these books, time to read them, and the encouragement to try new things, the stereotypes about boy readers will disappear.

Thoughts on Using Grades to Keep Kids Motivated at the End of the Year

This week, I’ve been thinking back to previous years when a teacher from a nearby district would complain about how early their grades had to be in at the end of the year. Final grades were due before the year was over, and kids new this. I used to think this would be bad too. I thought I needed to keep grading right up to the end of the year to motivate students. Otherwise, what would make them stay focused and keep trying? I’ve changed my mind about this, though. Now, this is just another problem, one of many, with grades being our main source of motivation for students.

This year, as I’ve written about quite often, I’m no longer grading individual assignments. Students’ quarter grades, which are solely based on their progress towards their reading and writing goals, are decided during a conference between the student and me. As I thought about the end of the year, I didn’t want to end the year talking to students about grades. As a result, we’re having these conferences at the start of next week, meaning there will be over a week left after students’ final grades have been determined. Am I worried that the week will become chaotic because grades are decided? Not a bit.

This past week, we had our final roundtable discussion, with students discussing the things that make books memorable and talking about the books they had read this year that would stay with them the most. At the end of the discussions, I asked students to reflect on the differences they saw between our most recent discussions and the ones we had at the start of the year. A couple of them shared in each class. My favorite response came from a boy in my last block. He said that at the beginning of the year, they mostly talked because they were supposed to and wanted to get credit for contributing. Now, they talked because they wanted to and had ideas to share. They weren’t worrying about grades anymore.

My only regret about our assessment conferences is that we didn’t have them sooner, which would have given us more than a week free of grades. The only reason we’re choosing a grade is that we have to put one on the report card. However, there’s no rule about when grades can be finalized. Next year, I want to have our final assessment conferences earlier to give students a couple weeks to come to class, to read, write, and talk while being truly free of grades. I wish that this year we would have decided on grades already and then had this final roundtable discussion afterwards.

While the assessment conferences have been a major upgrade from how grades used to be determined in my class, I’m looking forward to finishing them and being able to enjoy being with my students for the last week or so that we’ll have left once these conferences are finished. And next year, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with a couple weeks completely free of grades. I think it’ll make for a great end to the year.

Celebrating May

I’ve never been a teacher who started a countdown on his board to the last day of school. Now don’t get me wrong, I love summer. The chance to recharge, reflect, read and plan for the next year, and to spend time with my family without any work that is pressing is something I cherish. Still, though, I love teaching, and May is probably my favorite month of the school year.

When the year starts in August, my writing and reading workshop is a mess. Everything we are doing is brand new for my students. They’ve never chosen their own books before, they’ve hardly written at all, and they have to learn all the routines and procedures we use in class. In August, things take forever and students don’t know what they’re doing most of the time: they don’t know how to read, respond to, or talk about our daily poem; they don’t know how to choose topics for their writing; they don’t know how to decide what to do each day as writers; they don’t know how to plan, revise, or edit. In reading, things are a little simpler, but they still have to be taught how to prepare for roundtable discussions, how to write letter-essays, and how to choose books, and they forget lots of things: books are left around the classroom at the end of the period or at home after reading each night, and most of them need reminded each time to fill out their reading record when finishing a book. It’s exhausting.

Now, though, everything has changed. Students know how to choose topics and can make their own decisions about each piece of writing: what to do each day and when a piece is finished. They all have plans for books they want to read and know who to go to in the classroom for recommendations when they need them. Most of their letter-essays are smart, insightful, and a joy to read. I’m blown away by some of the observations they make about their books and the choices the authors have made. Their roundtable discussions are so much better too. Today, as we discussed this week’s topic, how fiction can reveal truth, I was thrilled by the insightful ideas and the questions they asked to keep the discussion moving forward. It was a joy to be a part of it.

I also love our writing workshop in May because of the all the options students have. We’ve finished all of our whole-class genre studies, so students can essentially write anything they want. Some are writing the genres we studied as a whole class, others are writing genres we read and discussed for a day or two, and a few are even attempt something we haven’t read as a whole class.

This week, there were all kinds of writing going on, and students were all at different stages of the process. On Monday we read some irregular odes by Pablo Neruda and a couple by former students, so several kids tried these. About twenty students were finishing up poems for their moms for Mother’s Day. Quite a few were writing free-verse poems on other topics and purposes, such as one girl’s poem for her grandpa’s birthday. A lot of kids are writing micro or flash fiction, our most-recent genre study. A couple were even writing memoirs and editorials. And finally, two boys decided they wanted to write haiku, a type of poetry we hadn’t read, so I gave them my copy of The Haiku Anthology and had them read part of the introduction (where it explains how 5-7-5 is a myth) and some of the poems in the book. Next week, we’ll read a couple “nutty” letters by Ted L. Nancy, and some students will write these to finish up the year.

Students are, for the most part, independent writers now. They decide what to write next when they finish a piece. They know how they work best and can make decisions about each step in their process. I love seeing students deciding whether or not they need to write out ideas before they start drafting or trying out different leads before they begin. They know when to have a peer conference to get extra feedback, and they can also catch so much more when they edit now.

All the variety makes sure that class is never dull, for me or them, and all of this freedom also helps avoid so many of the problems that creep into classrooms at the end of the year. This year, of my three blocks, there is one class where it’s a bit more of a challenge to get through our whole-class time each day, but kids have not checked out. They are still working hard as writers and still seeking out the reading zone each day in class. I’m confident that a vast majority of them will continue to work hard until the end of the year.

