Jacques Derrida – Fear of Writing

© copyright 2007 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink.org

I have not read the book; thus, any recommendation would be based on very little knowledge.  Nevertheless, upon seeing the title and a short review of the text, the book, Boy Writers, Reclaiming Their Voices,  I was reminded of an important topic; boys have been denied their right to be heard.  As men, they do not speak freely.  As I looked at the title, I pondered what I think is a serious problem.  I was intrigued by the prospect of promoting a method of teaching that honors and motivates boys to speak, to share their voice in the writing.

As an author, as a Language Arts instructor, as a person that truly believes we have done a disservice to our young boys, I decided to dive into the material offered online and read of this tome.  I was interested in what I might discover.  I am well aware, that in America, we have forced boys to disconnect from their feelings.  As toddlers males are trained to be tough.  They are told to be self-sufficient.  Even baby boys hear the words, “Stand up and take it like a man.”  In other words, do not share your feelings.  Act as though you do not have them.

Parents do not chatter endlessly about anything and everything with their male offspring.  Nor do they make and maintain eye contact with boys in the same way they might with girls.  This latter truth surprised me.  I had not thought about it until I read the research.  After acquiring this knowledge, I assessed myself.  I noticed that I did look deeply into the eyes of females, even those I was not emotionally close to.  Yet, when I spoke with males that I had a deep connection with, I frequently looked away.

Fathers, male role models are less available for their sons.  They are often off, doing as tradition dictates; they are providing for their families.  When Dads and lads are together they rarely speak of the deeper dynamics.  If is safer to stay on the surface or go play ball.  Too often boys are miserable; yet they appear content.  There are expectations, conventions, and there is so little fulfillment .

We might wonder why are many young men dropping out of high school.  What is the reason fewer lads enter college.  Has today’s American culture created a gender gap?  It seem obvious to me, it has.  Might we consider  the data, while remembering statistics are not static.  Cultural environments evolve.  Our choices can and do make a difference.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics boys drop out or are expelled from school in higher numbers than girls.  And male students are three times more likely to be enrolled in special education programs.

Some say many males believe they need not be scholars; money can be made elsewhere, easily.  However, this is not necessarily true.  Moreover, the almighty dollar does not always bring happiness.  What brings the greatest joy is passion.  Sadly, few boys feel they have any; they certainly are not finding it in school.  Boys are dropping out of high school en masse.

Female students graduate high school at a higher rate than male students.  Nationally, 72 percent of female students graduated, compared with 65 percent of male students.

Some think this is a sign of progress.  Years ago, women were not pursuing their potential.  Programs were established to help young girls succeed.  Young women were encouraged to speak up, to participate, and achieve.  The numbers show they have.  Thus, some conclude there is nothing to worry about.

Yet, perhaps there is.  What occurs in the lower grades continues to have an effect as adolescents become young adults.

There are more men than women ages 18-24 in the USA — 15 million vs. 14.2 million, according to a Census Bureau estimate last year.  But nationally, the male/female ratio on campus today is 43/57, a reversal from the late 1960s and well beyond the nearly even splits of the mid-1970.

Although we see the differences between men and women, boys, and girls and conclude we must address these, throughout society there are restrictions.  Many are self-imposed, others are mandated by government.

Federal laws pose additional challenges.  Under No Child Left Behind, for example, schools must track data by race and gender, which helps educators pinpoint vulnerable populations.

Yet, because of potential conflicts with federal laws created to ensure gender and racial equity, educators “can’t target resources to where they see the need,” says Deborah Wilds of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which finances college scholarships for underrepresented kids.  “You know that the kids least likely to graduate are a particular gender or ethnic background, but then you have to walk a fine line in how you serve them.”

While this may be true, there is power in day-to-day interactions.  What occurs in the classrooms and in our homes can and does have a profound effect on the outcome.  Educators and the community influence the lives of boys and men.  Any of us can inspire or inhibit the active minds and vibrant hearts of boys.  We must be open to who boys [and girls] are as people, as individuals, and ignore the stereotypes.

Author Christina Hoff Sommers attributes the drop [out rates and low enrollment in college] to early stereotyping of boys as “too aggressive” and “non-academic.”  In her book, The War Against Boys, Sommers writes that many boys don’t receive enough social support and mentoring to become straight-A students and therefore become disinterested in higher education.

Perhaps, this is true.  Social support affects our attitudes.  Girls are often trained to please.  The praise of Mommy and Daddy can be infinitely rewarding.  Boys are typically raised to be independent.  They are thought successful when they are self-made, strong-minded, steadfast, and stoic.  Stimulation for a strapping man often is said to come from within.  Young men do not have permission to be effected by their environment.  We all know, or have heard, “Boys do not cry.”

