Good Guys, Bad Guys & Befuddled Writing Teachers #sol15

Folding laundry in the basement, I listen as my four and a half year old son Alex plays nearby.  A battle is apparently raging where the good guys are fighting the bad guys.  Every so often I hear an "Oh yeah? See what you can do!" exclaimed or a "You'll never get me!".  He is completely engrossed in the story he is creating with the little figures he holds in his hands.  It dawns on me that Alex is only a few months younger than the kindergarten writers I used to sit next to for writing conferences. A light bulb flashes over my head in what Oprah would call an "Aha!" moment.  

You see, I often struggled with how to handle my little boy writers.  We would be in the midst of a small moments unit of study and I would pull up a chair next to a little guy who would have a frenetic scene scrawled across his page.  He would tell me a very detailed tale about bad guys fighting and I would inwardly groan.  What was I supposed to do with THIS? This was not a small moment about the time you lost your tooth or the first time you rode an airplane or met your new baby sister. Often, the little boy would be so excited about his work and I would struggle with my response.  Sometimes I would say it was a great story but not a small moment and we could keep it in the writing folder, but now we have to write the story that really counts.  Seeing Alex so engaged with his toys and the story he created, I see now that my kindergarten students were writing what they practiced in their play. 

Now I teach third grade and I'm finding that many of the boys have moved away from traditional bad guy stories and now focus on video games! We are doing a persuasive writing unit where the students should be crafting speeches to convince people of something.  A few of my students, yes- boys, have decided to write about a specific video game and why you should play it or not play it.  I am inwardly screaming about these topic choices- THIS is what you care passionately about? All of the problems in the world and you want to convince people to play a video game? A lot of what they are writing is terrible ("You should play it because it is fun"- oh, now I am totally convinced!) and I don't know what to do.  We know choice is so important, so how can I take away what they choose to write about, whether it is 5 year-olds and their bad guy stories or 8 year-olds persuading people to play video games? 

Tomorrow I plan to do a lesson that focuses on the students' topic choices and if they care enough about their topic to spend the time revising.  If they don't feel deeply passionate about the topic, I want them to abandon their writing and find what they are deeply passionate about, making that their new topic.  I'm afraid that some of my students are going to hold tight to the video games.

As a mom to a curious and creative little boy, please don't mistake this post as boy bashing.  I want to help all the children in my class grow as writers, both boys and girls.  Obviously, many boys grow up to be men who are skillful, eloquent writers.  I'm wondering if some of these men can help me understand what and how they wrote when they were younger.  Were they bad guy/video game story tellers too? What do you think boys need to be successful in writing workshop? Am I basing success on what I think they should be writing? Are boys wired differently to focus on battles and good guys and bad guys while girls are more attuned to emotions and stories about families? Am I making unfair generalizations? Sigh.  Befuddled with the battles and video games, I would love to have a conversation with fellow Slicers about your experiences with the difference between boy and girl writers.  

Comments

  1. This is a very good question. I'm not a teacher of young children, and I had a daughter, not a son, but from the info you present, maybe you already ask these questions, but here's what I'd suggest: ask the boy to be specific, e.g., if he writes, "play it because it's fun," ask him to say why, what makes it fun? what's the best part of the game, and what's the worst part? do any of the characters remind him of someone in his real world? or is there something in his real world that he thinks should be part of the videogame, and why? Let me know if any of this is helpful.

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    1. Those were helpful ideas! Thank you! Sometimes when I see sentences like, "You should play it because it is fun" I feel overwhelmed with how to "fix" that. I like your ideas of trying to pull out the specific details of what makes it fun. I'm envisioning an anchor chart with a sentence like "It's fun" and then another column that has sentences that SHOW how fun it is. This has helped me!

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  2. Boys do write differently. Check out Ralph Fletcher's book, Guy-Write.

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion! Will add it to my TBR list!

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  3. Just a thought - isn't all the good versus evil an underlying theme of growing up? It is the hero's quest, so to speak. Perhaps you can get the boys to relate their fantasy to everyday problems? Such as, what did playing ..... teach me about ...

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    1. That is an interesting thought! I hadn't thought of it like that.....

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  4. I get this all the time in my Second Grade. I, too, recommend Fletchers book about how boys write. I try to help them inject themselves into the story. What does your body feel when your "guy" is winning? When he's losing? How do you feel after you're done with the game?

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    1. Great ideas! I am thinking about making a chart with some of these general statements like "It is fun" and then having another column where specific details are used. I love the idea of "how does my body feel"- that would lead to a much clearer picture of why it is "fun"!

