Tag Archive for Ralph Fletcher

Checking In with Ralph Fletcher: On Writing & Photography

Ralph Fletcher needs no introduction.

[Pause.]

[Whistles softly, drums fingers on desktop.]

[Really, people?]

Okay, fine: Ralph Fletcher has not only published 20 books for young readers, he’s also established himself as one of the foremost mentors to classroom teachers, helping to exhort, instruct and inspire effective methods of teaching writing. 

Simply put, Ralph is one of the most respected voices in children’s literature today, and it’s an honor to have him as my guest.

But that’s not why, humble readers, we’re gathered here today.

I wanted to ask Ralph about his photography, and how that practice might be connected to writing.

Here he comes now.

Greetings, Ralph. Thanks for stopping by.
   
You’re welcome. Funny that we have so much in common—both write books for young readers, and both have worked with the same editor—but we have never met. It makes me wonder….are you perchance avoiding me? ☺
   
I don’t think we get invited to the same parties. We have another connection: I believe we also both come from large families. I’m the youngest of seven.
   
I am the oldest of nine. A big family can be a cauldron for great stories.
            
It’s a cauldron all right. I’m a longtime admirer of your writing, and your work as a teacher of writing. Through Facebook, I’ve learned that you are an avid and accomplished photographer. Is this a longtime hobby or something relatively new for you?


   
Mostly, I’d say it’s a passion that has taken hold in the last 5-6 years. I don’t quite call it a hobby, but I’m certainly not Richard Avedon, either. I’m not sure what it is.
   
A photo buff — or a buff photographer? I’m confused. What were we saying?
       
I choose “buff photographer.” Seriously, there’s this prevalent idea in our culture that unless you’re making money doing something you can’t be serious about it. That’s flawed thinking.
          
Excellent point. It occurred to me that there are similarities between photography and writing. 
   
Yes. And I have been thinking a great deal about this subject. I’m writing a book for teachers about the links between photography and writing. Focus Lessons will be published by Heinemann this fall.
   
That’s great news –- and proof that I’m on the right track. Certainly, some links between writing and photography are fairly apparent. Both begin with noticing things, an appreciation and an awareness of the world around you.
          
That’s true. Like  many people I spend a lot of time in my head. Taking pictures certainly pulls me out of myself. It has given me a door into the tangible, visual world. That’s not a bad place to live.


   
I mess around with haiku for the very same reason. Do you think that taking photos has helped you as a writer?
   
I think so. For most of my career I’ve been a language guy.  The items in my tool box are words. I write books (for kids and for teachers), and I speak at educational conferences. Photography draws on a different part of my brain (the non-language part) that I’ve rarely used. It’s fun flexing these new muscles! But to get back to your question….I do believe that photography has helped hone my powers of observation. When you’re trying to get a really good photo of wild creature you find yourself paying close attention to your subject. You can’t help it.  And aren’t writers (like photographers) involved in the business of creating engaging images?


   
Patience is important, too. You can’t blast through it. And all the while, your antenna is up. Waiting and ready.
   
To borrow a sports metaphor: photography has taught me that you have to let the game come to you. You’re right: there is a lot of sitting and waiting. But suddenly it happens: a merganser followed by a string of swimming chicks. And I’m there, sometimes so close we’re practically breathing the same air. That’s special.   

You’ve shared some incredible photographs of birds in flight. But recently you made a comment about practicing your “street photography.” In what way do they require something different from you?


   
I do think there’s a lot of overlap. Whether you’re photographing a heron or a couple of people chatting on a park bench, certain principles apply. You try to make yourself invisible so “they” (your subjects) are not aware of you. It’s not because you’re trying to spy or stalk but you want them to act naturally, to be themselves. If you do that you might be able to enter their world  and see them as they truly are.
   
I often think of writing as the art of getting out of the way. That is, not intruding as the writer, “look at me!” — and instead letting the characters step forward.

Well said. You try to make yourself disappear so the focus of the reader/viewer is on the story you’re trying to tell.


       
Technical question: What kind of equipment do you use?
   
Can you picture me smiling? Because this question fingers a running joke amongst my group of friends. Many people have seen my photos and said: “Your camera takes great pictures!” And I’m thinking, well, ah, no, actually I take the pictures. I think there’s a mistaken notion that all you need to do is get an expensive camera. There’s a lot of craft involved, no matter what camera you used.
       
