Boys Hate to Write

In 2011, 27% of 8th graders scored at least “Proficient” on the NAEP Writing Assessment. 27% !

When they start parsing out the data, we see that only 18% of 8th grade boys scored well enough to be considered proficient writers.

(Find an interesting discussion of the numbers, and a helpful chart, here.)

All the numbers revealed in the press are disheartening. We are clearly failing. But it’s that amazing number – 18% – associated with boys that really got me.

I have a special place in my heart for my boy students. That’s a little odd, because I am one of seven sisters (only 3 brothers), I am the mother of two girls (no boys), and I stress out whenever I babysit my friends’ or siblings’ boys the same age as my girls because I just don’t know how much rough housing to allow. In my personal life, boys are a mystery to me.

But at school, I get them.

The elementary aged boys I have worked with show me that they often learn through their bodies. I’m generalizing, clearly, but many of the boys I worked with were able to concentrate better if they could move around a bit. I put one desk in my kindergarten class up high so one little guy could stand to write. I made a spot for one friend to stand during morning meeting when everyone else sat on the carpet. When everyone else said that they would like to stand too, I let them, but when the novelty wore off, they sat. I had one boy who paced while he read, one who lay down and held the book over his head, and one who squeezed a pillow. My philosophy was, if it’s not getting in the way of their learning, or the learning of anyone else in the room, let’s do it.

We had lots of conversations about what was allowed in other classrooms, and why teachers had certain rules. My students typically only spent a part of the day with me, and most of the day with their mainstream teacher, so it was important that they understood that they needed to follow classroom rules. I made sure not to disparage any other teacher, but I also had private conversations with a few to discuss some of my strategies that seemed to affect both behavior and learning.  Most teachers developed their own strategies that worked in their rooms.

But, most of those boys hated writing, no matter where they were sitting.

I’ve worked with literacy coaches who lectured my on the writing topics in my class. In one room, I implemented Fiction Friday because my students were mutinying against the required Writer’s Workshop mandate to write personal narratives. They wanted to write about Spiderman and mythical basketball players who could slam-dunk on the moon. (Disapproving lectures at staff workshops were the result, but also character and plot development.) Another group always wanted to write about video games (the literacy coach’s least favorite topic) so I made them write process essays teaching others how to play the games and how to progress to each new level. (More disapproval, lots of good explanatory text, and thoughtful conversations about what kinds of information readers need.)

I don’t mean to claim that I was the only one doing this. There was great writing going on in those buildings. But too often, we tried to push students – boys and girls – into inauthentic writing situations that left them seeing writing as a chore not as a tool. And trust me, I have assigned many writing prompts that result in more groans than good prose.

But the numbers released this week about our students writing proficiency are scary. I’m in a panic about how I have contributed to the lack of strong writing and energized to review my curriculum and pedagogy to see how I can improve. Every one of us has to do that, no matter what grade we teach.

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