In truth, they do; however, the tears are suppressed.  Action or reactive behaviors supplant intellectual energy for many of our lads.  Aggression, or depression, often replaces an academic interest.  This coupled with the fact that curriculums are frequently dry, does not serve our male students well.

Young learners barely perceive the relevance.  It is difficult for children to conceive of being engaged in their learning.  Boys, and girls alike, struggle to connect to the lessons presented in their classrooms.  At times, the only motivator is a grade or what their parents will give them if they receive an “A” on their report card.  

If we as educators wish to truly teach, we must meet our students where they live.  While many may reside on Main Street or on Maple Drive, just adjacent to the campus, each student dwells in a world that is uniquely their own.  Imagine if we treated each boy [and girl] as a distinctive being, if we provided him with opportunities to express their inner most feelings truly and fully, if we let our male [and female] pupils teach us how to best facilitate their growth.

Instruction begins when you, the teacher,
learn from the learner; put yourself in his place so that you may understand
. . .  what he learns and the way he understands it.

~ Soren Kierkegaard

Author Ralph Fletcher apparently envisions such possibilities, and addresses the uniqueness of each life in his book.  The writer wants to help us help each young man.  He presents his philosophies and practices inBoy Writers, Reclaiming Their Voices.  As I peruse the contents, I see much in this material that speaks to me.

In Chapter 17, Boys and Writing: Persnickety Questions, I read the author’s response to “What do you do when a kid crosses the line in his writing and goes too far?”  I marveled for Mister Fletcher offered displeasure with the concept of crossing the line that mirrors my own.  Life is not so simple and often lines are subjective.  Fletcher acknowledges that at times, there must be a discussion of content; nevertheless, we must consider the person and circumstances.  Most importantly, we must consider the manner in which we communicate.  Every action is a cause and there will be an effect.  Educators must be cognizant of how deeply we effect our lads.

Years ago, I read an amazingly insightful tome, Real Boys, by William Pollack Ph.D.  My reflecting on the research Pollack presented helped me to realize that often, even when I thought I was connecting to a boy, I was disengaging.  Much of what our culture teaches us is acted out unconsciously.  If we are to be good teachers we must consider the lack of noise, as well as what is said, how it is stated, and why.

“While it may seem as if we live in a man’s world,” reports Pollack, “we do not live in a boy’s world.”  Many boys today are struggling either silently, with low self-esteem and feelings of loneliness and isolation, or publicly, by acting out feelings of emotional and social disconnection through anger and acts of violence against themselves or their friends and families.  While academic performance and self-esteem are low, the rates of suicide and depression are on the rise.  As the recent tragedies in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Edinboro, Pennsylvania demonstrated, boys today are in crisis–on a national scale.

As I review the musings of Ralph Fletcher, in Boy Writers, I am reminded of the “silent crisis” boys suffer.  Too many boys present a face of strength; yet, they are not.  Young men fear being exposed, publicly or privately.  Schools can be a war zone.  Teacher conferences might feel like hand to hand combat.  Lads often feel isolated, insecure, are melancholy, miserable, and confused although they may appear tough, cheerful, and confident.

Pollack challenges conventional expectations about manhood and masculinity that encourage parents to treat boys as little men, raising them through a toughening process that drives their true emotions underground.

Perchance Fletcher does the same.  Boys need an outlet for expression.  One would hope that they could articulate what they think and feel in words, through writing.  Young men need not write from the instructor’s point of view.  They have their own.

The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher.
~ Elbert Hubbard  [American Author, Editor and Printer, (1856-1915)]

Two teachers, Mary Lee and Franki, think and write about their lives as readers.  On their blog, A Year of Reading. Franki presents an interview with her friend Ralph Fletcher, author of Boy Writers.  The discussion reveals much.

A Year of Reading: What is the big message that you want readers to leave with in Boy Writers?

Ralph Fletcher: Many of our writing classrooms are not meeting the needs of boys. They are not inviting, stimulating places for boy writers. We don’t welcome the strengths, passions, and quirks of boy writers. No wonder test data show that boy writers perform far below girls. If we don’t do a better job of engaging boys and pulling them into our writing community, well, we’re going to lose them. We already are. Test results nationwide show boys performing far below girls on writing tests.

A Year of Reading: As the dad of 4 boys, how do you hope that classrooms will change to meet the needs of boys?

