Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Boys and Academic Achievement

Books About the Trouble Boys have in School: For Parents and Teachers.
What follows, in connection with the topic of the preceding review, is an overview of some of the resources that the library has for parents concerned about the performance of their sons in school.

Perhaps the most startling information about the trouble boys are having with schooling, the data that makes the case most vividly that there is a problem and that we should be concerned, is what is happening on college campuses throughout the country. These days a college degree has become fundamental to getting a decent job, the equivalent of what a high school degree was a few decades ago. The trend isn’t good for boys. Among whites, women currently earn 61 percent of associate degrees, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 62 percent of master’s degrees, and 54 percent of doctoral degrees. Among blacks, women earn 61 percent of associate degrees, 66 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 72 percent of master’s degrees, and 64 percent of doctoral degrees. These figures, as startling as they are (and the gap is growing) do not reveal an even deeper problem, that of “persistence” rates. More males than females drop out of college and never get a degree, and males also take longer to complete degrees. A big part of the problem is that boys just aren’t finishing high school with literacy skills at a level that will allow them to successfully enter and compete at colleges. This trend portends problems in the future for American competitiveness in the world. And in the not too distant future, the impending economic inequalities between genders may create major tensions in American society.

Here at the library we are concerned about the literacy problems that boys in particular seem to be having at school. In addition to a collection of books related to this topic, annotated below, the adult literacy department here at the library has been providing help for children reading significantly below their grade level in 4th grade and above. In the children’s room we have been trying to make sure our collection has an interesting assortment of high interest non-fiction books. These books are especially popular with boys. Recently we have published a free pamphlet of books of this sort entitled Browsers Welcome! A Selection of “High Interest” Non-fiction Books for Kids Who Like to Browse. In the fiction area we have a balanced “gender” interest selection, and when we discover books and series that have become a hit with boy readers we have made an effort to have plenty of copies of the books on hand. We have also acquired more specialized professional library reference materials that will help us develop collections of greater interest to boys and we hope will give us ideas for effective programming that will help keep boys reading and developing their literacy skills. The children’s department has also on occasion hosted writing workshops for children.

General Books on the psychology of school age boys. Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson’s Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, while a few years old now, remains an outstanding overview of the emotional and cultural world of school age boys. It seems almost a prerequisite to understanding how that world affects their attitudes and ability when faced with the challenges of developing literacy skills, not only at an early age but at later stages of their educational career. Michael Thompson’s recent It’s a Boy! Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18 is a good general overview of the developmental stages of boys, and in the course of the exposition addresses a number of issues that are relevant to learning ability.

Two writers, in particular, have written extensively on the psychology of boys with reference to education, and then have used their general perspectives to identify specific problems boys encounter in the current educational system. They have been identified as leaders in the movement to make changes in education that will address the problems that they see boys currently facing. Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax have been especially interested in what they see as biological learning and developmental differences between the brains of boys and girls that are not being recognized in current pedagogical strategies and environments. Sax has written about brain science and gender differences in the past, but in Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, he addresses more specifically both the biological and social issues that he believes are affecting the social and academic achievement of boys. Many of the books here address a topic that may be of particular interest to parents in the education of their sons, the frequency of the diagnosis of ADHD and behavioral problems in male students.

Strategies for Educating Boys. A number of authors who have made arguments for the developmental and psychological differences between genders, have gone on to develop and test specific strategies in attempting to devise a workable approach to the “boy” problem. David Gurian is well known as an advocate for separate schooling for girls and boys and is the director of an educational institute that works on developing strategies for helping boys learn. His The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life, contains both an overview of his psychological understanding of boys, their particular needs, and specific strategies for educating them more effectively. Helping Boys Succeed in School by Terry W. Neu and Rich Weinfeld is a very hands-on practical guide for parents and teachers. Another book relevant here, in which the author describes and demonstrates a remediation method at length, is Ross W. Greene’s Lost At School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them. At first glance a book specifically on behavioral challenges might not seem especially relevant to the literacy issues boys face, but Greene’s analysis of why behavioral problems occur, and they occur mostly with boys, seems to be centered on boys not having the literacy skills to understand or complete assignments and of opting out because they are covering for a lack of skills. Those missing skills it turns out are very often what we think of as literacy skills: listening, focus, comprehension, expression, and writing.

Boys and Video Games. Certainly a subject of interest to parents, as video games have come to be widely identified as the “anti-school.” The avidity with which boys are attracted to these games suggests something about what kinds and methods of skill acquisition are psychologically rewarding to them . And part of the attraction of video games does in fact seem to be that boys who feel defeated by school and that they cannot compete there find in video games a “world” in which they can be competitive and successful. A book by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, Grand Theft Childhood: the Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games, takes a clinical look at many games . While not finding many common assumptions about their “danger” to be true, the authors identify some of the more subtle challenges to psychological well being posed by electronic gaming. But other authors think there is something important that the attraction of video games have to teach us about preferred and congenial methods of learning for boys, notable among the books written from this perspective are How Computer Games Help Children Learn by David Williamson Shaffer and What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee.

Library Reference Material. Library professional literature has in recent years begun to address more specifically the challenges of getting boys to read. These books are part of the library’s reference collections, but they are available for parents and teachers to read. They give a good overview of the need, and they will help parents and teachers understand the purpose and objective of the strategies and programs libraries are starting to adopt when it comes to encouraging boys to read. Connecting Boys with Books: What Libraries Can Do was Michael Sullivan’s first book that suggested strategies to librarians, and he has recently followed this with Connecting Boys with Books 2: Closing the Reading Gap. In his second book Sullivan applies to the library setting a lot of the new research that is contained in the books mentioned above and talks about the kinds of books, formats, and programming that are attractive to boys. Sullivan is interested in creating a culture of reading among boys, and his focus (and this will be familiar to so many parents) is not the boy who cannot read but the boy who can read but chooses not to. He is aware, as are so many teachers, that a gap starts to open up between boys and girls reading skills after fourth grade and that once boys have learned to read their further progress is dependent upon meeting the challenge of keeping them reading at this important crossroad. The library will soon have on hand a new book by Deborah Ford, Scary, Gross, and Enlightening Books for Boys in Grades 3-12. It is not clear what programming we will be able to provide in the immediate future, in what are tough budgetary times for libraries and schools, but helping with the problems boys are facing in school will be a long term commitment of the children’s department here at the Burbank Public Library.

1 comment:

max said...

It's so important to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it, especially boys.

I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

My blog, Books for Boys is dedicated to drawing attention to the importance of reading. And my new book, Lost Island Smugglers - first in the Sam Cooper Adventure Series - is coming out in August. .

Max Elliot Anderson
PS. My first 7 books are going to be republished by Comfort Publishing later in 2010