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  5. I don't have many samples of what I wrote at such a young age, but I do remember writing about family members or uber-silly "stories". Pretty early on I got the message from my teachers that whatever I wrote wasn't "real writing", which made the practice of writing seem to be a 'school-thing' in my mind. I groaned when we wrote, even though I was pretty chatty, because it didn't seem like my verbal stories would be allowed as written ones.
    My experience as a teacher is to try to go deeper into the boys stories, mining for details and purposes, and focusing on praising whatever I can. I'm trying to send the message to boys that they have stories to tell, and voices worthy of sharing. They get to witness me write in front of them daily - sometimes silly stuff, and sometimes pouring out my heart. My goal is that my conferencing, commenting, and modeling sends a consistent message that validates writing as a critical form of reflection and imaginstion, and that also validates them as writers.

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    1. This is such a powerful statement of a writing philosophy! "Mining for details" and praising and validation are so essential! I'd love to be a kid in your classroom!

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    2. I would also love to be in your class, Greg, and appreciate your feedback as well as tweeting out this blog for my input. It made me sad when you said that whatever you wrote wasn't "real writing." I think I have to watch my wording and be sure I am not sending that message. I love how you describe that you model all different types of writing and ways to be- silly, courageous, funny, and honest. Validating the purpose of writing and the writer is a great take-away from your post here. Thanks again!

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    3. Greg makes a good point that as male teachers we have to model other ways of being male than what the dominant culture is spitting out, which is so lowest-common-denominator and appeals to our basest instincts. I want my boys to know that it's OK to watch football and still read and write poetry!

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  6. What do you think boys need to be successful in writing workshop? Great question! As a teacher and a mom, I think boys should be allowed to pick topics that speak to them. So often, they are turned off to writing because the topics they are really interested in are deemed not okay. I don't mean anything violent, but just topics they are into - however quirky they may be. I remember my son's first grade teacher was just so great about this - Ben wrote about a magic bazooka bomb once, a great story with wonderful characters and humor. She just let him, and he wrote more than he ever had. He loved writing that year because she allowed him space to imagine, all the while focusing on teaching him craft writing moves that improved his writing. So smart. Of course, all that changed in second grade...but at least he knew he could get going in his home writer's notebook by then. That's a lesson I try to remember with my sixth graders, too.

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  7. What do you think boys need to be successful in writing workshop? Great question! As a teacher and a mom, I think boys should be allowed to pick topics that speak to them. So often, they are turned off to writing because the topics they are really interested in are deemed not okay. I don't mean anything violent, but just topics they are into - however quirky they may be. I remember my son's first grade teacher was just so great about this - Ben wrote about a magic bazooka bomb once, a great story with wonderful characters and humor. She just let him, and he wrote more than he ever had. He loved writing that year because she allowed him space to imagine, all the while focusing on teaching him craft writing moves that improved his writing. So smart. Of course, all that changed in second grade...but at least he knew he could get going in his home writer's notebook by then. That's a lesson I try to remember with my sixth graders, too.

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  8. I love Tara's comment, and I also recommend Ralph Fletcher's book, Boy Writers. I think you're on the right track, just by considering this topic at all!

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  9. Hmmm. I think it's easy to say yes, but I think it's more complicated. Kids are complicated in general but I agree with Tara, choice is critical to keep kids engaged in their own learning.
    Digital Bonnie

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  10. I've had a similar experience with the topic of video games with one student in particular this year and have spent a lot of time asking questions to get him to dig deeper, much like what Greg referred to as "mining" in his comment above. This student and I had a lot of conversations throughout the writing process and I asked a lot of questions to encourage him to provide information (e.g., specific games or who he plays with and why he enjoys playing video games with that particular person). Even though he still writes a lot about video games, he has started providing specifics that have enhanced his pieces. It's taking a lot of baby steps, and we've been working towards this all year. Interestingly, though, this student's writing was not really video game oriented last year.

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    1. That's a good point about topic choice. Sometimes we have to think long-term, not the limited window of our one school year. Maybe a kid writes about video games for an entire year, but because he was allowed to, he really pushed it and developed as a writer over the course of the year, and then continues to progress. He won't always write (exclusively) about video games.

      At the same time, I don't think there is anything wrong with, maybe starting around February/March, pushing kids, boys and girls, to expand if they have been on one topic the whole year.

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  11. For some reason, having trouble commenting on specific posts so I will make a general one here! Thank you all for your input and feedback- you have given me ideas to try and more thoughts to reflect upon. Tara, I am glad Ben had a teacher who nurtured his writing and creativity. I was thinking about some of the units of study I taught in kindergarten, such as "small moments." This was a hard one for many of the boys who gravitated towards that fantasy writing about those bad guys. Maybe it wasn't hard for them but it was hard for me to have my list of teaching points and then see nothing we talked about happening in lieu of the bad guy battle. I spoke with my friend Kristen earlier and she teaches 5th grade and says she doesn't see a difference between boys and girl writers at this stage. Maybe the differences get smaller as they grow? Thanks for the Ralph Fletcher suggestion!

