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Male Teachers Show
That Real Men Read

A library media specialist thought posters showing real men reading and men talking about the benefits of reading could be just the thing to encourage more boys to pick up books. The Real Men Read program is so successful that it has spread to other schools. Included: Tips for starting an incentive program for reluctant readers.

Opinions may vary about what defines a real man, but in School District 16 in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, the definition is clear: Real men are readers. And they are not afraid to show their faces.

To encourage reluctant readers, especially boys, Tori Jensen, library media specialist at Spring Lake Park High School, launched Real Men Read in September. As part of the program, male faculty members and administrators posed for Real Men Read posters holding books, magazines, and newspapers and talk to students about the benefits of reading. The posters are plastered all over the high school, and the program has proven so popular that it has expanded to the districts middle school, Westwood.

We want to show that men read all the time and it is important that they [boys] read too, Jensen told Education World.

MAKING REAL MEN VISIBLE

Since the programs start this year, the number of books withdrawn from the high school library by boys has tripled from the number last year. So I think its working, Jensen said. My assistant is seeing all kinds of kids shes never seen before.


We want to show that men read all the time and it is important that they [boys] read too.
 

Jensen is aiming for one Real Men Read event every month at the high school. She is paying for the Real Men initiative with a $5,000 grant from the Panther Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that supports education programs, as well as an additional $1,000 grant. The Real Men -- who include the district superintendent, high school principal, coaches, and technology staff -- have T-shirts they wear on specific days, and they visit classes to talk about what they are reading and why they like reading. (The T-shirts say Real Men Read on the front; on the back, they say Be one.) One teacher has volunteered to start a book discussion group for boys. Some of the Real Men also blog about their favorite books, the subjects about which they like to read, and how they got started reading.

Superintendent Dr. Don Helmstetter hopes the Real Men effort lures boys back to books. (All photos courtesy of Tori Jensen.)

A former middle-school librarian, Jensen admitted to having some difficulty finding topics of interest to high-school boys. Middle-school boys are a little easier. They love blood and guts -- and skateboarding.

As part of her promotion effort, Jensen purchased five copies of each of the books showcased in the posters and awarded some of them as prizes during events such as a student bookmark-making contest. She also organized a Real Men Read event at a local Barnes & Noble bookstore on a Saturday. Many of the Real Men attended, talking to people about the program and passing out bookmarks. Customers also could get a voucher to buy a book and a percentage of the books price was donated to the Real Men Read program. This was more about letting the public know what we are doing, Jensen noted.

LOOKING FOR SOME REAL MEN

Originally, Jensen had hoped to enlist ten men, and got eight. But after the first posters appeared, more men volunteered to participate, and now there are 35 Real Men from the high school, middle school, and district administration. Now posters are displayed in the middle school and elementary schools as well.

The whole purpose is for high-school boys to see everyone can enjoy reading and benefit from reading, district superintendent Dr. Don Helmstetter told Education World. I thought it was a very creative thing to do -- and as I told someone, if I was going to be called a real man for being on a poster and holding a book, I was in. Helmstetter is displaying The Last Sunrise: A True Story, a Holocaust survivors recollections. Its a narrative written in a way that high school and probably even middle school students can read and capture the feelings and emotions of the author, he said. The author talks about what he had to overcome, andstill became a happy and productive citizen. Which is an important message as well.

Technology support person Bill Ernst shows some Mr. Bill humor in his poster.

Bill Ernst, the high schools technology support person, joked that he was recruited because he has a desk in the library, but added he knows how important the program is. I think any encouragement we can give students to do more reading is worthwhile, he added. The book Ernst is holding in his poster -- The Dog Says How -- is a collection of autobiographical stories written by a local author. Ernst added that he likes to read about a variety of topics. The idea is to get them [boys] interested.

Real Men appealed to Mark Voigt, a high-school industrial technology teacher, because he has been reading more books lately and he likes programs that involve mentoring students. This lets them know that their role models, their mentors, do read, he told Education World. I tell them, the more you read, the richer you are as a person.

Voigt had bought The 6 Most Important Decisions Youll Ever Make: A Guide for Teens to read and discuss with his goddaughter, and liked it so much he offered students in one of his classes extra credit if they read it and wrote a short report about it.

Voigt teaches a class in which students construct a house over two years. He told his students that even if the construction project doesnt lead to a profession, the experience will help them later. I said, Even if you dont make it your living, you will own a home someday, so it makes sense to be a better consumer, and to do that, you need to read.