But hasn’t that been the issue with photography as an art form all along? Because it is so accessible, where even Uncle Bill can take a “decent” snap, people tend to think anyone can do it. 
   
Yes, we’ve definitely seen a remarkable democratization of photography in the last few decades. It used to be a rarified skill practiced by few. Now almost every middle school kid gets a smart phone with a powerful camera in it. Here comes everybody.


   
I will acknowledge that having decent equipment does help. I shoot with a Canon 7D Mark II. I use various lens. It’s great to use a telephoto lens when shooting birds, but a telephoto is impractical when you’re walking around the street. Plus those lens can be heavy.
   
Ah, that explains your buffness. Thank you, Ralph. I respect and enjoy your work -– in any medium. And I look forward to your upcoming book, Focus Lessons, that brings photos and writing together. Do you have a cover we can share? A publication date?

 


        

     


September 2019 (I think). No cover yet. The book will feature about 60-70 of my photos, and explore connections between photography and writing, especially in regards to teaching writing.


Good luck with it, Ralph. I wish you the best. 

RE-POST: An Interview with Thomas Newkirk, Author of “Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”

NOTE: I’ve been blogging at this site since May, 2008, which is like 120 in Blogger’s Years. My strong suspicion is that a lot of the oldies-but-goodies have not been seen by my current readership, so I decided to give this one a new airing. I still often think of Mr. Newkirk’s great book and insights. This was originally posted on March 6, 2011.

I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.

Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?

I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers. It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.

I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.

Thomas Newkirk.

One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.

Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.

You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?

But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.

At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.

Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.

As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?

There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.

Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”

Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?

I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.

I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.

As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.

Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.

At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?

School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.

It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!

I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.

You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?

I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.

I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?

One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.

Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?

I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”

I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow ReadingI posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”

My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book,Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.

What’s New in Books: Free Catalog Download

I can’t wait until I’m an old man sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch, complaining about how the world’s gone plum crazy. That’s my default position: I’m naturally a cranky old man, even from when I was in diapers, my body just hasn’t caught up with my world view. Yet. The problem is that my essential attitude, “we’re all going to hell in a hand basket,” is so much more forgivable in an octogenarian with a bag of soggy Ritz crackers on his lap.

Anyway, the world is changing fast. Mac Kids — whoever or whatever they are, or that is (it’s so hard to keep track of publishers these days) — has come out with its Spring 2012 catalog in downloadable form. As I understand it, there’s no print version. It’s kind of sad, in some ways, since I hold a long affection for the object, but in other ways, very cool and democratic. Because you (yes, even mere you) can click right here and have access to the whole thing on your desktop.

There’s a bunch of cats available, but the one I’m referring to looks like this . . .

(I wonder, as an aside, if this new delivery system will be a case of reaching more people but less powerfully? I guess that’s the publishing question, measuring the trade off.)

Once you download the catalog, you’ll find that my hotly-awaited YA debut, BEFORE YOU GO, gets the two-page treatment, including a nifty little Q & A with the author. See pages 38-39. You’ll also get a first peak at new books by Philip C. Stead, Amy Schwartz, Lewis Buzbee, Rachel Vail, S.A. Bodeen, Kate Banks, Phillip Hoose, George Ella Lyon, Ralph Fletcher, Alexandra Day, and many more. Seriously, it’ll make your head spin. So many books, so much talent and creativity. It’s an honor to be a small part of it.

Here’s the Q & A:

What was your inspiration for the story? What scene came to you first?

I imagined a fatal car crash on a lonely road. I have sharp memories of driving around with my friends at that age, a little bit of Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” that feeling, the boredom and the rebellion. So the book starts with a quick, dramatic scene, then skips back six weeks into the past. Readers then meet the four teenage characters that were in the accident. The interesting thing is, that was my exact experience as a writer. I was like, Who are these kids? What’s their story? I had to write the book to find out.

People keep saying teen boys don’t read. True, in your opinion? Who is the perfect reader this novel?

A year before I began the book, the owner of a local bookstore made an offhand comment to me, “You should write a teen relationship story told from a boy’s point of view. Everything in YA these days centers on girls — there’s nothing realistic for boys,” she complained. So, yeah, after kicking it around for a while, I took up that challenge. I hope this is a story that will appeal to both boy and girl readers.

There’s a slight melancholy aspect to Jude. He suffered a loss in the past.

