TWIT: Real Men Read

One of the things that I like the best about myself is that I’m all-boy…and I have been since the day that I was born.  I’m the kind of guy who eats his mac and cheese straight out of the pot rather than have to wash a plate and who could entertain himself all day long with nothing more than a good pile of dirt.

I live, eat and breathe sports.  I’ll gladly spend hours arguing with you about why Duke has no business winning National Championships.  I remember clearly where I was when Brett Hull cheated to steal the Stanley Cup from my Buffalo Sabres over a decade ago and the phrase “wide right” still makes me cry.

(Say nothing, Giants fans.  Nothing.)

Heck—I even had my wedding in the middle of March Madness so that our after-party could involve shooting some stick and watching hoops.  Wife wasn’t happy, but just how else are you supposed convince your buddies to show up for your nuptials?

My clothes miss the laundry hamper nine times out of ten—a fortuitous twist of fate considering that I’m likely to wear everything more than once.  I’ve got a
shed full of power tools and a chain saw.  I’m loud, I can’t sit still
and I NEVER ask for directions!

That means I’m a breath of fresh air for many of the boys that roll into my middle school classroom.  Having spent the better part of their school careers locked into desks trying to be quiet and growing tired of being misunderstood, they quickly fall in love with the guy in me.

Now don’t get me wrong:  It’s not that the ladies who staff the majority of elementary classrooms aren’t trying to create learning environments that work for boys.  It’s just that when a sixth grade boy sees a guy who loves learning AND shooting spitwads in the lunch room, their eyes are opened to new possibilities!

And I unapologetically use that leverage against them.

They watch me write constantly and hear me talk about how important language can be as a tool of persuasion.  They listen to the questions that I ask and learn how important it is to be creative and curious.  They know I’m passionate about knowing and that I’m willing to work hard to grow smarter.

Most importantly, they know we are going to read every single day.  “I don’t care what we get done today,” I’ll say, “but we’re not skipping silent reading.”

And we don’t.

Ever.

A part of my commitment to silent reading, I’ll admit, is selfish.  As an avid reader, I love that my job makes it possible to sit still for 30 minutes every class period with my nose buried in a book.  I churn through tons of titles every year—-I just finished Speaker for the Dead and started Man on a Wire—and get paid to do it.

It’s beautiful.

But more importantly, it gives me the chance to show my boys that even booger-picking, interception grabbing, body check throwing dudes can get lost in a good book.  I love that they see me curled up in a chair in the back of the room completely oblivious to the world around me because I’m reading.

I love that they hear me tell stories about what I’ve read and explain why I’ve chosen particular titles.  I love that they can look at my reading web to see the kinds of diverse topics that catch my attention and I love that they don’t have to feel weird about reading because their favorite guy teacher loves it too.

Before long, I have many of them convinced that real men read.

It’s my own little Jedi mind trick.

And it seems to be working:  On Friday, one of my favorite former students—a boy who is in ninth grade now—text messaged me from the bookstore.  “Mr. Ferriter,” he wrote, “What book should I read?”

How awesome is that?!

I couldn’t decide what I was happier about:  The fact that he was at a bookstore, or the fact that he thought to text message me for help in choosing a book!

While sending him a list of suggestions, I realized that y’all might be interested in knowing the kinds of titles that I recommend to the squirrels in my life.  After all, the chances are good that you’ve got ’em rolling around your classrooms, too.

So here are the three titles that I texted back:

The Secret Life of Houdini: The life story of one of America’s greatest magicians, The Secret Life of Houdini captures the imagination of my athletic boys like almost no other book.  And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised—Houdini was a nonconformist, too!  He took chances, showed people up, competed and imagined…behaviors that resonate with any teenage boy.

If you’re teaching middle schoolers,  Escape–The Story of the Great Houdini is an age-appropriate alternative to The Secret Life of Houdini.

Into Thin Air:  Another genre of books that I try to turn my athletic boys on to are tales of mountaineering disasters.  After all, there’s a survival streak in almost every guy.  That’s what makes Into Thin Air a title that I’m always willing to recommend to high school boys.

Recounting a disaster that struck a climbing party on Mt. Everest in 1996, Into Thin Air has it all:  Moral dilemmas, daring rescues, powerful emotions ranging from elation to devastation.  It’s the kind of book that forces boys to think about who they are as people and what they’d likely do when faced with critical circumstances.

If you’re teaching middle schoolers, Peak is an age-appropriate alternative to Into Thin Air.

Ender’s Game:  I gotta say, I hate science fiction.  In fact, I hate fiction period!  I almost never read it, and I find that by the time they get to middle school, many of my boys hate fiction, too.  I guess that’s what happens when you’re forced to read seven bajillion fairy tales in the span of five years!

