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GUYS READ: Helping Boys Become Better Readers, Better Students, Better Guys

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As a parent, former educator, student and, most of all, a guy, children's author Jon Scieszka has been troubled by the lack of motivation many boys have for reading. In an effort to combat this trend, he started GUYS READ, a literacy program that focuses on the needs of boys. Through the program, Scieszka hopes to draw attention to "guy" literacy and encourage adults to get involved with the issue. Included: Jon Scieszka describes how adults can support boys' literacy by providing more appealing book choices for boys and by men serving as role models.

"Literacy statistics show that we are not giving boys what they need to be successful readers," children's author Jon Scieszka told Education World. "Boys need our help. And the greatest challenge to boys' literacy is probably getting people to understand that boys do need help.

According to Jon Scieszka, there is much cause for concern about boys' reading skills and their desire to read. Statistics show that
* as a group, boys tend to score lower in all grades on standardized reading and writing tests than girls and are more likely to be placed in remedial classes.
* boys frequently receive lower rankings in their classes and earn fewer honors.
* boys get into fights more often and are four times more likely to commit suicide than girls, cause for even more concern.

"Something is not working for boys, but there is little to no direct research on gender and literacy, and not much in the way of support for boys' literacy," Scieszka says. "There are literacy programs for adults, for students of English as a second language, for women, and for prison inmates. There are no literacy programs for boys."

The creator of books such as The Stinky Cheese Man, Math Curse, and the Time Warp Trio series, Scieszka is widely known among librarians, teachers, and kids. His background includes teaching elementary school for ten years; he also grew up with five brothers. Jon Scieszka knows boys, and what he is seeing in statistics about them is troubling him.

The GUYS READ program founded by Scieszka is designed to draw attention to boys' literacy and motivate adults to help boys read more. It challenges men to be role models for literacy and seeks to help boys explore their emotions through reading. The GUYS READ Web site offers book lists, ideas, and support to get guys reading.

Scieszka recently took time from his schedule of book tours and writing to participate in an Education World e-interview in which he described what prompted him to establish GUYS READ and how teachers and parents can support boys' literacy.

His message? "Women teachers and librarians and book publishers and booksellers: Imagine you are a boy and re-examine what you are offering and/or requiring ... from a boy's point of view. Men: Be a role model, be a role model, be a role model."

Education World: Out of your experiences as a parent, a teacher, and a student, what most motivated you to start your literacy initiative for boys?

Jon Scieszka: It's been all of my experiences together that have prompted me to found GUYS READ. I was fortunate to be a good reader and student as a kid, but I saw my friends who weren't readers struggle in school. And part of being a good teacher is remembering what it was like to be a student. Part of being a good parent is to remember what it's like to be a kid. If I had to pick one factor that influenced me most in founding GUYS READ, I would have to say it's being a guy.

EW: Your goals for GUYS READ include helping boys become "better readers, better students, better guys." How do you view this connection?

Scieszka: A lot of what readers do in reading fiction is to imagine what other people think and feel. Studies of the psychology of boys have identified this as exactly what we need to help boys do -- imagine what others think and feel, and then work on describing how you think and feel. Boys can obviously become better students if they can better use the tool of reading. But more importantly, they can become better people by expanding their emotional world and ability to empathize.

EW: Why are you choosing to focus specifically on the needs of boys with your literacy program?

Scieszka: Boys face challenges and prejudices and pressures of society specifically because they are boys and they act like boys. Yes, some of them will grow up to be men who make 1.5 times the salary of a woman in the same job and have all of the advantages of power and position that men have in this world. But I believe helping boys become better people is the way to change that.

EW: Humor is a common thread in your tales for kids. Do you intentionally target boys with this aspect of your writing? In what other ways do you seek to capture the interest of young male readers?

Scieszka: I write to entertain and educate and provoke all readers. I never consciously target boys. But having been a boy, I end up writing things that a lot of boys enjoy. They recognize their own sense of humor. I want my readers to laugh...and then start thinking. What would happen if the wolf told the story? What if the little old lady ran out of gingerbread and had to make the little man out of stinky cheese? What if three ordinary kids could travel anywhere in time? What if a kid from space named Baloney had to come up with a good excuse...and told it in his alien language? I want boys and girls of all ages from one to one hundred to answer those questions.

EW: As a former elementary educator, how do you think schools are lacking or misdirected in their efforts to encourage literacy among boys?

Scieszka: It's not so much that schools are misdirected in their efforts to help boys read. No one works harder at getting boys to read than our teachers and librarians. I've been to schools and libraries all over the country, and seen them in action. They are doing plenty. The problem is that we don't have enough men teaching elementary school, and being role models for boys. We tell boys reading is important. But what we show them is that reading is important if you are a girl and want to grow up to be a woman teacher or librarian.

EW: What specifically can teachers and administrators do to promote boys' literacy? How can parents support this attempt?

ImageScieszka: One of the most useful things we can do in the schools is to look at what we are "showing" our boys is important. We also need to re-examine what we are asking boys to do, and look at how we are hindering our own efforts to get boys interested in reading. One of the easiest examples to see is in required reading lists. Take a look at just about any list. Now imagine you are a boy, not particularly thrilled about reading, maybe interested more in non-fiction than fiction, and look over the list again. "Good books" aren't always good books for getting, and keeping, boys interested in reading.

Recommended Reading for Boys

Jon Scieszka suggests the following books for guy readers.

For Young Guys

  • Go, Dog. Go! by Philip D. Eastman
  • The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson
  • Grimm's Fairy Tales

For Early Readers

  • The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Jill Pinkwater
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, illustrated by Julie Brinckloe.
  • The Twits by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake.

For Older Guys

  • Oddballs by William Sleator
  • Tangerine by Edward Bloor

ONE MORE RESOURCE!

Chucklebait
Visit Jon Scieszka and illustrator Lane Smith online and find out about their latest collaborative work.

This e-interview with Jon Scieszka is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


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