Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Boys & Learning: 'Active Learning' works!

In an article in 'The Atlantic' Jessica Lahey called on schools to 'stop penalizing boys for not being able to sit still at school'. The article was motivated by her observations of boys as a teacher and her reading of the findings of research on boys published by the International Boys’ Schools Coalition’s 'Teaching Boys: A global study of effective practices'. Her teaching of boys suggested that while some struggled at school, others thrived. What is the ingredient that leads to inconsistency? Is it simply within the boys, or are there factors external to the boys that are at work?

As a young boy I experienced first hand what it means to move from being a talented and successful boy in the primary school years, to being a struggling student who was often in trouble as a teenager. At secondary school I slipped from A classes to B classes and then found myself struggling with a number of subjects. However, my achievements varied across subject. While in some classes I was rebellious and disengaged, in others I was motivated and successful. This is not an uncommon experience for boys. Some teachers, subject and even specific lessons work for boys, while others don't. Why? Is the answer in the curriculum? The content? The child? Or something else?

The research work by Dr Michael Reichert and Dr Richard Hawley set out to find answers to questions such as these, and concluded that the problem wasn't just within the boys. They interviewed teachers and students and observed effective lessons in eighteen participating schools from North America, UK, South Africa and Australasia. They found that the most effective lessons for boys included a number of common elements:
  • They required students to be active learners (physical activities were a key)
  • The teacher embedded desired learning outcomes in the form of a game or fun activities
  • The lessons required individuals or groups of students to build, design, or create something that was judged competitively by classmates
  • They required students to present the outcome of their work to other students
  • They asked students to assume a role, declare and defend a position, or speak persuasively about something
  • The lessons held student attention by surprising them with some kind of novelty element
  • Lessons addressed something deep and personal in the boys’ lives; they engaged at a deeper personal level.
Getting a sense of scale!

Reichart and Hawley concluded that the learning problem wasn't due to the limitations of the boys, but rather the failure of lessons to actively engage them. What they found when they observed effective lessons in the eighteen participating schools from North America, UK, South Africa and Australasia, was that relatively simple changes in classroom pedagogy made a difference for boys.

The common features in successful lessons for boys were active learning, movement, teamwork, competition, consequential performance, risk taking, and surprise.  They concluded that successful lessons required teachers to engage and energize boys. They also found that boys were deeply relational and that the establishment of a positive relationship between teachers and boys is critical.

This last point is important. Over many years I have often asked students to name a great teacher and then to say why. The reasons given vary, and are typically idiosyncratic. But within each of the responses, invariably the student indicates that the teacher 'took an interest in them', 'understood them', 'saw some potential in them', 'got them interested in learning' and generally excited and engaged them. The general thrust of this work and its findings is that rather than simply blaming boys for their under performance, we need to seek different approaches in our classrooms to help to engage them as learners.

The excitement of chemistry

In my own life I can think of three teachers who made a difference to my life - Mr Campbell (Grade 4), Mr Blaze (Grade 7) and Mr Hoddle (Grade 11). My memories of them are rich but the methods they used to engage me were very simple (and in one case unconventional). All had a deep commitment to their teaching and empathy for their students. They wanted me to learn and saw potential within me that other teachers weren't able to see. Mr Campbell when confronted with a new aquarium in his classroom turned to me one day and said, "I'd like you to find out all that you can about tropic fish". He gave me a book and sent me off to find out about them and how to care for them. Several weeks later he asked me to present a mini-lesson to the class on tropical fish.  I was now the school expert on tropical fish!

My grade 6 maths teacher Mr Blaze (he was also my home room teacher, and cricket coach) overheard a student ridiculing me one day in class because I was overweight. He turned to the boy and said "I'll tell you what Meli, I bet TC will beat you in the cross-country race this week". He proceeded to set a wager, with the winner to receive $10 from his pocket. Now I had no intention prior to this of going in that race. But I did, and ended up $10 richer.

Mr Hoddle simply showed me that geography could be exciting by sharing his love of the subject and something of his life with a small group of senior students. He made it interesting by setting tasks that made us explore, solve problems and work collaboratively with others. And all the while he was interested in our lives and us.

