Work Title: Creating Men Who Read
Work Author(s): Elizabeth Breau
Byline: Elizabeth Breau
Teaching reading is one of the most vital endeavors in today's schools, and boys are garnering most of the attention. Meagan, my family's nine-year-old expert on all things academic, has observed that "boys only read the smallest books possible." She says that only one boy in her fourth grade class read voluntarily during free time.
A quick internet search yields dozens of sites analyzing why boys don't read. Boys are said to have weaker comprehension than girls, especially of narrative, and to perceive reading as a feminized activity because moms and female teachers are the adults who promote reading the most. YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association, reported in 2001 that 39.3% of boys listed reading as "boring/no fun." Today, the weakest readers are minority boys---African American and Latino---who are also the most likely to drop out of school and wind up dead or in jail.
I teach at St. Benedict's Preparatory School for Boys, an all-boys Catholic high school located on the grounds of a Benedictine monastery in Newark, New Jersey. In 1973, the monks responded to middle-class white flight in the wake of the 1967 race riots by committing themselves to serving the population of Newark. The monks went to students' homes, pulled kids in off the street, bailed them out of jail, and adjusted to a radically different cultural milieu, making themselves and the school an integral part of Newark's history and its future.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert often reminds his readers that there are more black men in American jails than there are in American colleges. This claim came home to me at St. Benedict's, where one of my students served two stints in jail before his high school graduation. Other students are orphaned by drug-addicted or HIV/AIDS-infected parents. One boy, after running through a mental list, concluded that he was the only male member of his family who was not in jail. Other boys contend with abusive or addicted parents, chaotic living situations, and parents who earn low wages and may not have high school diplomas themselves.
Like every teacher at St. Benedict's, I struggle with how to help students succeed academically. The English department is caught between knowing what is taught at other schools and the very real assessment that a literature-heavy curriculum focused on the critical essay is beyond...