Yes, Jude is grappling with ghosts from some years before. A sister who drowned. In a way, this book’s arc is about our witnessing Jude open up again after he initially presented himself as somewhat shutdown, closed. Jude was half-asleep, and this is the summer of his awakening. For me, I’m the youngest of four brothers and two sisters. I’ve seen two of my brothers pass away, and I gave the eulogy for my father. When our family gathers now, it feels to me like a ship that’s listing to the side; we never sit in the water quite right; we’ll never be whole again. I think that’s how Jude feels, too.

In the story, Jude is a runner. Are you?

I slog, achy and complaining, Jude flies. I built up the running them during the first revision, it was there in the beginning and naturally grew into a larger metaphor, I guess. Jude’s father runs; so does Jude. But sometimes in life you’ve just got to spread your feet and take root. For Jude, that might mean going to the end of the earth — the ocean’s edge — and making a standing, and choosing life.

Lastly, I want to offer my open-armed welcome to all the debut authors and illustrators included here: Gina Rosati, Anna Banks, Emmy Laybourne, Mar’ce Merrell, Christine Tricarico, Ken Geist, Lynne Kelly, Jennifer Bosworth, Sarah Wylie, Leigh Bardugo, and anyone else I might have missed. What a thrill, what a great moment for you and your proud family. Congratulations. Enjoy it. Have fun. And don’t hesitate to shoot me an email if you have any questions, or comments, or whatever. But no, in advance, I have no idea how to read one of these small-print contracts. I just sign the damn things, cross my fingers, and hope they don’t take away my house. (Still missing that first born, a bit. He was kind of cute. But, Live & Learn — that’s what I say!)

I mean:

Good luck!

The Stack of Books on My Night Table: Summer Reading

Many of us have a big stack of books that we hope to read. Sometimes there’s a plan, often it’s a spur of the moment grab. Here’s some of the titles I currently hope to get to — soon, someday, maybe never.

STORY by Robert McKee — a book on the craft of writing, the dynamics of story.

PAUL IS UNDEAD by Alan Goldsher — the Beatles as flesh-eating zombies, naturally.

LEGENDARY SESSIONS: BOB DYLAN, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED by Colin Irwin — the great artists always make me want to know more; and alas, with so many of today’s celebrities, we just want to know less. Much, much less. Charlie Sheen, I’m looking at you (and I don’t want to).

CRUDDY by Lynda Barry — found this in a used bookstore. Lynda Barry is completely awesome, I revere her. A true artist.

THE UNNAMED by Joshua Ferris — I enjoyed his previous book, Then We Came to the End.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf — a classic that has slipped through the cracks. Okay, not cracks. The gaping holes in my education.

HOW TO WRITE YOUR LIFE STORY by Ralph Fletcher — I loved Boy Writers, and really respect this man and all that he works to achieve.

BEST NEW ZOMBIE TALES, VOL. 1 — a collection of stories, old and new, about zombies. I’m kind of maybe looking for inspiration here, ideas. No, I’m not writing a zombie book, exactly.

FREEDOM: A NOVEL by Jonathan Franzen — feels like a mandatory read, a divisive book that people seem to either love or hate. No idea in which camp I’ll be.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by James Agee — I just finished A Death in the Family and it blew me away. One of the best things I’ve read. Ever.

SLOB by Ellen Potter — this book just keeps coming up on lists, over and over again. At a certain point, I take that as a sign: Somebody’s trying to tell me something.

SUMMERTIME by J.M. Coetze — it’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Coetze, and this book fell into my hands. We’ll see.

WAR DANCES by Sherman Alexie — curious about this one, the rag-tag format, the voice, the awards.

POINT OMEGA by Don DeLillo — a great writer and a book I didn’t know about until I had it in my hands. I love, love, love a short book!

THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING by Carson McCullers — another used bookshop buy, a classic I haven’t read yet.

LIFE by Keith Richards — should be a lot of fun, waiting for the right moment. I asked for this for my birthday and . . . got it!

What birthday? The one that happened back on February 1st.

James Preller Interviews . . . Thomas Newkirk, author of “Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”

I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.

Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?

I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers. It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.

I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.

Thomas Newkirk.

One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.

Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.

You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?

But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.

At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.

Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.

As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?

There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.

Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”

Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?

I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.

I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.

As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.

Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.

At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?

School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.

It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!

I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.

You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?

I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.

I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?

One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.

Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?

I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”

I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow Reading. I posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”

My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”

Readers, note: Please check out my other blog, FATHERS READ, for more on the subject of boys literacy. I’ll be away on school visits for most of the week.

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Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book, Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.