Next year, when I’m going through those challenging first few weeks where everyone seems so clueless, I’ll remember what the end of each year is like. These memories help keep me going because I know that my new group will eventually get there too.

Working with Students Who Challenge Me

Earlier this week as I was reshelving books in my classroom library, I found a photo inside one of them. It was a picture of one of my students as a young boy, probably two or three years old, being held by his mom. For some reason, looking at that picture really struck me. This boy can be a challenge to work with. I think that I’m a fairly patient teacher, but he is someone who tests my patience quite often.

Looking at the picture, seeing him with his mom as a young boy, made me think about my girls, one who is in preschool and the other who just turned two. I love them both and think they’re amazing, and as their dad, I know I’ll always feel that way. As they get older, though, who knows what they’ll be like, what challenges they might present to their teachers? I pray that they’ll be blessed with teachers who will see them like I see them, who will be patient and love them unconditionally, who will have high expectations for them but not get frustrated when they make mistakes, who will treat them with respect even if they aren’t always respectful.

As a teacher, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture with kids. When a student is being difficult, it’s easy to look at him or her simply as someone who is making our day harder. It’s easy to forget that somewhere out there is a mom or dad, a grandma or grandpa, someone who loves that child like I love my own girls.

When this boy came to class the next day, I gave the picture back to him Part of me, though, wanted to keep it as a reminder. I hope that in the moments where I feel my patience wearing thin (like today, actually), I can remember the picture and the way his mom looked at him back then, take a deep breath and relax, and keep each interaction I have with him the rest of the year positive. I hope that, even without a visual reminder, I can remember this for each of the students in my class.


Summer Reading

I have not written a blog post in quite a while. Well, actually, I haven’t finished a blog post in a while. The end of basketball season, which finished with a loss in our conference championship game and us narrowly missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth, was quite busy, and once I got out of the habit, writing was always the thing that got pushed to the back burner. For my loyal readers, all two or three of you, I apologize for being away for so long.

Recently I’ve been reading an online discussion about summer reading for students, and I thought I’d use this post to add my perspective on this topic.

Our school does not mandate any kind of summer reading. I do think it is important for kids to keep reading over the summer, though, so I do everything I can to increase the likelihood that students will keep reading once the school year ends.

During the school year, my students always choose their own books. I work with them to set goals throughout the year in several areas, and this includes their book choices and how much they read. Each time we hit an extended break in the school year—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break—students create individual reading plans, which vary quite a bit from student-to-student. At the end of the school year, we do this too: I work with each student to create a plan for the reading he or she will do during the summer. These are then shared with parents so they can encourage them to keep reading. If students don’t complete them, there’s no penalty. I’ll talk to students when I see them next fall to see how things went, what their favorite books were, and things like that, but there’s nothing for them to fill out, nothing they need to do to prove that they’ve read.

In addition, I encourage students to take books home with them for the summer. This happens in two ways. First, I let students check books out of my classroom library for the summer. I know some people might be afraid that books won’t come back, but in several years of doing this, I’ve only had one book disappear, so this has not been a problem. Second, I have a couple cupboards in my room that I fill with books I’ve taken off my shelves each year. Some are books that I’ve replaced with newer copies, others are ones I just didn’t have room for anymore, and in some cases I get extra copies of books at library bag sales that will go straight into the cupboard for the end of the year. Then, during the last week, I set out all the ones I have accumulated and allow students to take whatever they want.

Another thing we do is create summer book groups. In a couple weeks, students who are interested will come in at lunch, and we’ll work together to choose books that we’ll read and discuss during the summer. Students can participate in as many of them as they want. My only rule is that we have to choose books I haven’t read yet. We usually choose 2-4 titles each summer. Last year we read York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby and The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer Nielsen.

If we as a school ever do institute required summer reading, I hope that it will look similar to this, teachers working with students to create individualized plans for the summer. Since my students choose their books during the school year, obviously I am in favor of choice during the summer. But if your school has assigned books during the school year, I think choice is even more important for the summer. For nine months, students are told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it over and over again. That shouldn’t carry over to the summer too: we need to protect this time by giving them choice in what they read.

In addition, I would fight against any kind of busy work associated with summer reading. Reading is enough. However, if something else had to be attached, I’d have them write a review for our class book review blog, post their reactions on an online class discussion, or just send me an email during the summer to let me know what they’re reading and their reactions to the book(s).

Finally, I would argue against incentives, the kinds of extrinsic rewards that tell students reading isn’t enough by itself, that it’s only worth doing if there’s a pizza party at the end. A big part of my job is to help kids experience the rich rewards of getting lost in a great book. While I’m not going to claim I’m successful with every student, a vast majority of students do experience this during their time in seventh grade and don’t need a prize to motivate them (which is part of the reason I’ve changed so much about how students are assessed in my class). They want to read because the books are just that good.

In the end, the groundwork for summer reading is laid during the school year. Being successful at reaching students, at helping them to find that first great book and then the next one after that, all of that is the key to setting up summer reading. And if a few kids don’t read a whole lot during the summer, I’m actually ok with that. Most of them finish more books during seventh grade than they’ve ever read before, some probably more this year than they have in all the prior grades combined. So if a few of them need a bit of break, that’s ok. I know they’ll get back at it when the next school year rolls around.