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September 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 1

With Boys in Mind / My Literary Lunches with Boys

When the boys I struggled to reach in the classroom begged me to write with them at lunch, how could I say no?

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I had just finished facilitating a writing workshop in a 4th grade classroom when the classroom teacher asked whether I had a minute to look at some boys' writing. I soon found myself surrounded by five boys, all waving their writing in front of me. They had pages and pages of writing. I was stunned because these boys were typically resistant writers in the classroom. Just minutes ago they had moaned that they had nothing to write about.
They begged to read their stories to me. I stood in the hallway surrounded by eager writers waving crumpled, smeared papers. The boys took turns reading stories filled with dragons, characters having superpowers, and lots of action—all writing generated at home on their own time.
The boys—David, Dusty, Steven, Addison, and Cody—asked whether they might write with me during recess. These boys—four of whom were receiving supplemental support as struggling readers—were asking me to write with them. How could I turn them down? I invited them to have lunch with me that Friday. Then and there we launched the weekly all-boys lunchtime writing group at Albert S. Hall School in Waterville, Maine.
Only by chance was it a boys' writing group. If a group of girls or a mixed-gender group had approached me, I would have offered the same invitation. But the distinctive way this group operated has led me to reflect more deeply on boys and literacy.

The Setting and Characters

As a literacy specialist/reading coach for the last six years, I have worked with teachers, Title I reading technicians, parents, administrators, and students. Although my primary focus is to support the professional development of teachers, I also respond to the needs of students. In an era of intense pressure to raise test scores, I still try to figure out who our kids are and seize opportunities to build on their interests, strengths, and innate playful nature.
The Albert S. Hall School serves 275 4th and 5th graders. Waterville has struggled since its once-prosperous paper mills closed; 56 percent of our students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and our yearly transient rate is 33 percent. But the town also has two private colleges and is a hub for a regional hospital.
The five boys who first met with me—and others who joined later—represented a mix of socioeconomic background and academic achievement. Some were jocks; some were studious types; some didn't fit any group. Several of the boys received free or reduced-price lunch. There was a split in terms of academic performance; some performed below grade level in reading and writing, and some performed at or above grade level. Although the boys mingled freely during our weekly lunches, they didn't necessarily play together on the playground.

The Boisterous Beginning

The five boys showed up that first Friday with notebooks in hand. I had planned on a short mini-lesson on creating leads for their stories. But even at our first meeting, the boys took charge. Dusty started off by reminding the others that he was the one who started the group and insisted on sharing his writing first. Marcus and Clark was about a boy who turned into a whale. As Dusty shared his story, I noticed that the other boys were writing or doodling on their notebook covers. Dusty had barely finished reading when Cody jumped in and started to share his writing. The other boys chimed in that Cody's writing was good and asked him what he was going to write about next.
As each boy took a turn sharing his work in progress, the other boys wrote and listened at the same time, occasionally glancing up to respond to the reader. Not once during this first meeting did they ask about what I had planned or what we would be doing every week during our writing group. It was as though I weren't even there. Before I knew it, 45 minutes had passed. All five boys politely thanked me and said they would see me next week.
Our lunchtime writing sessions continued in much the same vein for the rest of the year. During our meetings the boys wrote and read their writing out loud, rarely making eye contact with the boy who was speaking. Dusty continued to remind the group that he had started it all. I was struck by how the boys continually talked over one another and how none of them seemed to mind. So much was happening, verbally and nonverbally, that I had trouble following their conversations. I had the urge to tell them to stop fooling around and to stop interrupting when someone else was talking—but I didn't. Instead, I bit my tongue so that I wouldn't interrupt the flow of their natural conversations.

Taking a Closer Look

Over time I realized that these boys had created their own workable social structure for the group. They were extremely boisterous. They never perceived an interruption as a putdown or a lack of respect; it was simply an acceptable behavior. This was in sharp contrast to girls' writing groups I had conducted, in which girls quietly listened to one another and raised their hands to ask whether they could share their stories. I also noticed that girls in writing groups often looked to me for compliments, whereas the boys in this group looked to one another for validation and feedback.
I asked the boys whether it bothered them if others interrupted them. David replied,We boys are made of the same outline. We fart and all crack up. Girls, on the other hand, fart, and then wince, crying out “oh, it's not me!”
The rest of the group agreed that David's summary was accurate and that it explained why it was acceptable for boys to talk over one another and not make eye contact when someone else was talking.
Even though the boys' social behaviors might not have been acceptable in a classroom of 25 students, these behaviors were conducive to effective work in our lunchtime meetings. For 45 minutes each week, these students engaged in active conversations around writing, praised one another's work, felt successful as writers, and generated new stories together. At this point, I began to take a closer look at the group in terms of gender issues.
The boys' writing group was important to me on a personal and professional level. At the time, I had an eight-year-old son who disliked writing at school, but who would sneak off at home to write about natural disasters, such as the sinking of the Titanic. I needed to understand how to support boys' literacy growth. I knew that literacy data in Waterville's schools aligned with national trends: our female students outperformed our male students in reading and writing (Tyre, 2006). By building on their strengths, I wanted to help boys pursue writing as a socially engaging hobby beyond the walls of the classroom.
I started reading all I could about boys and literacy. I was inspired by the insight into boys' lives provided by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson inRaising Cain (1999). I realized that boys needed experiences that would enrich their literacy lives within our diverse community but at the same time protect their emotional well-being. The work of Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm (2002; 2006) was also helpful, and the book Guys Write for Guys Read, edited by Jon Scieszka (2005), was a valuable resource from which I frequently read aloud to the group. The short stories inspired the boys to write. Finding a book chock-full of stories most boys love is rare.

