As a boy I learned to love reading and writing, but not from school. This post will discuss one of the reasons why.
There’s an “educational” practice that was alive and well when I was a schoolboy, and which I – not the least because I am a former English teacher – not only to unconditionally discourage, but also encourage parents to protest whenever their children are subject to it. It’s the practice of teachers punishing students – overwhelmingly boys – by writing sentences.
While this disciplinary practice may seem trivial in and of itself, I think we would do well to remember a few things. Most notably, boys are roughly a year and a half behind girls when it comes to verbal concepts and literacy skills. In 2001 the Educational Testing Service measured that the gap favoring girls in writing concepts is six times greater than the gap favoring boys in math concepts . That’s quite a gap.
Given these disparities, it makes sense to inquire into what barriers exist in helping boys approach equity in literacy skills. In Misreading Masculinity Dr. Thomas Newkirk argued that the literature boys love is often stifled by teachers who simply don’t share their literary preferences: adventure stories that employ some element of physical conflict, or stories involving subversive (but not obscene) humor.
I’d like to add the punishment of “writing sentences” to the list of things that need to change or be done away with. And I’m not alone in this. The National Council of Teachers of English drafted a resolution condemning this practice. Here is part of their reasoning:
Using writing for punishment, NCTE members warned, distorts the principles and defeats the purposes of instruction in this important life skill and causes students to dislike an activity necessary to their intellectual development and career success.
NCTE discourage teachers, administrators, and others from making a punishment of such writing as copywork, sentence repetition, original paragraphs and themes, and other assignments which inhibit desired attitudes and essential communication skills.
Teaching students to conceptualize an educational practice as a punishment should be the last thing that comes to mind to good educators. Although the above condemnation was written by the NCTE as far back as 1984, the practice of using writing as a punishment remained widespread.
It is hard to overstate the value of literacy skills and the mastery of verbal concepts. When a young man gets to college, no matter what class he is taking, there will usually be a writing assignment at some point.
My own experiences reflect this. When I was a writing tutor at Texas A&M we had a traditional end-of-semester rush of students trying to finish their science papers. They always put them off to the last minute (students often put off writing assignments, but these papers tended to be worse).
When I took Kinesiology 101, which was basically a “learn how to do basic exercises and eat right” class, we had to keep a daily journal wherein we not only logged what we did, but also logged our process of reasoning on what we thought worked, and why. And of course almost any humanities course – history, English, anthropology, etc – will require you to write numerous papers.
Since being able to communicate clearly and effectively is an indispensable tool of business, men will also need good writing skills when they go out into the working world.
Some might make the argument that the practice of punishing boys by writing sentences serves an “educational value” in that it forces boys to “sharpen and explore their skills” in reading and writing. But it doesn’t. It just makes them hate writing.
After all, they aren’t writing stories about robots battling each other with laser beams and swords of lightning. They are writing the same five or six words over and over again, which hardly gives them room to explore writing. It could be said that they are “learning,” however: learning that writing is monotonous and punishing.
Some might also make the argument that this form of punishment isn’t anti-male in that there is nothing about writing sentences that is in itself anti-male. While that may be true, it is nonetheless the case that boys make up the vast majority of disciplinary referrals and students punished overall. If we punished girls who wore inappropriate clothing by making them do tedious and extremely repetitive math problems that eventually made them hate doing math, there is little doubt that an argument about gender (and gender equity) would arise.
I would also like to note that punishing students by forcing them to write monotonous 5-word sentences is a hallmark of an authoritarian mind. Quite simply, it is brainwashing. It lacks creativity and the ability to actually relate to boys.
If the goal of writing sentences is “character education” (there’s a buzzword for you), then working through people who can relate to boys is the best practice – hence the value of male mentoring programs. But trying to brainwash boys through monotonous repetition will not help you reach them; it will just make what they are doing feel like a prison ritual.
A brief word to fellow men’s advocates: I think it would be well to note that this is a good example of a practice that is bad for boys but isn’t directly caused by anti-male gender ideologies like feminism or traditionalism. It’s simply one of those things that just is.
Granted, if we didn’t have ideologies in place that tend to scoff at the idea of educational equity for men and boys, we might be having these conversations much sooner and more often. But once the wall that blocks us from discussing these issues is broken down, we can’t assume that everything will just work out on its own. We need to be able to have a conversation about what educational practices work best for boys.
And making boys hate writing by forcing them to write bland sentences over and over again isn’t one of them.
Notes: Educational Testing Services (ETS) Gender Study, “Trends by Subject, Fourth through Twelfth Grades,” Figure 2-1. Cited in Misreading Masculinity by Thomas Newkirk, p. 35.
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