The power of experience
None of these teachers used startling methods, and Mr Blaze used one that was positively dodgy, but all showed an ability to understand me and to try to reach and engage me. They also sought to understand me relationally, treating me with respect, believing in me and somehow, helping me to believe in myself. That's the art of good teaching for boys (and girls as well).

Boys and girls are different and as such at times require us to seek different approaches and forms of engagement. It is easy to dismiss boys who act out in classrooms as simply a pain in the neck for the teacher, but the acting out usually has some source and foundation. Just what is it, and how do we respond? The work of Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley offer us some clues and ways forward.

Jessica Lahey concludes her excellent article with these wise words:

"Educators should strive to teach all children, both girls and boys by acknowledging, rather than dismissing, their particular and distinctive educational needs."

My Previous Posts on Boys

I have written a number of posts on education for boys HERE

Friday, June 19, 2015

Graphic Novels: Reviews of some recent arrivals

What is a Graphic Novel?

The term graphic novel has grown in popularity in the last decade, as an increasing number of authors have experimented with this format for presenting narrative accounts. In simple terms it is a text that makes added use of drawn images to communicate its meaning. In some cases, words are absent or largely secondary, whereas in other cases, word and image are used equally with clever integration.

Some include comics within the category, although the pairing of 'novel' with 'graphic' reflects the increased development of long fictional works. But this textual form can cover fiction, non-fiction, comics and anthologies. The definition is slippery. For example, Manga (Japanese for 'comic') are read by adults and children in Japan and can be substantial works with varied literary content. Other recent works by children's authors can have little or no words and once would have been called wordless picture books. Shaun Tan's brilliant book 'The Arrival' tells a complex tale of a man who leaves his wife and child to seek a better future as an immigrant in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. This 'graphic novel' tells the story with no words!

Some recent examples

I've had a number of graphic novels that have crossed my desk in recent months; here are just a few examples.

'Anders and the Comet' by Gregory Mackay (Allen & Unwin)

This is an adventure story for readers 6-9 years of age. Anders is a superhero; well a kid with a big imagination. The book celebrates the every day events of children's lives.  It's the school holidays, and Anders, Eden and a new friend, Bernie are amusing themselves in many ways. There are comics to be made, games to be played, ice-cream to be eaten, and rhinos to impress at Wekiwa water park. But when Anders and his friends meet the Green Grabber things take on a whole new direction, leading eventually to a dramatic rescue. The very simple line drawings in comic format with simple language will delight readers.

'The Return of the Queen' Vermonia, YoYo (Walker Books)

The 'Vermonia' series of graphic novels written and illustrated by YoYo (which is a Manga Studio) has now reached book number eight! Vermonia lies in the centre of the universe and its fate rests on the shoulders of four not-so-average kids. All of the heroes in the series have an adversary, avatar spirit, their own love interest and eventually their moment of truth. The illustrations are classic comic black line drawings with enough detail and quality to engage readers aged 9-14 years. This last book in the series ends with the triumph of the key characters. Not for me, but then again, the series wasn't written for me.

'Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc' by Tony Lee and illustrated by Sam Hart (Walker Books)
Tony Lee created his story from the original transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial before her death at the stake. He manages to portray powerfully the extraordinary life of a young farm girl who became the leader of an army of men. In 1424 she heard voices and had visions that helped save her village from attack in the Hundred Years' War. Was she touched by the devil or God? Shaping a story from the original transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial before her death at the stake, Tony Lee portrays the extraordinary life of a young farm girl who becomes the leader of an army of men. Her story tells of a young woman who has an unflinching faith in God and in herself. It is also a story of someone prepared to risk everything in the battle for freedom and independence. Joan of Arc's unflinching faith in God and in herself has inspired generations. After a trial for heresy she was executed. She was prepared to risk everything in the battle for freedom and independence. 

The graphic novel format seems ideal for this story and the illustrations of Sam Hart are wonderful, being full of colour and detail. Readers 11-14 will enjoy this story. 