KEEPING THEIR ATTENTION

Industrial technology teacher Mark Voigt, standing in front of a house his students built.

The middle-school program, which got started later, is gaining momentum, said Karin Bernal, Westwood Middle Schools library media specialist.

The middle school staff really wants to get kids reading as much as possible, Bernal told Education World. A silent reading period is built into the school day and students set goals for how many pages they will read outside of school every trimester. But incentives for boys are critical, she added.

Middle school is probably the place where male readers start dropping off and then the number dips more in high school, Bernal said. We want to get a group together so men read books to kids. We want to start making reading cool again.

She recently purchased a large amount of new material for the library in an effort to appeal to different reading abilities. To entice boys to read more, the middle school library now has 600 graphic novels.

Graphic novels get them into the reading world, Bernal noted. You want the content to look age-appropriate, even if the students are reading at a lower level. They might be reading at a second-grade level, but they want to read something that is more grown-up.

PE teacher and coach Doug Potthoff tells students he reads all the time.

The opportunity to influence students in another area and in another way inspired middle-school physical education and health teacher Doug Potthoff to join the Real Men. Pothoff also coaches the eighth-grade football team and is an assistant coach of the high-school track and field team.

This is a chance for them to see us doing something else, Potthoff told Education World. Its especially important for boys, who are much more interested in technology. And I have to say that when I was that age, I would rather have been outside with a ball in my hand than inside with a book.

Potthoff also wants to start a reading group at the middle school so boys can talk about what they are reading and why they like it.

Potthoff said he reads a lot of sports books and in his poster has Sound and Fury, a book about the relationship between sportscaster Howard Cosell and boxer Muhammed Ali. The students love the posters, he said, and he uses that opportunity to talk to them about the importance of reading. I tell the kids Im reading non-stop -- I read all day from my computer, Potthoff told Education World.

Not surprisingly, all this attention and effort focused on getting boys to read has spurred questions from some female students at the middle school who do a lot of reading and feel left out.

We do have a lot of kids who like to read -- many of them girls, said Bernal. Some of the girls have said, I read -- what about me? Staff members are considering starting a reading/discussion group for girls, she added.

WHY DONT BOYS READ MORE?

Superintendent Dr. Don Helmstetter and teachers at a Real Men Read event at a local bookstore.

A large part of the reason Jensen began researching reading incentive programs is that she was a reluctant reader herself as a child. Ive always been interested in getting reluctant readers to read -- especially boys, she said.

Jensen learned about Real Men Read at an Association of School Librarians conference, where Julie Webb and Beth Jones of Shelby County High School in Kentucky gave a presentation on a program at their school.

Among the factors that discourage boys from reading as they get older, Jensen said, is that they dont perceive reading as a male activity -- since most of the people urging them to read are women. Also, many boys prefer reading non-fiction works, which rarely are assigned in class, so they dont see that as real reading, she added.

But we have photos of men reading newspapers and magazines, too, said Jensen.ep

Its also all-too-easy to be labeled a nerd if you are a boy who likes to read, Helmstetter noted. (Helmstetters said his favorite student-created bookmark says: Real Men Read: Beat the nerds at their own game.) TV and other forms of technology capture boys attention more now, he added.


This lets them know that their role models, their mentors, do read.
 

Educators often have looked down on topics of interest to boys as well, and might need to be more flexible, Jensen said. One author of young adult books recalled walking into the school library when he was a boy and asking for a wrestling magazine. He told Jensen the librarian looked at him as if she had smelled something bad. Another strategy Jensen and her staff are employing is placing guy-type books -- nonfiction, action, sports, horror -- near the librarys new computers which have been attracting males.

And while many educators and school librarians cringe at the sight of graphic novels, which resemble comic books, Jensen said they can be the ticket to reading for boys -- and girls. All I read as a kid were comic books, and my dad bought me as many as I wanted, she said. He figured it was fine as long as I was reading.

Reading graphic novels often can lead to reading other books, she added.

School officials are hopeful that having the Real Men introduce students to different forms of reading will indeed help reading become cool again. I tell them I read all the time outside of class, Potthoff said. And I tell them if they dont read, theyll be pretty much stagnant.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

  • How Teachers Can and Must Reverse the Boy Crisis
  • Hooking Kids on Reading
  • Helping Boys Learn
  • The Reading Room Archive
  • Article Archive: Reading Fun
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