In Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 45, firemen don’t put out fires, they start fires to burn books. It’s a governmental anti-literacy campaign of the future.
In the present, the lowered literacy of boys may have inadvertently resulted from good intentions by educators, according to local author Andrew Smith.
“In the 1970s they recognized there was a biased approach in education that was really discriminatory and harmful towards girls and how girls learn. In an attempt to remediate that, those shortcomings, there was a failure in that the strategies that were addressed to affect gains for girls were kind of pursued at the expense of boys,” said Smith.
Smith, marking 20 years of teaching at Canyon High School, says the unfortunate payoff for the over correction is declining standardized test scores for literacy among boys.
“We can see evidence that reading rates and literacy skills for boys have actually declined since the 1970s. It means we’ve actually done something to harm their abilities,” Smith said.
Smith sees “almost a hostile attitude” towards boys and reading and a lot of misinformation.
“Reading somehow has evolved into something that’s more of a feminine pursuit. And I think boys have been discouraged in the last 30 years or so from reading and being literate and writing, and so on, and it wasn’t like that when I was a kid,” said Smith.
And he knows a little something about literature.
He has published four novels (Ghost Medicine, In the Path of Falling Objects, The Marbury Lens, and Stick) and has three more in the pipeline (Passenger, Winger, and Once There Were Birds).
Stick (Feiwel & Friends), which hit the bookshelves October 11 is geared for 9th grade readers and up, with an age range of 14 and older.
The protagonist of the novel is nicknamed Stick because he is tall and thin. Stick steals a car to search for his gay brother, Bosten, wiht whom he shares the scars of being raised in an abusive home.
“It’s kind of a post modern realistic fiction about a boy who grows up in a situation where he’s surrounded by all kinds of just ugliness and cruelty but still he kind of maintains this ability to see the world and see his journey through the world with a kind of sense of wonder and amazement at the things that go on,” said Smith.
Smith’s publishers, which include Simon & Schuster, have placed his works in the Young Adult genre. His most popular novel to date is The Marbury Lens which was named by the American Library Association as Best Books for Young Adults.
The Marbury Lens is a science-fiction action adventure involving a 16 year-old named Jack who is a handed a pair of glasses that allows him to see dark, murderous world called Marbury.
Smith says he’s always been an outspoken advocate for teen literacy. Last month Smith traveled to La Verne where he participated in a Bridge to Books event called “The Why Chromosome,” a panel discussion with six male authors who spoke about boys and literacy.
“It was a really cool thing because of all the hundreds of places I’ve gone to and a panel that I’ve participated in, it’s usually the case that I’m usually the only male author on the panel. Because for some reason in the last 30 years or so the whole idea, the whole notion of reading and writing and talking about books has really been kind of almost exclusionary as far as males are concerned,” Smith said.
Smith points to the educational strategy of cooperation and collaboration, which works well with girls, but is resisted by boys and has lead to marginalization and lower achievement.
“When kids don’t want to participate in a particular strategy for delivering education they’re not going to learn,” Smith said.
Although Smith agrees that cooperation and collaboration are good life skills for girls and boys, he believes there are other methods of gaining those characteristics without making them part of reading and literacy.
“Collaboration and cooperation are definitely part of athletics, they’re part of a lot of things, but independence and critical thinking, critically analyzing on your own and competition are also things that are definitely characteristics of very successful people in the real world , or the business world,” said Smith.
Smith believes competition is something boys and girls enjoy and lead to a big payoff in terms of achievement, but not in mixed gender classrooms.
“Boys are more hesitant to respond and to participate when there are girls present, because they’re afraid of looking like they’re making a mistake or something. They’re afraid of being wrong, or guessing or talking about things like feelings and emotions that are really important when analyzing literature,” said Smith.
Smith says Canyon High School has had some segregated classes and it’s proved beneficial for boys who are becoming young men.
“Boys are less likely to feel intimidated and to have that pressure on them because they don’t have to show off or posture themselves in front of girls,” Smith said.
Smith believes the most powerful tool in achieving greater literacy for boys begins at home by modeling good reading habits.
“They’re going to look at what their father does, and what their older brother does and what their best friends do,” said Smith.
Smith says parents have to read in front of kids, and read with them and read the same things so they know what their kids are reading and can discuss the material. According to Smith, there’s no single academic skill that they’ll ever have that gives them more of a payoff than reading.
He also suggests that parents be open minded about what kids read.
“I think if people try to be a little bit too prescriptive towards boys and what they read and they don’t really see that there’s this inherent very powerful value in literacy as it is, whether or not your kid is reading Captain Underpants, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or even Marvel comics,” said Smith.
Comic books, Smith believes can be builders towards a greater level of literacy.
And by the way, there are a couple of books by a fella named Smith that he would more than likely recommend too.
For more information about Andrew Smith’s novels, click here.