Guys Read

Jon Scieszka, author of perennial favorites The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, has something to say about the way boys are encouraged to read. From a recent interview with Bookslut (one of my favorite blogs; you must become a regular reader!):

There was a USA Today article [May 3, 2005] about bringing comic books into the classroom, and Santa Monica High School teacher Carol Jago said, “Our job as teachers is to help students read hard texts. When a student tells you the work is hard, you should say, ‘Good; now I know it’s the right book for you.'”Do you agree with that?

Wow, I think that’s wrong on just so many levels, it’s not funny. That’s just painfully wrong, I think. In fact, that’s what gotten us where we are today, where we just keep telling kids, like, you know, “Take your medicine. Reading tastes bad, but it’ll make you a better person, so suck it up.” But it’s not happening! Boys are just leaving reading in droves. And that’s not right.

Part of the Guys Read program is where I go around and talk to teachers and librarians about [doing] exactly the opposite. Don’t try to beat kids into reading. I think what we have to do is to motivate them to want to learn how to read. That’s a difficult thing, so I think the best way to do it is to give them things they like to read. And what we haven’t done with boys is we haven’t really given them a broad range of reading. In schools, what’s seen as reading is so narrow: it’s literary, realistic fiction. It’s feelings and problems, stuff that a lot of boys just aren’t drawn to. So we’re setting boys up for failure, because we have a literacy model that’s just easier for girls.

I have recently become familiar with Carol Jago through the normal education channels — seeing her books advertised, following links, etc. The book which really caught my attention was With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students. It sounded like backlash against movements in education to introduce contemporary fiction. I haven’t read the book, so I cannot really be sure, but a reviewer who has commented (on Amazon) said:

Carol sees the teaching of the classics as a model for the way we teach thinking. She feels that kids learn content from the classics, yes, but they learn far more. Kids learn how to think about the great ideas that come from great books. She says the way we do this is by making the classics relative. The great themes of love, war, inhumanity, humanity are still the themes we all know and relate to. By making the classics relative to our kids, we examine again the questions and problems we all have been wrestling with. Carol suggests that the way to teach the classics is not in isolation. Carol believes that classics must be taught by using all sorts of other “texts”. A text to Carol may be the L.A. Times if it helps her make a point. It’s teachers, ultimately, who make the difference.

It makes me think the USA Today quote was somewhat taken out of context. It doesn’t seem that Carol Jago is saying that we need to feed children books they don’t like because they’re good for them; rather, she argues they could be taught differently so students will like them. I couldn’t agree more, as an English teacher who teaches a lot of classics. I need to get her book.

I also think Scieszka is right. We need to do something to make boys want to read — boys need to see it as a “cool” thing to do from a young age. So many of the parents of my students must have been doing something right, because most of my male students love to read. However, I’ve been teaching long enough to know that the problem Scieszka describes is very real, and we need to do something about it.