Monday, 27 October 2014

Frogs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Image attribution
In it there is a spaceship
and a project
for doing away with piano lessons.

And there is
Noah's ark,
which shall be first.

And there is
an entirely new bird,
and entirely new hare,
an entirely new bumble-bee.

There is a river
that flows upwards.

There is a multiplication table.

There is anti-matter.

And it just cannot be trimmed.
I believe that only what cannot be trimmed
is a head.

There is much promise in the circumstance that so many people have heads.

MIROSLAV HOLUB

Recently my middle daughter, now an adult living away from home, admitted that one summer she had an accident which she hid from us, her parents.

We live on a long straight suburban road, just below the bit where the uphill incline starts to steepen. With a group of friends, predominantly boys, she took the challenge and long-boarded down from the top.  She's always been our "Xena, Warrior Princess," taller and stronger than her sisters, and always able to beat the boys in any sporting event at primary level.

But this time she came off, knocked herself out and skinned her arm from shoulder to wrist.  With a national rowing competition coming up, she decided to hide the whole event from her family, and suffered for a number of weeks under long sleeves and from the unknowing knocks and bumps of her unsuspecting family members.

While the story was told, the other kids in the room only laughed knowingly.  And while my husband rolled his eyes, his mother too, can recount the stories of her four children on their farm, three boys, including lucky car accidents, spotlighting and running over neighbourhood roofs.

It's what kids do.  And especially boys. It's about that risk and the fellowship of risk that belongs in childhood...which goes on until the mid twenties for some.

And my reaction mirrors the reaction of many teachers of writing when they see the "blood and guts" or toilet humour in the writing of boys. Really? Did you have to do that?

Ralph Fletcher, a father of four boys and a teacher of writing, addresses my concerns in his highly readable book, "Boy Writers."

He reminds me that the life of boys is very different from the life of middle aged female teachers.  I know that my students enjoy listening to the weird and wonderful writing of authors like Paul Jennings:

Finally it is time for bed. Cynthia changes into her nightie in the bathroom and then joins me in the bedroom. 'The cat's on my bed,' she says. 'But it doesn't matter. I like cats.' She pulls back the blankets.

And screams. 'Aargh. Cat poo. Filthy cat poo on my pillow.' She yells and yells and yells.

Just then Dad bursts into the room with a silly grin on his face. He goes over and looks at the brown object on the pillow. 'Don't let a little thing like that worry you,' he says. He picks it up and pops it into his mouth. But this time he does not give a grin. His face freezes over.

'Are you looking for this?' I say.

I hold up the bit of plastic poo that Dad had hidden under the blankets earlier that night.
(from 'Funniest Stories", 2005)

Do I accept that the boys in my class might also want to write like this?

In a series of short chapters, ideal for after planning quick reads, Fletcher outlines his findings, anecdotes and reflections, ending each with a list of "What Can I Do in My Classroom?"

Ideas he covers include:

  • giving boys choice
  • accepting their humour
  • understanding their unique voice
  • the place of conversation
  • handwriting and fine motor skills
  • why violence has a place
  • relationships
  • why fun is important

He leaves us with four main points to better nurture and support struggling boy writers.
1. Just let them write
2. Take the long view - you want them to want to be writers.
3. Consider pleasure.  Is it fun?
4. Think relationships. "We're not teaching writing - we're teaching writers."

As a mother of girls, this is a book I need to put in my kete along with Celia Lashlie's excellent text, "He'll Be OK - Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men"(2007).

It's a text I'll be buying several more copies of for our teachers as they launch into the second year of an inquiry into improving writing for boys and "reclaiming their voices."


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