The Return of the Boys

I anticipated that the writing group would end with the close of the school year. But when the next school year started, Dusty, David, Cody, Addison, and Steven asked whether we could continue their all-boys lunchtime writing group.
Some of the original members stopped coming in the second year, but new 5th grade boys showed up with pencil and paper in hand. On an average Friday, I have eight boys in my room eating lunch, laughing, talking over one another, making strange noises, and of course, writing. The group has the same pulse and feel that it did a year ago, even with new students joining in. The boys write stories, draw comic strips, tell jokes, and sometimes just flip through books for inspiration. They also love to share their writing with one another. These same boys love to hear stories read aloud, especially when the writing is filled with action, humor, and pain. The boys spend the beginning of each of our lunch groups sharing their writing and complimenting one another on their work. The spontaneous sharing and praise they receive inspires them to write more.
I have never presented mini-lessons to the group. The closest I come to any form of whole-group instruction is a weekly read-aloud, through which I share mentor texts that I hope offer inspiration. As the boys write, I work my way around the table looking at their illustrations and listening to their stories. I talk with each student about his current thinking and the next steps for the piece he is currently writing. In the course of the conversation, I usually ask probing questions, subtly nudging the boys to think more deeply about their writing.
I would be lying if I said that the boys brought all of their writing projects to completion. The boys have a lot of running starts and produce many never-ending, action-filled “chapter books.” But they have blossomed as writers and grown in confidence. By the end of the first year, their notebooks were filled with vivid descriptions and powerful word choices. Several experimented with a nontraditional strategy of drawing as a vehicle for planning their stories before they launched into writing. I came to see this sketching as their own prewriting stage.
The boys even took control of the group during a recent visit by well-known author Ralph Fletcher, who was working on a new book about boys and writing. As usual, they were their boastful, playful selves. But I was in complete awe of their articulate conversations with Ralph around the craft of writing. For example, Mike shared with Ralph that endings were really hard for him and asked Ralph how he went about writing endings for his stories.

Is This Really About Writing?

As I listened and worked with the boys, I began to suspect that our weekly get-together was not just about the opportunity to write. I asked the boys why they really came to writing group every week. The boys talked nonstop for 45 minutes. They shared that although they liked writing, they really didn't like recess. Some disliked recess because they were bullied; others just believed that there was nothing out there to do. These boys yearned to be heard, and they were begging for a sense of belonging. This message is reflected in Mike's story “Blub.”It all started in early September. I had just moved to Maine from upstate New York. I had just started a new school and you guessed it, I just wanted one friend, just one friend that would always be there. So one day my mom took us out to eat and said we could go to Wal-Mart and get something under $20. I immediately knew what I wanted. I wanted a pet Beta fish.Mom said only one fish. I was perfectly fine with that. After all, you can only make one friend at a time. When we got to the fish, I looked long and hard to find which fish I liked. But, I guess Mom was right: you can't go searching for a friend, you have to let your friend come to you. Sure enough, one red and blue fish swam up and looked at me. I knew this would be the beginning of an awkward friendship.

Learning to Listen

I now believe that schools need to provide nontraditional offerings during lunch and recess—including literacy opportunities—for all students, not just boys. Such programs should be an added layer to our overall literacy programming. I hope to start additional writing groups next year, branching out so that groups can meet at both our school and the public library.
I have learned as much as the boys have through these weekly encounters. These boys have taught me that they love to write, and they consider themselves skilled in writing fantasy, humorous stories, and comics. They like to make their readers laugh, cringe, and escape to a world unlike ours. They love sharing their writing and getting compliments. Most important, I have learned that these boys, regardless of their socioeconomic status, academic achievement, or social graces, want to experience success and a sense of belonging. On his last day of writing group as a 4th grader, Cody handed me a note:Thanks for giving up your time to have lunch with us. You made Friday my favorite day of the week. Thank you for letting us come.
I have learned to listen when boys speak and write.

Kindlon, D., & Thompson, M. (1999).Raising Cain: Protecting the emotional life of boys. New York: Ballantine Books.

Scieszka, J. (2005). Guys write for guys read. New York: Scholastic.

Smith, M., & Wilhelm, J. (2002). Reading don't fix no Chevys: Literacy in the lives of young men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Smith, M., & Wilhelm, J. (2006). Going with the flow: How to engage boys (and girls) in their literacy learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tyre, P. (2006). The trouble with boys.Newsweek, 5, 44–52.

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