Tag Archives: boys and literacy

“Did you know Gucci has a book?” I do now.

“Hey, Miss, did you know Gucci has a book? I want to read it.”

“Really? You are telling me you actually want to read book?”

“Yeah, but only that one.”

I go to my computer, click on Amazon, and look for a new book by Gucci. I find:

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 4.28.59 PM

These cannot be the books Daniel is talking about. I know this kid. He was in my junior English class last year — part of the class with the tissue issue, and now I had him as a senior.

“How do you know Gucci has a book?” I asked.

“I saw it on his Instagram,” Daniel said, showing me his phone.

Dear Reader, you are ahead of me on this, aren’t you?

I admit to being on the edge of old. I had no idea before this conversation with this student that his Gucci was not handbags and luxury leather goods. Because Daniel tends to mumble, it took me a while to figure out he was referring to Gucci Mane.

Daniel’s favorite rapper had a new book.

So I bought it.

When I first met Daniel, we had trouble. He sat in the back of the room, fake reading, sleeping, tossing pencils, goofing off so others laughed. I moved him to the front, and he slid low in his chair and sulked. Every day. And every day when I conferred with readers, I leaned over Daniel’s shoulder and asked what I could do to help him want to be a part of my class.

Eventually, he responded. He told me he’d read Gary Soto’s books in 10th grade. I wasn’t sure I could believe him, fake-reading tough guy and all, but I passed him the two Soto books I have in my library. He read them both.

Then, he started reading Matt de la Pena’s books. Ball Don’t Lie took Daniel a long time to get through, but he finished it and started Mexican Whiteboy. I’m pretty sure he read four books that semester — more than he’d ever read in his 16 years.

In conferences I asked Daniel about his life outside of school. He told me he wanted to work on cars like his brother and that he took the bus to the career center after my class every day, so he could take courses in auto mechanics. Based on our conversations, I do not think another general ed teacher had ever talked to this young man about what mattered to him:  cars.


Source: Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses On Achievement. Routledge.

In education, we hear about the importance of building relationships a lot, and my experience with Daniel is a testament to the power of taking the time to get to know a student. Because he knew I cared, Daniel started to care about his English class. He began asking for help and coming to tutorials. He started showing up in spirit and not just as a warm body slumped in a chair. He felt like he belonged.

Did Daniel excel? Not exactly. But he passed, which was something a bit surprising to both of us after his I’m-too-cool-for-school-to-do-anything rocky start.

Flash forward to this year. I moved to senior English, and Daniel got his original schedule changed so he could be in my class. He walked in my room the first day with the same too-cool attitude. (Appearances are everything, and I know this game.) Again, I gently started conversations.

When Daniel scored an A on his first essay, he pretty much called me a liar. On his

Reading Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

Reading Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

next essay, he told me he stayed up all night so his brother could help him, so he wouldn’t show up to class empty handed. When we did a project on careers, and he presented to the class, Daniel spoke with confidence and detail about the field of auto mechanics. He’s read at least two books this fall and a lot of articles in The Wall Street Journal. This past Friday he came to tutorials for an hour, so I could review what he needed to do to pass his last state exam so he can graduate this spring. I don’t know if he will, but I sure hope so.


There are thousands of young men like Daniel in our schools. I wonder if teachers have the time, resources, and energy to give them the attention they need. There are 28 students in Daniel’s class this year. There were 32 in his class last fall.

There is one of me.

I cannot help but think of the famous starfish story. You know the one that ends with “I made a difference to that one.” I know I’ve made a difference to Daniel. I still call him a punk. He still mumbles when he talks to me. But he knows I like him. I really like him. And he even let me interview him, so you can like him, too. (The smile at the end is the best part.)

Choice matters! If you are reading this post, you probably already believe that as much as I do. I hope you do. Daniel’s story is not unique. We make a difference to many young people just like him when we open spaces for talk, engage in real conversations about what matters to them, and allow for self-selected reading in our instruction.

I would love to hear the stories of your Daniels. Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language at a large senior high school in North Texas. She spends a ton of money on books with the hope of helping every child develop as a reader. And while she does not listen to rap, she does learn a lot from those who do. Follow her @amyrass 


#FridayReads: Matching Reluctant Readers to the Classics

IMG_9287On Tuesday, during a lull in class, Tyler was staring at the ceiling.

This isn’t unusual, or even discouraged, as our ceiling is covered with tiles that represent books.

“What’s that book up there?” he asked, pointing. “The one with the fire?”

“That’s Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury,” I replied.  I know that Tyler is a volunteer for our fire department.  I also know that he hasn’t had a lot of positive experiences with reading, so I tailored my impromptu booktalk to my knowledge of him specifically.

Fahrenheit 451 is a book about a fireman.  But he’s not an ordinary fireman–instead of putting out fires, he starts them.”

Tyler looked incredulous, and a bit offended.  “So he’s an arsonist?”

“He is, but that’s the job of the whole fire department in this book. Their job is to start fires to burn books and maintain censorship. Anyone whose house has books in it is the target of the department–they burn the house, and the books inside.”

“That’s messed up!” Tyler said, eyebrows raised.

“Right?!?” I agree, equally outraged for his benefit.  I tell Tyler some more of the plot–the corrupt fire chief, the terrifying mechanical hound, the strange professor that Guy happens upon.  “But eventually the main character–his name is Guy–gets curious.  He’s never read a book.  He starts to wonder, do they really need to be burned?  So, one day, at one house, he takes one.”

“The hound goes after him, don’t he?” Tyler predicts.

IMG_9289“He does.  And a lot of other crazy stuff happens.  I love that book so much…the way that Guy changes is so cool.  I really grew to love him by the end.”

Then, he asks the best question:  “Do you have that book?”  We cross to the bookshelf and I thank the gods–it’s there.