This is book 2 in the series of 'The Bloodhound Boys' books following on from 'The Great Bloodbank Robbery'.  Beneath the earth Skull River is having mysterious earthquakes and yet, the Rocky and Vince have other things on their minds; they have a monster truck race to win. This dangerous and lethal race takes the boys off the track. But will they get back in time to stop the earthquakes? This fast moving tale with its simple (predictable) plot and simple line drawings will keep even the most reluctant boy readers turning the pages. Lots of fun for readers aged 6-9 years.

Other great graphic novels reviewed previously on this site

'Requiem for a Beast' by Matt Ottley

'When the Wind Blows' by Raymond Briggs

'One Minute's Silence', by David Metzenthen and illustrated by Michael Cammileri

'The Afghanistan Pup', by Mark Wilson

'War Brothers: The Graphic Novel', by Sharon E. McKay and illustrated by Daniel Lafrance

'Slog's Dad', by David Almond and illustrated by David McKean

'The Adventures of Scarygirl', by Nathan Jurevicius

'Hamlet', by Nicky Greenberg

'Rules of Summer', by Shaun Tan

'Tales from Outer Suburbia', by Shaun Tan

'The Lost Thing', by Shaun Tan

'Into the Unknown', by Stewart Ross and illustrated by Stephen Biesty

'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mt Morris Lessmore', by William Joyce

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why we need to read to our boys: Ideas & suggestions

Why boys need to be read to

Here are my top 6 reasons why we must read to our boys:

1. We know that books widen knowledge, increase vocabulary and help to teach them about language and the world.
2. We know that being read to at home is linked to later success in reading at school.
3. We know that it helps to build common ground and strengthen relationships.
4. We know that it helps them to develop attention span.
5. We know that it helps us to build stronger relationships with the boys in our lives.
6. We know that it helps to divert them from too much screen time.

For a long time we've known that girls make a faster start in reading in the early years. In the last 2-3 decades the gap between the literacy achievements of boys and girls has widened in favour of girls. Professor William G. Brozo who is co-author of the book 'Bright beginnings for boys' shared this summary of boys' literacy achievements (primarily American data) at an American Literacy conference in October 2008:
  • By grade 4 an average boy is two years behind an average girl in reading and writing
  • Boys make up 70% of special education classes
  • Boys are four times more likely to have ADHD
  • Boys are 50% more likely to repeat a grade than girls
  • Boys are three times more likely to be placed in a reading disability or learning class
So we know we have a problem, but what do we do about it?

Helping boys to become readers

Four fundamental building blocks to get boys reading:

1. Boys are more likely to be attracted to books and reading when the books and the reading events (whether at school, or reading with mum and dad) offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things (see my previous post on this topic here).

2. Boys need to understand the value of story and storytelling from an early age. This can be acquired through early books, the stories you share with them (anecdotes, memories, tall tales etc), traditional stories and fantasy. Until boys value story, they will struggle to cope with reading.

3. Fathers and mothers need to learn how to listen to and read with their sons. Reading to and with boys is often different. You sometimes have to work harder to make it enjoyable. It mustn't be boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

4. Fathers have a key role to play in boys literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).

At a more basic level:
  • Boys need a lot of help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help your sons choose books, if they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it this will be a disincentive.
  • Fathers have a special role to play in encouraging boys to see reading as a worthwhile pursuit. Fathers who read will have sons who read. Fathers need to read to and with their sons. A good way to do this with older boys who struggle is to read the first few pages aloud and then ask your son to read on. In this way you'll find that your son can read for longer and cope with harder books.
  • Don't forget the importance of non-fiction. Boys want to learn and non-fiction is often a good way in. Try books about sea creatures, space, sport, transport, technology of any kind (see previous post here). There are varied paths into reading (see previous post here).
  • There is also a place for riddles, joke books, cartoons, poetry and silly rhymes (see my post on this here).
  • Comics, graphic novels and magazines are also a good place to start - get them reading. But don’t forget that it is the quality of the story that will ultimately motivate boys to want to read and so quality literature is important to develop long-term readers (see previous post here).
  • Online reading and research is also a good source of reading challenge for boys.
I hope I haven't given the impression above that only fathers can motivate boys to read. Let's face it, more often than not it is mothers who read more stories to their younger children. But there is an important place for men reading books to and with boys, and research evidence shows that fathers have a key role to play with boys' literacy and learning (see my previous post on this here).

