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Michael W. Smith [Interview below]
Reading Don't Fix No Chevys

Literacy in the Lives of Young Men
by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

The problems adolescent boys encounter in school especially in reading and writing have been the focus of statistical data but rarely does research point out how literacy educators can combat those problems. That situation has changed. Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm, two of the most respected names in English education and in the teaching of reading, worked with a very diverse group of young men to understand how they use literacy and what conditions promote it. In this book they share what they have learned.
--Heinenman 2002
Michael W. Smith Michael W. Smith is a professor at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education. In his research he works to understand how experienced readers read and talk about literary texts, how adolescents read and talk about texts both in and out of school, and how teachers can help prepare students to have more meaningful transactions when they read, interests he developed during his eleven years of teaching high school English. He has been Chair of the Literature Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, co-Chair of the National Council of Teachers of English, and co-editor of Research in the Teaching of English. He was recently elected as a Fellow of the National Conference on Research in Language and Literacy. He also serves as the director of the National Writing Project at Rutgers University.
An interview with Author, Michael W. Smith
ETC: ETC: Why study boys?

Smith: Jeff Wilhelm, my co-author, and I have both spent a considerable portion of our teaching lives working with kids our schools had labeled as lower-track or at-risk. What we found was that our classes were always comprised predominantly of boys. And our experience is not unique. Research consistently finds that boys do worse than girls on standardized measures of literacy. In fact, the difference is much greater than the difference between boys and girls on tests of mathematical reasoning. It seems to us that anytime such a gap exists, it's important to take a look at the causes of that gap so that teachers and parents might be able to gain understandings that will help them bridge that gap.

ETC: Can you tell me about your study?

Smith: We worked with 49 boys from four very different sites: an urban high school made up almost entirely of African American and Puerto Rican students, a diverse comprehensive regional suburban high school, a rural middle school and high school, and a private all-boys middle and high school. We did three different kinds of interviews. In one we tried to find out what activities interested the boys both in and out of school and worked to understand what features characterized those activities. In another we presented the boys with little stories that highlighted different ways of rejecting and embracing reading and writing. In the third we talked with the boys about all of the reading, writing, viewing and listening they did in and out of school.

ETC: If you had to put your findings in a nutshell, what would you say?

Smith: Our data suggest that the boys in the study valued school in general and reading in particular and that they pursued literate activities out of school in interesting and complex ways. However, while they valued school-based reading in theory, they often rejected it in practice because school-based reading was not characterized by the qualities that marked the activities (both literate and not) that the boys pursued out of school.

ETC: Can you say more about those qualities?

Smith: Sure. We found that the activities that the boys enjoyed were very different. Some were athletes. Some were gamers. Some were musicians, and on and on. But in virtually every case, the activities that the boys enjoyed were characterized by 5 features. First, they boys felt they were competent in the activity or at least saw progress toward competence. Second, the challenge the activities presented weren't too difficult or too easy. Third, the activities provide clear and immediate feedback. Fourth, they boys engaged in them for the enjoyment they experienced while doing them instead for what the activities could bring them in the future. And finally the activities allowed boys to deepen relationships that they valued; they had a social element.

ETC: Why spend so much time talking about what boys do outside of school when what you're interested in is the reading they do inside of school?

Smith: Well, I mentioned earlier that boys' performance in schools, at least in reading and writing, lags behind girls. And after Columbine something of a cottage industry in the popular press has sprung up documenting boys' alienation. But these portraits of boys in trouble didn't jive with what we saw in our classrooms. Even boys who were in trouble in school had areas of their lives that were marked with success. Kids who struggled in school might be great mechanics. Kids who wouldn't read the books we assigned would read magazines and newspapers. We wanted to do a study that would focus both on boys' strengths and on the challenges they face.

ETC: So why don't boys read?

Smith: One of our most important findings was that boys do read. It's just that many of them don't read the kinds of things that schools value. Let me give you a really poignant example. One of young men we worked with was reading at the 2nd or 3rd grade level. Yet he subscribed to a number of magazines. When I asked him why he subscribed to magazines that he couldn't read, he told me that he looked at the pictures and when he saw something important he had someone read it to him. So here's a boy who recognized the value of literacy even though he wasn't literate himself. But we had many other less dramatic examples: One young man who was failing English would go on the Web searching for poems from favorite poets. One spent hours reading cheat codes to help do better on his video games. One was an avid reader of his hunting magazine. One read one book a year, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, because his brother gave it to him. So, all of our boys were readers even though only seven of them were readers in the conventional sense.

ETC: Are you saying that schools should bring those kinds of texts into their curricula?

Smith: Not exactly, though we think that schools should recognize the importance of a wider variety of texts than they do. I've spent my professional life teaching literature and studying the way readers read and talk about texts, yet if you asked me if I'd rather have my students read the paper every day or a novel once a week, the paper would win hands down. We hope our study encourages teachers to expand the kinds or reading they ask kids to do. But what we see as our most significant challenge for teachers and schools is our call to make literacy learning in school be characterized by those 5 features that I talked about earlier.

ETC: Can you say some more about that?

Smith: Sure. As I noted before, a sense of competence is crucial for the young men in our study. The boys tended to do things they were good at and to quit things unless they saw progress. In their outside reading, they tended to read in areas in which they were already expert rather than to acquire new areas of expertise. I'm the same way. I play tennis because I'm pretty good at it. I quit golf because I'm terrible at it and I wasn't getting any better. But think about what happens in school. Teachers assign texts that are very difficult. (In fact, some classes, for example, American Literature, are typically organized so that students encounter the oldest and most difficult texts first!) And then the instruction they provide, most often in the form of written or oral questions, comes after they've read. Jeff and I think that the instruction needs to come first and that teachers should work to build bridges between the known and the new.

ETC: What about the other qualities?

Smith: On the issue of providing an appropriate challenge, we encourage teachers to think about ways they can use texts over which students feel control to prepare them for the more difficult texts. That's one way to keep the challenge at an appropriate level. We encourage using literary and non-literary texts in concert to help students take a position on an issue of consequence as a way of providing clear and immediate feedback. We encourage engaging students in building and making things as a way to see students see the immediate value of what they're doing. We encourage teachers to look for opportunities to make learning social, for example, by making use of book clubs and by having student use drama as a way to step into a story world. Of course, we realize the complexities of doing these things. In the book we spend a good deal of time talking about implementing the findings of our research and we've begun work on a sequel in which we'll spin out those implications even more fully.

ETC: What advice would you offer parents?

Smith: First, we'd encourage parents to recognize what kids like to do and see the complex literate behaviors that are often related to what they like to do. Reading an instruction manual for a video game takes pretty sophisticated skills, for example. And as I said before, reading a newspaper seems to me to be even more important than reading a book. We also encourage parents to understand what attract kids to the reading that they do. For example, texts like comics provide a feeling of competence because visualizing is one of the most complex tasks for a reader. Series books are enjoyable because they allow the reader to spend time with characters they've come to know and like. But we realize that books are important. I know they've been important in my life. If a child is reading a book that a parent knows, they can talk together about the characters, what they like about them and what they don't. I wouldn't suggest trying to ask comprehension questions. But I would ask questions that get at the social dimension of reading: Who do you like in the book? Anybody remind you of anyone you know? That sort of thing.

ETC: It occurs to me that what you're saying about boys might also be true for girls.

Smith: We think it is. In fact, we worry about generalizing about boys. The kids in our study were so different in terms of their interests and activities. But those five dimensions cut across those interests. We expect that they would for girls as well. And that's important. So much writing about gender is so polarized. It pits boys against girls. We don't think that that has to be the case.