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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Boy Conundrum

Two Interesting, and In Ways Opposite, Pieces of Information on Boys and School

This blog features a personal anecdote, and sophisticated academic research but each, I suspect, is a piece of the boy-school puzzle.

Last night I went to the "Back to School" night at the elementary school where my older son is starting third grade. We visited the neat and trim classroom whose walls were papered with clear informative posters, as well as charts tracking homework assignments completed. But when the teacher told us about the focus of study for the year ahead, the books she mentioned were Charlotte’s Web, Cinderella, and an author unit on Beverly Cleary. She mentioned nonfiction, but only in terms of content that they planned to study, not books/authors that they planned to read. Nonfiction, at least according to this presentation, was a tool for passing along information, not a form of literature. She also mentioned that the students are to read 20 minutes each night, and record their reading on a chart. I asked if newspapers, magazines, and the web counted — and she said yes. But had I not asked, no one would have known that. 

This was a fine classrom — but one that would have been much better had it been as alert to males, their reading, and their interests as it is to females. 

Then I read this article–tkh090908.php which tells us that a crucial factor in bringing down scores in a class is the presence of even one child who experiences domestic violence at home. And the decline is especially evident in boys, "adding just one troubled boy to a class of 20 students increases the likelihood that another boy in the class will commit a disciplinary infraction by 17 percent."

Domestic violence is a social problem, a civic problem, and national problem — but one that then directly influences schools, and especially boys. There is no quick fix for this, and surely any experienced teacher or administrator already knows that boys who act out often have issues at home, and that the presence of any angry disruptive child (boy) creates real problems for the rest of the class. Yet having this clear study does help. It tells us that some part of the boys/school issue has its roots in one specific issue — the child who is the victim of adult aggression. 

I do not meant to equate a difficult social issue and what I see as a shortsightedness in otherwise excellent teachers. And yet I wonder how much of the image of the boy, the loud, undisciplined, unliterary, defiant boy comes from classrooms shaped by children suffering from extreme home problems. How can we simultaneously be alert to this real damage, and open teachers’ eyes to the exuberant passions of young males?


  1. Marc, this is such an important and relevant topic. I had a very similar experience this week with the open house for my first grader. He is limited to the picture book fiction section in the school library… “non fiction comes later…” Don’t get me started.

    Anyhow, what is KEY is your words in that last sentence/question, “open teacher’s eyes to the exuberant passions of young males”. I want to scream to the world that boys have FEELINGS. They get excited about things, like Star Wars books, and the sinking of the Titanic. They also get horrifically sad when there is turmoil in their lives. Why is it that their world dismisses these things? Why is it not ok to get totally excited about Star Wars light saber battles or the sinking of the Titanic? Why is it not ok to walk around angry or in a funk when your home life sucks? Why don’t adults except these as the expressions they are instead of problems they need to be fixed (or ignore)? Boys feel. Boys are passionate. They are just not girls. So what!

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Walking my son to third grade the other day, two of his classmates were just ahead of me — passionately debating where precisely the Titanic sank, whether there are icebergs in the Atlantic, and how exactly the ship was damanged. They were engaged, informed, bright, curious — just what any alert teacher should cherish.