Just Let Them Write: Boys and Autonomy

“Just let them be boys.”

This aphorism about dealing with boys is a long-standing one, but I learned last week in Tom Newkirk’s class on boys and literacy that it’s much easier said than done.

First, after reading a pretty fascinating article in The Atlantic, I realized that modern society doesn’t often let our boys be boys.  The economy, family structures, and workplaces of America have changed drastically in the past twenty years, and the traits and skills that used to make men successful and fulfilled have gone away.

Second, I listened to my fellow teachers discuss their classrooms this week at UNH, and I was struck by the language of control prevalent in teaching narratives:  “I make them;” “I let them;” “I shoot down their ideas;” “They have to;”…these were the words teachers used to describe their students’ activities.

These are phrases of division, of separation, of a differentiation of teacher and student, expert and learner, master and subject.  Having just read Daniel Pink’s Drive, the phrase “The opposite of autonomy is control” has been stuck in my mind.  It seems that even in the academically enlightened setting of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, many teachers still practice a teaching philosophy of control and compliance, rather than one of equity and autonomy.  Further, many of these speakers were women–so this was an issue not just of control, but of furthering the claims of the Atlantic article mentioned above regarding emasculation.

Our class talked about violence a lot, and whether it was acceptable in writing.  Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers taught me that violence in boys’ writing was as natural as the sunrise.  Newkirk addresses this issue as well, defining violence in general as “the intentional infliction of pain…on another,” and specifying that “writing would be a violent act if it caused pain to others…for example, if it caused readers to feel threatened or humiliated.”  Too many teachers in our class had a strict no-kill, no violence, etc. rule about writing topics–the opposite of autonomy.

Most reading and writing boys do doesn’t involve intention to inflict physical pain or harm.  Their topics may be provocative, but most of the time, it’s just boys working out things that are on their minds–huge issues like death, love, violence, and sexuality.  Adults do this all the time too–these are issues many of us haven’t quite worked out, so why should we deny children an opportunity to explore them through writing or other means?

Thanks to reading texts like Boy Writers, Misreading Masculinity, and Peter Johnston’s excellent Choice Words, I feel like I understand and enjoy many themes in my boy students’ writing. In fact, the first time I met my husband was in my freshman English class, where I wrote a story about a serial killer who stole college students’ identities and test scores by ripping off their faces and stitches them over his own. My professor asked me to share it in front of the class and I still recall the nervous giggling that followed my sharing, including Jon’s wide eyes. As a writer, I was just proud of creating a fictional voice so creepy and plausible, but the embarrassment of that experience shamed me to a degree that I’ve shied away from all fictional writing since.

As a teacher, I don’t want to quash a student’s creativity, violent or not. I love my boy writers and respect the sanctity of their writer’s notebooks, in which their fantasy lives can be explored and reflected upon in private. For them to grant me access to those fantasy lives through writing is a sign of respect and trust, and I wouldn’t want to violate that by censoring their thoughts, showing them to administrators, or asking them to share with the class.

But most of all, I want to distinguish between feeling “uncomfortable” and feeling threatened or unsafe.  Hearing me read my serial killer story probably made some of my freshman English students feel uncomfortable, but no one felt scared–I did not threaten anyone in the room, nor did my fictional narrator.  In fact, the end of the story revealed that the killer’s actions were mostly motivated by justice, revenge for his victims’ pervasive academic dishonesty.

Feeling uncomfortable, though, is something I believe is essential to learning.  Disequilibrium is the space in which our worldviews are challenged, where we achieve the Vygotskyan zone of proximal development.  We are confronted with new knowledge and are close enough to it to assimilate it into our existing schema.  An open, unfettered workshop classroom is one place where this kind of development can (and should) occur.  Rules like no violence, no swear words, no sex, no freedom, prohibit the opportunity for disequilibrium–and real social learning–to occur.  We cannot fear our students’ inner minds.  We must acknowledge the distinction between fantasy and reality in books, in writing, and in our kids.

Further, we must value that chasm, and respect our students’ varied and important processing strategies.  Writing these issues out is a way to come to understand them, so we must forsake this antiquated notion of creating control and compliance in classrooms.  Given choice, given autonomy, our students will read and write their ways toward understanding beyond our classes and into their adulthood, as we do.  We are the same as our students, grappling with concepts in writing (like I am here, now) and are no better than or superior to them.  Eliminate authority, cultivate autonomy, and just let them write.


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6 thoughts on “Just Let Them Write: Boys and Autonomy

  1. […] offering choice, inviting learning. But many classrooms I visit use more permissive phrases that emphasize teacher control–“I make them;” “they have to;” “I let them.” Often, […]


  2. […] Bryce is one of those students I worry and wonder about. I had him for two years, and he made incredible progress from a squirrelly junior who couldn’t sit still in his desk, to a serious senior who devoured first graphic novels, then dystopian classics. He wrote pages of essays I couldn’t get him to care about, then progressed to delivering measured country wisdom. […]


  3. […] language was important to me, as it created a community of writers by using the word “we,” […]


  4. […] Mitchell’s narrative storyboard is reminiscent of lessons from Tom Newkirk’s Boys & Literacy class […]


  5. […] Shana refers to “the language of control prevalent in teaching narratives” in her post Just Let Them Write: Boys and Autonomy. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] to investigate their own questions, which may very well include both humor and violence, as Shana discusses. In an excerpt Newkirk gave us from Boy Writers, author Ralph Fletcher notes that “some of the […]

    Liked by 1 person

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