Getting Guys to Write: A Conversation with Author and Educator Diana Cruchley

Diana Cruchley, a former classroom teacher and author

Think about the boys in your class. How many of them would you describe as good writers? Now think about the girls. How many of them are good writers?

If yours is a typical classroom, the “good writers” in your class are predominantly girls. The boys? Most of them probably write just enough to get by — and probably hate writing. Over half of surveyed American girls (53 percent) say they “love to write;” just 35 percent of the boys say the same.

Boys’ distaste for writing may partially explain why boys consistently lag behind girls on tests of writing proficiency. According to the National Survey of Educational Progress, eighth-grade boys are more than twice as likely as girls (27 percent to 12 percent) to earn “below basic” writing scores. The same holds true at the 12th-grade level: 28 percent of 12th-grade boys are “below basic” in writing, compared to 14 percent of girls. Just 19 percent of 12th-grade boys earn “proficient” scores; 29 percent of the girls do. And half as many boys as girls (2 percent vs. 4 percent) are considered “advanced.”

Diana Cruchley, a former classroom teacher and author of “The Power of Extreme Writing,” developed her popular workshop, “Guys Write!: 9 Sure-Fire Ways to Excite Your Boys About Writing (and your girls too),” after hearing teacher after teacher complain about boys who write just enough and lack any passion or desire to write. We recently asked her why boys struggle with writing – and what teachers can do to motivate them.

The fact that more boys struggle with writing than girls – is that a socially constructed problem, a biologically based problem, or some of each?

Boys have more testosterone than girls. One the things testosterone does is it makes you more competitive/aggressive.

The second thing testosterone does is it makes you very conscious of things in motion. It helps your ability to intercept things in motion, too. Think about hitting a baseball. You have to know when the pitcher is going to release the ball, judge the speed and trajectory, figure out if it will cross between your shoulders and knees over the plate, and then decide when to release the bat in order to intercept it. Little girls can do this, too, of course; the continuum of human behavior is very overlapping. But because boys, generally speaking, have more testosterone, they have a biologic advantage. And little boys really quickly learn that they’re good at these activities.

In all cultures, both sexes suppress in themselves those qualities they believe have been assigned to the other sex. So if a girl walks into physics class in grade 12, and sees 28 boys and only one other girl, she may subconsciously think, I didn’t realize this has been assigned to the other sex. I guess I shouldn’t be doing this.

“Our entire society is conspiring against our boys doing well at reading and writing.”

Our entire society is conspiring against our boys doing well at reading and writing.

Let’s consider just one example: Harry Potter. Which of those children had their hand up in class? Hermione. Who has pre-practiced the spells so she’s good at them? Hermione. What is the job of the boys? To save the world and play Quidditch. Now, the good news for girls is that Hermione’s job also includes saving the world, but the model for boys is girls are the ones who should work hard at school.

What do teachers need to understand about boys?

Boys are product oriented; they prefer to make and do stuff. Girls are process oriented; they tend to play highly cooperative games without winners and losers. Boys play very competitive games, with winners and losers.

When kids arrive at school for the first time, there’s almost no product. It is 100 percent process. It is the reading process, the writing process, the processes of mathematics. The first two years of school are process, process, process. That’s very good for most girls; not good for most boys.

Around grade four, boys start to look around and think, there’s a game going on here, and I’m a loser at this game. They don’t want to play a game they can’t win, so they starting doing skimpy drafts, for instance, because they think they’re not going to succeed anyway.

What mistakes do teachers make when teaching boys writing?

Make it boring. We are now going to write, and take out your journals causes your boys’ eyes to roll. Why? Because society still gives signals that diary writing and expressing your emotions is a girl thing — so the boys don’t want to do that — and it doesn’t sound like I’m going to have any fun doing it. That’s why I give writing activities fun names, like Extreme Writing.

How can educators effectively engage boys in writing instruction?

Let me give you an example: Let’s say we’re finishing the Egypt unit, and I want the kids to write something using vocabulary from that unit. Pick the 30 or so words you think they need to know and tell your students, “Tomorrow, we’re going to play a game involving these words.” Then practice with the students, maybe 10 minutes, so they’re ready for the game tomorrow. The next day, practice again before they play.

When they come in, tell them you’re going to play the Overhead Dash. Pair up the kids so one can see the projection screen and one can’t. You project vocabulary words, and the child who can see the words has about a minute to give clues to help the other one guess as many words as possible. (For “pyramid,” the describing student might say, “It’s the thing shaped like a triangle. It sits on the sand. And you bury people in it.”) Then the students switch roles.

Then say, “Now I want you to use those words to write a story set in ancient Egypt. Think Indiana Jones, treasure. I want you to use as many of these words as you can, so let’s give you a goal — at least 14. Ready, set, write!” This works because the vocabulary is really fresh in their mind. They’ve had fun playing the game, and it’s a competitive activity.

Boys are also very visual people, so if you give them visuals to write to that are amusing or dangerous-looking, they’ll respond. Humor matters, too. Try funny writing prompts. I highly recommend the book “The Secret Life of Grown-Ups.”

What about boys who want to write battle stories?

Everyone can make their own decisions, but I tell my students, “I don’t want any blood or guns.” Part of that is because I don’t want to read long, graphic descriptions of somebody dying with their guts falling out. The other part is that, if I let them write shooting and battle stories, the temptation for many of them is to use stuff off of the screen that somebody else has already written. I want inventive stories.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

Learn More: Click to view related resources.