If Lesson #1 was that boys do, in fact, learn differently than girls, then Lesson #2 is not to make preconceived judgments about how boys learn or what they like to read.
Last week, I gave my Intro to Literature students a test on the basic literary skills we'd been learning for the first four weeks. For this test, I offer students a choice of several poems, ask them to pick one, and to thoroughly interpret it: find literary devices, write out a theme, and answer an analysis question that I wrote regarding the poem.
This year, the students were asked to choose between a nature poem about the starry heavens, a poem by a (female) slave celebrating her spiritual life, and a World War II poem. At first, I had considered assigning students poems: Some boys would get the war poem, some girls would get the starry nature poem, and a control group of boys and girls would get one or the other. Ultimately, I allowed students to choose, and here's what I found:
Only one boy (in a class of perhaps 12) wrote about the war poem. A girl also wrote about the war poem. The entire rest of the class was split between the slave's poem and the nature poem. Moreover, some of the most thoughtful, detailed responses were by men on the nature poem, or by men on the slave's poem.
Writers such as Peg Tyre in The Trouble With Boys do well to remind us that boys and girls learn differently. 5-year-old kindergartner boys cannot be expected to plant their bottom on a carpet square and stay there for more than a few minutes. 5-year-old kindergartner girls cannot be expected to react will delight and awe in a unit that studies bugs and insects.
Yet this example, similar to many Tyre herself gave, illustrates the danger of assumptions about how boys and girls react in the classroom. While biological reality dictates that (on general) little boys need more physical activity than little girls, biological reality does not dictate that little girls recoil in horror from slugs and snails. What dictates that little girls recoil from a fat, glistening slug is simply a stereotype: that a little girl, whose nails Mommy painted two days ago, could not possibly get dirt on her that Barbie-pink polish.
Thanks to the feminist movement, Americans are alert to stereotypes of women and vigilant in avoiding them. It is thus no shame to me, a woman, to admit, for instance, that I prefer Battlestar Galactica to Downton Abbey and have never seen Ryan Gosling in anything.
Unfortunately, Americans are less aware of stereotypes about men and less able to dismantle them for men who prefer subjects outside the assumed interests such as slugs, or (for older boys) cars and football. Tyre's book, though excellent in some regards, provides evidence of this: Suggestions such as picking books with boy-friendly content and inviting policemen to read aloud are well-meant, even useful, but also based on broad assumptions about what boys are interested in.
Gender stereotypes run deep in our society. Last semester, one of the classes I pulled up short when a young man announced that he loved to quilt. I have no memory of what brought on this confession, nor of how I responded. I do remember the sudden silence, in a class almost never silent, as we all mentally connected the student before us with an activity stereotypically enjoyed by your 80-year-old grandmother.
Between this experience and the test results, I have thus learned not to make assumptions about what the young men (and sometimes, older men) in my class will or will not enjoy.
Yes, J.K. Rowling was asked to use her initials instead of her name (Joan Rowling) to encourage boys to pick up the Harry Potter series. That her publisher, however, pandered to stereotypes about young men does not mean that we teachers should.
False dichotomies must be avoided in class planning and management. As a girl, I speak from experience: To assign us Anne of Green Gables is not to guarantee engagement in the class. Ender's Game may do the trick just as well. For boys, I speak from my observations: To assume that a war poem is more likely to grab their attention than a quilting manual (apparently) is to deprecate the lived experiences of the young men in our classroom - young men who like crafts, who enjoy studying the stars and nature.
Where does that leave me? After all, I rewrote my syllabus to include more boy-friendly texts.
I don't regret anything.
It is one thing to pander to stereotypes of boys' interests. It is quite another to read and discuss material that will affect most men in the population - in this case, the father-son relationship. The young man who quilts and the young man who hunts down slugs both have fathers, and both of them will likely become fathers by the end of their lives. Even gay men who choose to adopt will become fathers.
Moreover, the trades that I made were good. I gave up the beautiful but difficult "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot. In return, I gained the ambiguous, haunting and substantially more accessible "Those Winter Sundays," by Robert Hayden and "My Papa's Waltz," by Theodore Roethke.
Thus, the lesson to be learned about teaching boys is perhaps not, "Teach literature that appeals to boys' interests". Danger lies there: Not all boys have the same interests.
The lesson would be better worded like this: "Teach literature that is accessible and personally meaningful to all students". That literature may be written from a young man's perspective, as "My Papa's Waltz". It is equally likely to be written with a woman's voice, as in "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter".
What's important is not a pseudo-classification of poetry as "for boys" and "for girls" but the fact that poetry represents what both boys and girls recognize as their own lived experiences.