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  12. Kathleen, you have asked one of the most challenging of questions and one that churns at my heart every day. As Fletcher says, we must engage and embrace our writers - all of them - and half of them are not girls! Most teachers I know will not accept video game genre writing in any form. In my role as a support teacher, I take some liberty and direct their writing to moments of excitement getting a new game, winning a new game or dreaming or creating one some day. Then, once I get them hooked on writing something....we can start taking a leap to moments...times when they were in the grocery store and thinking about going home and playing video games...or the time they went to the emergency room...or .....We all have stories to tell....but for many of our little boys, video games are a VERY big part of who they think they want to be!

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  13. Kathleen, you have asked one of the most challenging of questions and one that churns at my heart every day. As Fletcher says, we must engage and embrace our writers - all of them - and half of them are not girls! Most teachers I know will not accept video game genre writing in any form. In my role as a support teacher, I take some liberty and direct their writing to moments of excitement getting a new game, winning a new game or dreaming or creating one some day. Then, once I get them hooked on writing something....we can start taking a leap to moments...times when they were in the grocery store and thinking about going home and playing video games...or the time they went to the emergency room...or .....We all have stories to tell....but for many of our little boys, video games are a VERY big part of who they think they want to be!

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  14. I found that the best way to get boys out of writing about video games is to show them other boys' writing about something else. It doesn't work 100% of the time, but when they see other boys (from past classes or from teacher-friend's classes) writing about other topics, they might be inspired to write about something more than just video games.

    Personally, I think this problem isn't so much a writing workshop problem as it is a problem with what children do outside of school hours. Perhaps if kids were doing more than just playing video games they wouldn't obsess about writing about them. Maybe it's more an issue of life experiences (and needing to have their horizons broadened through field trips, a variety of literature, etc.) {Sigh.} I wish I had the answers.

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    1. In response to your second paragraph, Stacey: the older I get, and the more I write and teach writing, the more it becomes clear to me how true it is that our writing lives and the rest of our lives are inextricably linked. You need good input to get good output (or, in another form, "Garbage in, garbage out")!

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  15. This is such a great conversation and very helpful to me. Although I teach MS, by the time these boys get to me the problem isn't so much the topics of their writing (I'd give anything for them to be writing about bad guy/good guy or video games because by that time, they pretty much have decided they have nothing to say. Some writing exercises that have worked for me lately is to give kids a random word of the day (I use oneword.com) and they write for 10 minutes on that word. That is my only requirement. What they write, in what genre they write, how long it is, etc is not important. They need to spend the full 10 minutes on their writing. At least, my boys are able to see what is possible and their writing during these exercises is really interesting and quite good. The next step is to have them select one of these pieces for publication.

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  16. This is a tremendously challenging topic, and I don’t have any answers, but here are my thoughts. We’ve done so much over the past few decades (and continue to do so much) to elevate our girls, but it often feels like the boys have been left behind. Rather than raising the girls to an equal level with the boys, we have raised the girls but left the boys to flounder. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a backslide in terms of gender roles and expectations for boys and girls. The boys only see macho, smash-em-up, tough-guy behavior as what it means to be a boy, and while our girls/women are earning more college degrees, they’re still hyper-focused on physical appearance, on looking good for the boys, getting “favorites” on their social media posts, etc.
    I don’t know enough about child psychology to know if boys playing good guys/bad guys, whether with action figures or video games, is biological or cultural/societal. I know that I played with G.I. Joe when I was a kid, but I also drew a lot and wrote letters to my grandparents. Unfortunately, I don’t remember too much about my school writing experiences (though I’d venture to guess we weren’t given the level of choice that you strive for in your classroom, Kathleen).
    In terms of choice, I know that I struggled a lot with that when I first started teaching, when I tried to go what I call “full-Atwell” and put no restrictions on the kids’ reading and writing choices. Now that I’ve been doing this longer, I’ve made changes (some by my own choice and some administrator-imposed). I don’t think there is anything wrong with putting some limits, some parameters, on topic choices. For example, for something like a persuasive writing piece, you could tell the students that they need to choose a problem that needs addressing, whether it be in school, the local community, or the wider world. No matter how much he loves video games, I don’t know that any boy would suggest that someone not playing a particular game qualifies as a “problem.”
    I hope that helps with the writing, but I don’t know if it helps with the boys. I was just talking to a friend yesterday who is a guidance counselor in Rockland County. We were talking about how if we have a male student who is not doing well academically and is kind of disconnected from school, we don’t even have to ask what he likes to do, because there’s about a 100% chance that the answer is “Play video games.” (The same, of course, is true for most of the boys who do well in school and are involved.) Someday my daughters are going to date these boys, and I don’t know if they’ll be able to have any kind of decent relationship (don’t even get me started on what is only a click away once kids start wondering about sex) . We can’t control what happens outside of school, but we need to try to help our boys see that school is a place for them, too, not just for girls. The challenge is finding a balance between honoring what they are already interested in and pushing them to be more. The challenge for us as teachers, of boys and girls, is preparing them for the world that is while at the same time developing young people who can go out and create the world as it needs to become.

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