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New school year brings learning challenges and opportunities

October 29, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 25, 2017

Settling into a new school year can be challenging. For daughter Zoe — who absolutely loves school — the challenge is eagerly awaiting the first day, when she returns to the familiar structure and rhythm of classroom learning, and all of the special events and activities that accompany her new grade. This year, as a 5th-grader, she and her peers will enjoy a series of capstone events, including a four-day, three-night ‘Nature’s Classroom’ trip, before heading off to middle school next year. Zoe glows each day and thoughtfully plans when and how to complete her homework and school projects.

Son Adam has a different experience. He grumpily awaits the first day of school, preferring to return to the comfort of last year’s classroom and teacher, rather than a new and unknown set of circumstances. For the first few weeks he reports a string of disappointments, including his dislike of new rules, elevated learning expectations, and missing friends who were placed in different classrooms than his.

Each fall, my wife, Lori, and I do our best to support Adam while he is adjusting in the early weeks of school. We listen to him, encourage him to express his feelings and stay involved in school activities to demonstrate our commitment to his learning. And, much to his credit, Adam thrives each year as a very social, engaged and caring learner.

Still, as a father and former high school teacher, I have concerns. Adam is young compared to his peers, making the cutoff date for his grade by only 14 days. Knowing that on average, boys lag girls in literacy development, by as much as 12 to 18 months according to some studies and teacher accounts, I worry that Adam’s resistance to reading will negatively impact his learning, for years to come.

So, I decided to do some reading myself, to learn more about the gendered literacy gap. In short, I learned there is strong consensus that a gender gap in literacy exists but that the cause is much debated.

Some researchers point to biology, arguing that differences in brain structure and chemistry explain the gender gap. For example, on average female brains have more connections between left and right hemispheres, which may support increased language processing. Boys, on the other hand, have higher levels of testosterone, fueling their need for physical movement over stationary activities such as reading.

I find these biology explanations interesting but insufficient, if not misleading, if only because they are often used to legitimize gender stereotypes rather than promote use of varied teaching methods to support varied learning styles.

Others point to a host of social conditions, including the fact that children’s exposure to reading and literacy activities is far more influenced by females — think Mom, preschool and elementary school teachers, and children’s librarian — than males, perhaps leaving boys with the impression that reading is not for them.

And, not too surprisingly, girls and women — including moms, teachers, librarians and the girls they inspire — are much more likely to purchase books than boys and men. So, publishers, who are in the business of selling books, reportedly promote publication of books that appeal to female buyers and readers, meaning many available books may be less appealing to boys and men.

I find these social explanations interesting, too, but still wonder how to best support Adam with developing what I hope will become his love of reading. Then, a few weeks into the new school year, I unexpectedly found myself in a fascinating conversation about reading — with Adam and his 4th-grade buddy and neighbor, Jasper.

They were lounging on our breezeway couch, eating snacks and chatting, when I decided to join them. I asked Jasper the same question I pose to Zoe and Adam each day, “What was a highlight from your school day?”

After a thoughtful pause, he answered, “Reading a really good book.” Knowing from his parents that Jasper’s relationship with reading is much like Adam’s, I further inquired.

“What book,” I asked.

“Jedi Academy,” and I read about 131 pages in a few days,” he proudly reported.

Adam responded, “I read 103 pages in my ‘Goosebumps’ book, and there are 356 books in the Goosebumps series!”

Jasper returned the volley, “We have the full series of ‘Magic Treehouse’ books at our house,” and then they both agreed that the newest release, “Knight of the Ninth Dragon,” is awesome.

Their literary enthusiasm was palpable so I asked, “What makes a book really good?”

“Graphic novels, where there is a mix of reading and comics,” Jasper responded. Adam said, “really interesting characters” are important. Jasper agreed then added, “I like hard cover books better than the floppy covered ones.”

Then they were off, riding their bikes up and down the street with the rest of the neighborhood clan, as I reflected on the surprising and delightful conversation.

My conclusion is that Adam — his buddy Jasper and their peers — are learning to read and developing genuine interest in books, at their own pace and in their own way. And, I reassured myself that rather than focusing on reading proficiency scores, I can best support Adam’s appetite for reading and all the learning it promotes, by helping him find materials that interest him, engaging him in conversations about reading, and letting him have the space he needs to learn and explore, on his terms.

And, as if to reassure me that I was on the right track, I recently found Adam alone, perched high in the privacy of our backyard tree — not reading, but with notebook and pencil in hand — writing a poem about natural objects he had just collected. He was eager to talk about it, and so was I.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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