I give it to him, and he starts reading right away.

Tyler has abandoned a lot of books, but I think he’ll finish this one.  This was a case of matching the right book with the right reader at the right time, as Teri Lesesne says.

Tyler wants to read this book, despite its difficulty–he has reading strategies to cope with the challenges in vocabulary, sentence structure, and chronology that he’ll encounter.  I have faith that he will employ those strategies and grow as a reader and a thinker, as I have seen many a student do before, with greats like The Poisonwood BibleTheir Eyes Were Watching GodPride and Prejudice, and Brave New World.

We don’t need every single student to read all of those books.  They are gorgeous works of art that I hope everyone will discover, but thinking the only way to expose students to those books is to make everyone read them isn’t the way to do that.  Our student readers will find the classics on their own, if we give them the tools and the hunger to do so.  Tyler has the tools, and the hunger, so he found Fahrenheit–all because of a simple desire to know more, to find out why firemen would act so radically, sparked by the depiction of a flame on our classroom’s ceiling.

How do you match your readers with classic texts?

#FridayReads: Books Boys Love

Bedtime_readingAt the conclusion of our course with Tom Newkirk at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, our class collaboratively created a list of books that boys love.

Please add your own suggestions for your male students’ favorite books in the comments!

  1. Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
  2. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
  3. Unwind and others by Neal Shusterman
  4. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  5. Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra
  6. Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides
  7. Maze Runner by James Dashner
  8. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and BOY21 by Matthew Quick
  9. Mexican Whiteboy and others by Matt de la Pena
  10. I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
  11. Start Something That Matters, Little Princes, and other inspiring memoirs
  12. Winger and 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
  13. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  14. A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
  15. American Sniper, The Things They Carried, Ghost Soldiers, The Good Soldiers, No Easy Day, and other war books in general
  16. City of Thieves by David Benioff
  17. Boot Camp and others by Todd Strasser
  18. Stiff, Spook, etc. by Mary Roach
  19. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  20. Anything by Gary Paulsen or Jack Gantos
  21. Iron Man, Deadline, and others by Chris Crutcher
  22. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
  23. Warhammer novels by Ian Watson
  24. The First Stone, Running on Empty, and other books by Don Aker
    • Walking Dead
    • Maus
    • Watchmen
    • A Dozen Demons
    • V for Vendetta
    • American Born Chinese
    • Chew 
    • Naruto
    • Pride
    • Persepolis
    • Burma Chronicles
    • My Friend Dahmer
    • Stitches
    • The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders
  26. Ice Time by Jay Atkinson
  27. Everything by Walter Dean Myers
  28. An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff
  29. Crank, Rumble, and more by Ellen Hopkins
  30. 4021A by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son)

Takeaways: Boys & Literacy

arts-graphics-2008_1128618aAt the conclusion of our course with Tom Newkirk at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, our class collaboratively created a list of implications from our learning.  Following a reading of Misreading Masculinity, a viewing of the documentary Raising Cain, and more, we used Google Docs to list the implications of our course for application in our classrooms.

Please add your own wisdom about boys and literacy in the comments!

  1. Provide choice: lots of options in topic, genre, etc. – Allow for different styles of storytelling
  2. Incorporate more visual literacy – Using mentor texts like Knucklehead, comics, etc.
  3. Encourage the writing of fiction as a fantasy outlet
  4. Acceptance of the content they bring/the choices
  5. Conversation: Ask about choices that seem uncomfortable – build trust
  6. Teachers: Recognize the difference between uncomfortable and threatening
  7. Respect that students can differentiate between fantasy and reality.
  8. Pay attention to the context of the violence in boys’ writing
  9. Encourage collaboration in writing and reading
  10. Make space for movement and conversation – too often, boys must sit and listen; reverse that
  11. Incorporate humor in the classroom and content/curriculum
  12. Grant students more autonomy in the classroom
  13. Use the note response method we used to have students respond to each other’s work
  14. Support social interactions between boys around literacy
  15. Question our own motives, preferences, and restrictions as we teach
  16. Create a place for non-fiction – demonstrate that non-fiction does not have to be boring
  17. Use technology as an alternative medium for both expression and sharing
  18. Learn the identities and passions of your students
  19. Recognize the importance of listening to students
  20. Realize that posturing is okay – it is “trying on a personality” in order to discover one’s own
  21. Provide positive role models of masculinity so male students don’t get caught in a bad one
  22. Encourage nurturing responsibilities in (ie, provide opportunities for) boys
  23. Have a wide diversity of types of male protagonists in available literature – celebrate the same strengths we applaud in female characters when we see them in male characters
  24. Be aware of the gender implications of language
  25. Open up the genre of analysis beyond literature, eg, new video game
  26. Allow and encourage drawing at all levels
  27. Expand your repertoire – having a team helps
  28. Encourage positive competition occasionally

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.

#PoetryChat – Boys & Poetry – Monday, August 3 8ET

IMG_8888This week, the writers of Three Teachers Talk are together in Durham, New Hampshire at the UNH Literacy Institutes.  For five days now, we’ve learned with Penny Kittle and Tom Newkirk about strengthening our practice and our thinking.

Newkirk’s class, centered around his Misreading Masculinity (2001), is focused on boys and literacy.  We’ve read and discussed issues of violence, humor, personality, sexuality, power, and more–all surrounding boy readers and writers.

Join us to continue this conversation on the topic of poetry.  The four of us will be together in Portsmouth, ready to chat on Monday at 8ET.

1. How do you notice your boys responding to poetry in your classroom?

2. Should boys write poetry in an English class?

3. How is poetry uniquely valuable for boys?

4. How do you hook boys into poetry?

5. What are your best poems, poets, or poetry resources to engage your boys?

Poetry Chat August 3

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