Ralph Fletcher: It’s probably too late for my sons. Joseph, my youngest, is in 8th grade.  But there are other Josephs coming up. This book is for them.

There is a scene in the movie “Big” where the toy company executives explain a new toy to the character played by Tom Hanks and he frowns: “Well, that’s not fun!” Boy writers feel something similar. They quickly learn the limits of the school writing game. Can’t write fantasy. Can’t write comics. Can’t write stories with any fighting, hitting, weapons, farting, war. Can’t draw illustrations. That’s not fun! No wonder so many boys turn off from writing and see it as a “girl thing.” I’m proposing what may seem like a radical idea: Each one of us should look at our writing classrooms from a boy’s perspective and honestly ask ourselves: Does this environment engage boys? If not, let’s make some changes. In Boy Writers I suggest many ways we need to alter our classrooms.

My friend Don Murray says “Do the writing only you can do.” I’d like to see writing classrooms where teachers don’t merely tolerate but encourage boys to do the kind of writing only boys can do. I’d like to see boys allowed to write stories along the lines of Jack Gantos’ books and the Captain Underpants series, to name a few. Boys’ pieces would include war, humor, adventure, danger, sarcasm, and satire.

A Year of Reading: Do you see the same patterns in boys’ reading?

Ralph Fletcher: Well, I’m not a reading specialist but there are strong parallels between reading and writing. Writers like Jeff Wilhelm have pointed out that boys are drawn to texts we may not value: comics, video game guides, etc. It bothers me that my son Joseph would rather watch TV than read. Yet, this morning before the bus came, he sat reading his Lacrosse magazine.  Reading is reading, right?

Sadly, I think we often give kids more choice in reading than we do in writing.  Many teachers allow students to choose their books but give them very little choice as to what to write about. If we believe young readers need to choose books that interest them, shouldn’t the same thing be true for young writers?

A Year of Reading: What role do teachers play in helping boys become writers?

Ralph Fletcher: It’s huge! Every day we give kids explicit and implicit messages about themselves as writers.  The boys may not show it but they are listening. They want our acceptance and approval. We haven’t talked much about praise, but I think it may be more important than we imagined.

As a parent, I used to take my 3 or 4 year olds to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Did I like those places? No! I find them loud and frantic. The canned music is obnoxious. The food is pretty bad. But my boys wanted to go. Did I judge them, or criticize them for wanting to go to Chunk E. Cheese’s?  No, I took my kids there because I know that little kids honestly and sincerely like the Chuck E. Cheese environment.  It engages them. It’s a place tailor-made for their raucous energy.  They feel at home when they’re at Chuck E. Cheese’s. In a similar way, we shouldn’t judge boy writers negatively for their zany choice of topic, their earthy humor or violence. This is who they are.  This is where they live.

Ultimately every teacher plays the role of host of the classroom.  Will boys feel welcome, or unwelcome, at the party?  If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t write.  It’s up to us.

Possibly, we as educators must realize that each child, boy or girl, teaches us the best way to teach them.  We must pay attention in class.  

We must recall the purpose of a teacher is not to read or recite to his or her pupils.  It is not to impart impertinent information.  The system need not dictate the directive.  A bureaucrat does not know our students.  Students, particularly boys flee when they feel they are not understood or able to express themselves.  There is no bliss to follow.

Educators must again facilitate individual growth, before it is too late.  Fletcher acknowledges it may be too late for his sons.  It was likely too late for him.  Sadly, men for generations suffer in silence before they teach themselves what they did not learn at home or in school, to express themselves with words.  Oh were we to teach our boys [our girls] to be expressive when they were young.

Learning is something students do, NOT something done to students.
~ Alfie Kohn [Writer, Speaker on Human Behavior, Education, and Parenting]

Please refer to these references for more thought-provoking discussion . . .

  • Boy Writers, Reclaiming Their Voices.  By Ralph Fletcher.  Stenhouse Publishers
  • Gender Gap 101.  Online NewsHour.  October 2, 2002
  • Chapter 17, Boys and Writing: Persnickety Questions
  • Real Boys, By William Pollack Ph.D.
  • Boy Writers by Ralph Fletcher: Author Interview.  A Year of Reading.
  • The 10 best-paying blue-collar jobs. By Tom Van Riper.  Forbes.com.
  • College gender gap widens: 57% are women. By Mary Beth Marklein.  USA Today. October 19, 2005
  • Boys Struggle To Be Boys, By William J. Cromie. Harvard University Gazette
  • Interview With Real Boys Author William Pollack, By Blythe Woolston.  Caremark.com. May 7, 2002
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