8 Mistakes we make about Boys and English

Occasionallysome of us get things wrong with boys. Here’s my thoughts, based entirely on my own experience and absolutely nothing else, on the mistakes some English teachers make with boys.

  1. Assume all boys love war poetry.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard English Teachers  say things like “I’ve got a boy-heavy class so I’ll just do loads of war poetry. They love that.” Well guess what; that’s not always true. In fact, rather than ‘loving’ war,  for most boys, war is a totally abstract concept that is no more relatable for boys than the experience of riding a unicorn, whilst baking a cake, in a field of pink roses is for girls.

And yes, boys do play computer games centered around warfare like ‘Call of Duty’. But this means nothing; I grew up with Super Mario and that never made me want to read poems about plumbing, or become a plumber for that matter.

So, my advice here is this: show boys war poetry; they need to engage with war as a concept. But if you want them to really engage with poetry, show them poems about the quotidian events that they can relate to. Like falling in love, arguing with family members, and hating shit.

2. Teaching Macbeth instead of Romeo and Juliet for boy-heavy classes. 

Macbeth’s a great play and should be taught for reasons based on its own merit. But it should never be taught because somebody has assumed boys won’t be able to relate to Romeo and Juliet. And people do wrongly assume that a group of teenage boys could never relate to a character who is a) a teenage boy who  b) falls in love with someone he shouldn’t and c) defies his parent’s wishes, before d) messing it all up and wanting to die such is the excruciating emotional pain he is feeling. Yeah, they’d never relate to that.

3. Hark on about how ‘wet’ Romeo is. 

He kills a bloke. He ain’t wet.

4. Miss Opportunities to Discuss Masculinity.

Another A-Level language lesson on gender with same old sexist Victorian etiquette guides on how women should behave and 1950’s guides to being the perfect housewife. Again, worthy of study, but can we please look at works of fiction-and non-fiction- that perpetuate negative and damaging stereotypes of masculinity. Like anything written by the female newspaper columnists who write for that one newspaper we all love so much.

Ask questions about portrayals of masculinity in fiction texts. Why do you think the men on the ranch think it’s okay to call Curley’s wife a tart? Isn’t Gatsby actually a little bit great? And don’t you feel that Rochester is a victim of  19th century expectations of masculinity?

5. Assume all boys love competition.

Competition is great for the people that win competitions. And generally, the experience of winning a competition is limited to one person. That is, the competition winner. Last place feels really shite. Especially if you’re the kid that’s always last. And there’s always an always last kid. So think carefully about this. Competition’s are worthy and kids need to know how it feels to win and lose. But not every single task needs to be an episode of The Generation Game. Sometimes boys just want to chill and get along with everybody.

6. Assume boys can’t discuss emotions. 

In my experience, the reason boys struggle to discuss their emotions is because people keep telling them they struggle with discussing their emotions. So stop pouring scorn on all of those male protagonists who dare to reveal an inch of emotional feeling. It’s okay for Othello to be jealous; It’s okay for Jack and Ralph to be angry; it’s okay for Keats to mope. Men feel too. Acknowledge that fact and give your boys the opportunity to discuss/write about/read about their own emotions too.

7. Pour Scorn on Dead White Men

The literary canon is dominated by men. But that doesn’t mean those works are any less valid as a result. Encourage boys to engage with the canon positively. Reflect on its male dominance and challenge it with the works of female writers. But challenge doesn’t mean slag it off. The fact is, much of what exists within the canon is there, not because of its male authors, but primarily because of its brilliance. That should not be forgotten.

8. Assume all boys love football

Often the solution to the problem of getting boys to read: buy them a football book. Well, the problem here is this:

For many boys who love football, the last thing they want to do is read about football. Because reading about football is time that could be spent playing football. You’re better off treating boys as individuals with different and myriad interests. Speak to boys and find out about their own specific interests. And just because boys like playing football, it doesn’t mean they want to read about it too. For many boys-and girls- books are about escapism. Books about football only serve to immerse them in a world they already know. Perhaps these boys want to play football at breaktimes but fight dragons and fall in love whilst they read . Perhaps.

Update (03/05/18): I wrote this blog a couple of years ago. As I read it now, I wince at the aggressive tone in which it was written. I never delete old blog posts, even if I no longer agree with the content or if, as is the case with this one, I’m slightly embarrassed by the tone. This is because each blog post is a milestone on the long road of my thinking. And though some of those milestones are crumbling, they’re no less valid as a measure of that road. Anyways, I apologise for two things: 1) the aggressive tone of this blog post, which was clearly borne out of my frustration at what I was seeing at the time and 2) the clumsy milestone-Road metaphor.

Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner

6 thoughts on “8 Mistakes we make about Boys and English”

  1. All valid points apart from you not wanting to become a plumber because of Mario’s influence. There no plumbing in Mario’s adventures. That might be the reason why he fails as a role model for plumbers.
    Seriously, thanks for the useful remarks.


  2. Amazing, a teacher who realizes this.
    I was a BOY boy. Working on a dairy farm however gave little time for nonsense like football (and other listed subjects) yet it was always assumed that as a male I was wrapped up in those things.
    Loved limericks though!


  3. Another thought too, about emotions.
    Working on the farm I remember having all the insecurities, anger, desire to win, and etc. but the work has to be done.
    Feel whatever you must but the cows can’t milk themselves!
    Hard work allows time to process emotions and get familiar with deeper drivers. No doubt that males ARE emotional beings and are perfectly capable of intelligent discussion!


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