Tim Fredrick has an excellent piece published in the forthcoming volume of Changing English entitled, “Choosing to belong: increasing adolescent male engagement in the ELA classroom” (which happens to tie into the spirit of my last post). He’s offered to e-mail it to anyone who is interested, and hopefully he’ll be able to post it on his blog once it’s published.
In the piece, Tim discusses his succesful efforts to further engage his male students, who fail at disproportionate rates compared to their female classmates. By giving students the power to chose some of their readings and assigning writing prompts that could be applied to a range of subjects, the engagement and performance of his male students increased. His article raises a lot of provocative issues that extend well beyond the immediate implications of the English classroom.
One of the questions that I had throughout the piece was about the hegemonic control that “traditional” poetry, novels, and short stories have over the English classroom. Tim mentioned that during free-reading or during class he “began to notice similar situations with my own students—boys reading sports pages and video game manuals during class. Technically, they were reading and writing—activities we wanted them to be doing. They just weren’t reading and writing what I asked of them ” (152-153). I immediately began to wonder why these texts could not be used, to some extent, in teaching general English concepts. There are likely to be just as many literary terms in a video game manual as there are in Shakespeare. An article about a basketball game is going to need to tell a story in the same way that The Grapes of Wrath does. I’d be curious to hear how experimentation with using different genre’s of writing, particularly those that don’t find their way into the classroom, could be used “during the mini lessons so that we could discuss the text as a class” (156).
My one significant critique of the article, which may very much have been outside the scope of inquiry, is that it sometimes does not offer a critical eye towards the construction of gendered roles and differences. Tim writes that ELA classrooms are typically “dominated by female literacy” (153), but I am not exactly sure what this means. It seems that any definition of the term would essentialize femininity in ways that could be problematic. Similarly, Tim writes, “I thought about the books as being male or female centred, according to the gender of the protagonist” (156), but this seems to be an oversimplification (I can think of a lot of books with masculine protagonists that could be viewed as “feminine,” High FIdelity come to mind, though I’m having trouble thinking of the converse example). It also seems that the implications of Tim’s argument, while having more dramatic effects amongst boys, should have positive effects for girls as well. Tim mentions this, though does not provide comparative data for his female students. I would be very curious to see this.
This, by no means though, detracts from the succesful practices and convincing argument Tim makes thourghout the text. The proof of his success comes from most strongly from the students who reported they did not like having choice:
Those who preferred whole class novels overwhelmingly said that they liked it because there was less pressure on them to do the reading or participate in the class discussions or activities. In other words, those who liked whole class novels liked them because they didn’t have to be engaged in the work (156).
Augmented by the corresponding diminishing of behavior problems Tim observed (158), it is clear that teachers should consider how to incorporate choice into their classroom, if they are not already doing so.
Of course, Tim also highlights the corresponding necessity for structural change to support this. He concludes:
Incorporating choice into the curriculum can work in other ELA classrooms across the grades. But, in order for this to happen, teachers must have more power over what happens in their classrooms. In order to offer a menu of books that actually interest their students, teachers must have the budgetary resources to buy books directly based on the assessment of their students’ interests. Teachers also need to be able to exercise freedom in the curriculum and make professional choices in what happens in the classroom. Top-down mandates about what book to teach on what day or what genre of writing to teach during which month are not based on student interests and thus will not offer viable choices to the students (158).
Fredrick, Tim. “Choosing to belong: increasing adolescent male engagement in the ELA classroom.” Changing English. 13 (1), April 2006, 151-159.
Update: Tim posted a very thoughtful response which pretty much addresses all my concerns and questions.