________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 21. . . .June 12, 2009.


The Joys of Teaching Boys: Igniting Writing Experiences That Meet the Needs of All Students.

Christopher M. Spence.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2008.
112 pp., pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-55138-230-2.

Subject Headings:
English language-composition and exercises-Study and teaching (Elementary).
English language-composition and exercises-Study and teaching (Secondary).
Boys-Education (Elementary).
Boys-Education (Secondary).

Professional: Kindergarten-grade 8.

Review by Betty Klassen.





. . . if boys don’t understand a concept or lesson, they resist help.

The fear of failure is particularly pertinent for boys and their construction of gender –– one reason video games are so popular with boys is the privacy of defeat. For boys, fear of failure operates across a number of domains. . . . In the learning domain, boys are often unwilling to learn something new when they are uncertain of success and they are less likely to try to learn something they have already failed at. It seems better not to try something and act as if uninterested than to try and fail. I believe that many of the problems boys experience during their education can be traced to their frustration and feeling of inadequacy in trying to live up to what they believe their peers and society generally expect of them as males.

Boys’ fear of failure can also lead to defensive maneuvering in the classroom and in assessment situations. . . . Boys who do this set unrealistically low expectations for themselves and celebrate low test scores. These performances usually protect them from being perceived as having weaknesses and win the approval of their peer group. They exaggerate their masculinity.

Christopher Spence brings the experience of a varied career dedicated to developing best practices in education, including classroom teaching, administration and community advocacy. He has received numerous awards and currently is the Director of Education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in southern Ontario. This book brings together Spence’s own teaching experiences, his own and many others’ research in the area of supporting literacy for boys to create a valuable resource for classroom teachers.

     The foreword, written by David Booth, encourages us to join Spence’s crusade to create more literate citizens and to incorporate the suggestions in this book into our own teaching practices. The importance of this request is reinforced later with the information that teacher effectiveness is the determining factor in student success: “stronger than income, class size, gender, race, or family educational background.”

     Spence uses the introduction to focus our thoughts on the significance of problems boys are facing in school by describing many of their behaviours that interfere with their literacy success; providing readers with a brief overview of social change in the last century, stating that the unisex model of child rearing and teaching is not the answer; outlining significant ways in which boys and girls are different while also cautioning readers to recognize the all boys are not the same. He concludes with identifying four things educators need to assist them in bridging the achievement gap between boys and girls. This book provides a good starting synopsis of his four identified needs: timely research that is reported in an easy-to-read format, objective and meaningful research that outlines methodologies easily translated into classroom practice.

     “Chapter 1: The Way Boys Are” discusses a number of studies that identify the difficulties boys face in school and why boys are often struggling. Differences in how they think are highlighted along with a list of bulleted suggestions of how to recognize and improve literacy outcomes for boys. A recent study (May 2007) of 704 students from 15 Ontario schools reports statistically significant gender differences in writing attitudes.

     “Chapter 2: The Joys of Writing: Creating the Write Conditions” uses two case studies to illustrate and describe the “write conditions.” Spence acknowledges that, as a classroom teacher. he “didn’t so much teach writing as assign and correct it.” His “write” conditions include broadening our ideas of good reading material to act as writing models; knowing our students to capitalize on their strengths, needs, interests and motivations; and increasing the talk in our classrooms to improve the reading-writing connection.

     “Chapter 3: Igniting the Writing in Boys: In the Classroom” looks at ways to motivate boys to write and to believe that success is possible. Spence provides research to show that a whole-school effort has a positive impact. He describes concrete ways for teachers to listen to what boys say; the blur the in and out of school boundaries to make school “real”; to give them choice in topics and genres; make instruction explicit, flexible and structured; praise and energize; compose text together; promote writing through drama; encourage engagement through software programs and Information and Communication Technology (ICT); get boys talking and accommodating writers to write.

     “Chapter 4: Sustaining Boys’ Writing through Success” recommends ways to communicate high expectations to our students (“When treated as special, they act special.”) Suggestions are also provided on how to develop good relationships with our students; various ways to help them experience success; to adopt strategies that support writing and to model, share and guide them through writers’ workshops. Three different studies that examine effective pedagogies are discussed and lists of these practices are provided.

     “Chapter 5: Addressing the Link between Moving and Writing” provides the example of Marlon, a truly challenging student. The reported conversations between Marlon and his teacher will elicit varied responses from teachers who have tried to understand what motivates students to misbehave. Spence’s sage advice begins with, “When dealing with a child’s misbehaviour, whatever your first reaction is, don’t do it!” And then he moves on to brain and physiological differences between boys and girls to enable us to understand and to plan responses that involve logical consequences instead of punishment. Practical strategies, such as a “travel card” and a handout to send home to parents are included.

     “Chapter 6: Initiatives to Promote Writing by Boys: Beyond the Classroom” discusses how to make better use of libraries and librarians and provides some suggestions on books that appeal to boys. A book club and a Games Workshop are described, along with a summary of a study that used this model. The key features of a mentoring program, “Boys to Men” for at-risk boys, are reported. The enriched curriculum that was developed for these boys contains many ideas that classroom teachers could include, such as envisioning their lives as men to include making money, fatherhood, physical fitness, critical consumer eyes, entrepreneurship and a political voice. A reproducible two-page handout with suggestions to help parents encourage writing at home concludes the chapter.

     “Chapter 7: Reconsidering the Role of Gender in Education” opens up the more controversial issue of single gendered classrooms or schools and reports on several studies that examine the preliminary findings. Spence concludes his book by challenging all teachers to formulate their own research questions about the learning of students in their classes and to investigate these questions. He states that intervention is an immediate necessity to help all students become literate and contributing citizens. His final challenge is two-fold: to find ways to assist boys through this difficult transition from boy to man, and to “find joys in teaching them.”

     The afterward, “Boys Will be Boys,” written by teacher-turned author Eric Walters, provides another suggestion for modelling literate behaviour: “Don’t just assign a poem or a story, write a poem or story, and then share that creativity with your students, the students of the entire school. Don’t expect them to create and risk if you’re not prepared to create and risk.”

     The seventy plus references at the end of this book provide an excellent starting point to find further reading in this area. The index is detailed enough to be helpful in locating the many important topics in this book. The page layout has a bar on the left side of each page with occasional important quotes and also provides white space for reader notes. The vast scope of the ideas for changing teacher pedagogy discussed in this book should provide every reader with a starting point to change the lives of the boys in their classrooms.

Highly Recommended.

Betty Klassen teaches in the Middle Years Program in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.