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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Stop stopping the violence: boys and writing

One of my assignments for my current graduate diversity class is to conduct research regarding a topic I am interested in, become an "expert" in a few short weeks, and present what I have learned to my classmates. I have been thinking about this assignment at the same time I am conducting interviews for my AVID classes for next year and coping with the frustration of not being able to recruit and keep boys in this program. When the tornado of my brain whipped both of these into its vacuum, I found myself searching Google for information about literacy and achievement gaps between male and female students.

I ran across the article "Misreading masculinity: Speculations of the great gender gap in writing" by Thomas Newkirk, written in March 2000. Much of my early career teaching seventh grade English was spent teaching writing, and writing is a key component of AVID's WICOR. So I chose this as my first article to read. 

One of many topics discussed in this article is the prevalence of violence in boys' writing. If you had asked me few hours ago, I would have said, "Bad, bad, bad. Boys should not be writing about violent topics in school." But Newkirk has swayed me:

(p. 296)

Reading this sent me directly back to my first year of teaching. I assigned something for writing, although the exact assignment has long escaped my mind. The details of B.'s paper, however, are clear in my mind. He turned in his work on green paper, and I marked it up in red pen. B. had written about coming into the school with a sword and attacking his classmates. His story culminated with my head being chopped off. 

Since B. was already a student with whom I had disciplinary issues (he was a 12-year old boy), I treated the writing as a threat toward me. There was a referral. There was a parent conference. There was a suspension. 

If I could only rewind time! I made the mistake of automatically assuming that B.'s "use of violence in writing [was meant to be] vicious or sadistic" (p. 296).  According to Newkirk, I missed a great deal of the complexity that was included in B.'s writing:
  • A video culture - B. had actually written his passage based on a video game he had been playing. This information was revealed during our parent conference, but my new-teacher ego was offended at the time. The last time I spoke to B. a few years ago, he was trying to become a video game developer.
  • A friendship culture or social world - B. never intended to offend me with his story. He simply cast me as the villain and himself as the protagonist in a story set in our mutual environment. He expressed that he thought I would be complimented to be included in his story.
  • "A curriculum culture - ...In transforming largely visual narratives to written narrative, students negotiate popular culture and academic work" (p. 297). B. was simply taking an idea from his everyday life and adding it to my assignment.
I have come a long way in the past 13 1/2 years, and I continue to grow and learn every day.  I want to build a passion for writing, not kill it (pun intended). The next time I see any of my boys including violence in their writing, something I have discouraged over the years, I will engage in more dialogue. I know that in our current times, not every piece of expression can be treated equally, but I am now far less likely to apply the sentence before the trial. 

Newkirk, T. (2000). Misreading masculinity: Speculations on the great gender gap in writing. Language arts,77(4), 294-3000.

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