Which is why Ender’s Game caught me by surprise.  It is a great read about a group of boys who are living and training together in a military school in space, preparing for an inevitable war to protect Earth against “the Buggers,” a heartless tribe of insects that have already invaded once.

Ender’s Game has everything an active middle or high school boy could ask for.  The main characters compete constantly—as individuals and as members of child armies that fight against each other regularly.

The lead characters are all boys, and they work through situations that resonate.  They try to be tough, but they have emotions.  They want to fight, but their scared at the same time.  They love their friends, but are afraid to show it.

If you’re teaching middle schoolers, The White Mountains or Invitation to the Game are age-appropriate alternatives to Ender’s Game.

<
p>The best part about all three of these books is that they’re likely to lead my former student into genres that he hadn’t considered before.  If The Secret Life of Houdini catches his attention, I’ll recommend biographies about Truman, Joesph Stalin or Robert Oppenheimer to him.

If he likes Into Thin Air, I’ll suggest any of a number of titles about climbing the world’s highest peaks—Alive by Piers Paul Read would be the first—-and if he can’t get enough of Ender’s Game, I’ll recommend Ender’s Shadow—a recounting of the same events told from the perspective of Bean, another character in the book.

I just hope he keeps asking me what to read!  I live for those moments, after all.

This is why I teach!

8 comments

  1. Claudia Swisher

    Bill, I just found this post! I am excited to see OTHER teachers excited about reading. I teach an elective called Reading for Pleasure, where we read every day…and write most days. This is all I do all day! And, as you say, they pay me to do this! My guys have discovered nonfiction and memoir…Beyond Belief and Not Without Hope are current favorites…

  2. Sam

    As an LA teacher, it is diifficult to maintain thes tudents’ perceptions of me as a “manly man,” but, between the classroom pictures of me standing in full expedition gear on the tops of snowy Alaskan peaks and the framed pictures of me holding trophy salmon and steelhead, I make steps in that direction.
    I also post a weekend fishing report, which can be rather humbling, as I am new to the area.
    However, like Bill, I make sure that every single one of my classes has a minimum of ten minutes of SSR a period. This time does cut into my instruction time, but it also allows me time to meet with students, discuss grades, and distribute materials.
    I also make it a point to let the students know what I am currently reading and who my current favorite authors are. On that note, I would like to give a big shout out to Sherman Alexie and his wonderful YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a PArt-Time Indian. My Language Arts Lab class is going to see him speak at a (semi-)local college at the end of the week and I feel like a teenager about to go to his first rock n’ roll concert.

  3. Electriceducator.blogspot.com

    I find that my high school students respond to me in a similar way because of my age. With only a 8 year difference between some of the seniors and myself we’re from the same generation. This surprises and refreshes them. Let me say that I have nothing against older teachers, I think the wisdom that they can impart is very important. It’s nice to be different, however!

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for stopping by, Kristen, Kevin and Dan….I’m glad that my post resonated with y’all and that you’re taking the same kinds of steps to engage the active boys in your classrooms.
    We need more teachers willing to do that kind of work with athletic boys or we’re going to lose ’em, that’s for sure.
    And Kevin, it was no goal. No goal indeed.
    ; )
    Bill

  5. Kevin Wilcox

    Bill,
    Great post. I try to have my students read every day. As a Buffalo boy myself parts of me died with Scott Norwood and Brett Hull as well.

  6. Dan Callahan

    I also enforce a half hour of silent reading in my classroom every day, and I love it. It’s extremely satisfying to me when my students ask me for help in guiding them to just the right book, and then they love it so much they start walking through the hallway with the book while we walk in line because they can’t put the book down!
    Combining the silent reading with read-alouds leads to great shared reading experiences, where I have students two years later sharing a quick giggle with me int he hallway as we remember a particularly good moment from a book we read back when I had them.
    Like you, I’ve tried to take my job as a male sixth grade job seriously, in that many of my students over the years have had a dearth of male role models to look up to, and I think it’s important to show them that real men can be alternately serious and goofy, that they can work hard and then play some games, that they can be kind and caring, and, yes, that they do indeed read.
    Also, I absolutely commend your choices of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, two of my absolute favorite books of all time, which I discovered myself in my school library in 9th grade.

  7. Kristenswanson

    Bill,
    Thank you for writing this post. I love reading with students, and I think it is so important for students to have male “reading role models” in their lives. I would LOVE to see your graphic on a “boys-only” reading olympics T-shirt. Thanks for making my day!