Some sure fire starters for young boys

If you can't get your 3-5 year old boy to listen to a story try one of these ideas to turn this around:

1. Read a book dramatically that lends itself to lots of action, loud noises and maybe a rumble half way through (when the wolf eats Grandma, or the boy gets falls out of the tree). Be dramatic, get their attention!

2. Read a story that they've heard before but mess up the story line as you go along. This is probably how writers invented fractured fairy tales. For example:

The first little pig built his house from straw, but he wasn't stupid, so he used super glue to hold the straw together. The wolf knocked at the door and said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in." The pig replied, "No, no, no, I've used super glue, get lost." "Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow you're house down," roared the wolf. "Two chances wolfey, get lost" and so on. It doesn't matter if the story logic breaks down, they will still love it anyway.

3. A simpler version of the above is just to change the odd word. Boys (and girls) love listening for the words you change. They will roar 'Hey, you changed it from dog to frog'! To which you reply, 'Did I?' Even a story with some limitations will suddenly become more interesting.

4. Get out some dress-up clothes and get them involved in acting out the story. Try to involve all members of the family and have lots of fun. You can sacrifice the accuracy of the story in favour of having a great time. Creative and dramatic play based on stories can be a great motivator for story.

Some Great Books for Boys 

I've written a number of posts on good books for boys (including here, here & here), so I won't repeat them here, except to list just 18 wonderful books to read to and enjoy with boys. These books will rarely fail if you read them with boys aged 7-12 years and do it with excitement and passion.

'The One and Only Ivan' by Katherine Applegate (2012)
'Dragonkeeper' by Carole Wilkinson (2003) [And other books in the Dragonkeeper series]
'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)
'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)
'A Monster Calls' illustrated by Jim Kay and written by Patrick Ness (2012) 
'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)
'Crow Country' by Kate Constable, Allen & Unwin
'The Silver Donkey' by Sonya Hartnett (2004)
'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)
'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)
'The Iron Man' by Ted Hughes (1968, new edition 2010)
'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)
'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876) 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)
'Incident at Hawk's Hill' by Allan W. Eckert (1971)
'Vinnie's War' by David McRobbie (2011)
Graphic novels like 'Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc', the 'Vermonia' series, or the more simple 'The Bloodhound Boys'.

A final comment on literature

As I've stressed above, while it isn't essential for children to begin reading via books or fiction, there is a critical place for traditional forms like children's literature because of the importance of narrative to people. What I'm saying is that while boys might start reading in many different ways, they shouldn't be allowed to avoid the narrative form. As I commented in the third part of a series of posts on the 'Power of Literature' (here) I believe that while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? Expert in narrative Harold Rosen offers the perfect answer to my question:
Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.
We build our relationships with one another, share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others. So our aim in using factual forms of reading, and alternative forms like graphic novels and factual texts is of worth in it's own right, but it shouldn't completely replace rich narrative forms like literature.

Some books about Boys and reading

Some of the following books offer good general advice about boys and reading

'Bright beginnings for boys: Engaging young boys in active literacy', Debby Zambo and William G. Brozo, International Literacy Association
'Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys', Pam Allyn which I reviewed here
'The trouble with boys', Peg Tyre
'Best books for boys: A resource for educators', Matthew D. Zbaracki
'Raising bookworms: Getting kids reading for pleasure and empowerment', Emma Hamilton
'The Reading Bug', Paul Jennings

Other Resources

All my posts on boys and education (here)
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' (here)
'Guys Read Website' - I don't like the design of this site but it has a great set of links to authors who write books that boys might like.
The UK Literacy Trust has a great list of resource links dealing with boys and literacy (here).
The Hamilton Public Library in Canada has a useful site with some good booklists and advice (here)
Max Elliot Anderson's blog 'Books for Boys' has some very useful material and links (here)
You can read all of my posts on boys (here) and boys education (here) using these links.
Family Action Centre at Newcastle University has an Excellent Fatherhood Network and many programs (here)