How Praise Can Discourage Young Male Writers

Henry has won a prize for his immaculately presented book journal, full of pictures and character portraits – a veritable treasure trove of literary references and recommendations. He stands at the front of the prize-giving assembly, the only boy alongside three girls who also won the same prize. He looks sidelong at the girls and then to his friends in the audience. His face reddens and he begins to finger his collar.

What lesson do you think Henry has learned from this experience? As he contemplates his place in this line-up, does he regard himself with pride? Or, will he (as I suspect and will argue) vow not to put himself in this position again?

As teachers, we frequently give a privileged position to presentation in our rubrics. It’s central, isn’t it? Presentation shows respect for the audience and increases the clarity of one’s message. So why, in my anecdotal experience, do I generally see that it is boys (rather than girls) that are content to present work in a slapdash way. I very rarely meet a female student with poor fine motor skills. Of course, that may be my problem and peculiar to my circumstances as a teacher, but for every one female student with poor handwriting and presentation I could count another ten male students with the same problems with handwriting and presentation.

My worry, and something that I want to address in my teaching, is that somehow our perceived preoccupation with presentation and handwriting (in the minds of a disaffected male student) actually pushes them further away from us. They come to regard our championing of presentation as somehow feminising and therefore a challenge to their status. They come, in time, to wear their slapdash presentation with an air of premature masculine pride.

How to counter this? Focus on the purpose of communication. Scrupulously word your praise in terms of whether a piece of writing meets its purpose, rather than accentuating presentational details (“and look at this lovely picture he’s drawn!”). In rubrics, call your presentation strand “Purpose” and define success in terms of how effectively the writing supports the purpose of communication.

Perhaps Henry will win another prize next year. Perhaps I am entirely wrong to draw such conclusions from anecdotal experience. I want Henry to understand that his work is appreciated because his efforts have spread a little joy in our school: that he has done a great job. So often, the terminology we choose when appraising students’ work can stigmatise them in ways over which we have little control. Children are not little adults and the playground is rarely the enlighted, cosmopolitan coffee house of the teacher’s weekend. So the next time you are tempted to call Henry’s work “beautiful”, ask yourself whether you are encouraging or discouraging more of the same.

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