Northern Illinois University

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Pamela Nelson
Pamela Nelson

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

March 21, 2006

Literacy Education students at NIU
learn what boys like to read

DeKalb — Fifth-grade boys in Rockford's Rolling Green Elementary School are e-mailing Northern Illinois University students about books.

And not just books about dead dogs.

As part of Project REAL, the federally funded partnership between NIU, the Rockford Public Schools and Rock Valley College, the e-mail pen pals read the same books and discuss them through the computer.

It's an experiment that one participating teacher believes has national potential.

“Everyone is concerned about boys and reading,” says Pamela Nelson, the Department of Literacy Education professor who devised the program that began a year ago this month.

“My ‘Children's Literature in a Multicultural Society' course graduates, who were student-teaching, or first-year teachers, or working at summer camps and day-care centers, were asking me for names of good books to read aloud during resting times and transition times,” Nelson adds. “I thought, ‘We had just had the children's literature course. What am I not doing that's making them e-mail me about this?' ”

She looked at the American Library Association's Web site, where she found a “Smart Girls” message board on books. When she searched for the “Smart Boys” board, she found none.

When she reviewed the oft-recommended reading lists for boys – including sad dog stories such as “Old Yeller,” “Shiloh,” “Sounder” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” – Nelson realized she could find the answer in an elementary school classroom: Who better to ask what boys like to read than boys themselves?

Sixteen 10- and 11-year-old boys from two Rolling Green fifth-grade classrooms are participating this year. Their teachers are Katie Wolff and Tammy Hooks.

Pseudonyms are used on both ends of the exchange, and all e-mails are sent indirectly through the instructors. Only a few of Nelson's students are men, but the anonymity prevents the boys from knowing who's on the other side of the Internet while it helps them to open up.

The boys type and send one e-mail per week about the reading, which so far has included books from Joanna Coles' “Magic School Bus” series, Margaret Preston Haddix's “Among the Hidden” series, Andrew Clements' “Lunch Money,” Ben Mikaelsen's “Touching Spirit Bear” and Gary Paulsen's “Brian's Hunt” among others.

Although the chapter books are short enough for NIU students to knock them off in a couple hours, the boys have “as long as it takes” to finish. Meanwhile, Nelson says, “we don't want them to look at the books that come from NIU as the only thing they should read.”

“They're really enjoying it,” she says. “They want to read more. They want to go on to reading the next book in a series.”

The one-on-one correspondence with “someone who's a mystery” is leading to a “significant change in their interest in books,” one of the fifth-grade teachers confirms.

“Every Tuesday, when we get the laptops out, books become more interesting and more real to them, and more than just an assignment from a teacher,” Wolff says. “These are fantastic books NIU has provided, specifically for boys, with boys as protagonists and lots of action. The boys tell me about what's happening in the books, and they're amazed when one of their NIU students agrees with them about something they've said.”

Wolff realizes well the difficulty of engaging boys in the written word.

“Today's boys are interested in video games and action games outside. Girls are the ones sitting quietly at their desks, more sophisticated and more able on the whole to get interested in books,” she says. “You don't see a lot of pictures of boys reading on the covers of books.”

Portia Downey, manager of Project REAL for NIU and a former fifth-grade teacher in the Harlem School District of Machesney Park, agrees.

“That's the age they drop off and don't like to read any more. Boys get more interested in more active activities. They don't think it's cool to read anymore, and a big percentage of boys think you're a geek if you do,” Downey says.

But “if you have difficulty in reading, you have difficulty in all subjects,” she adds. “You have to read in math and social studies and science, and from what I see going on in the middle school and high school where we work, all of their subjects suffer when their reading level is low.”

All hope the e-mail project will divert Rolling Green's fifth-grade boys from that course.

Even though their typing skills are slow, and what they write is limited, Wolff says use of the laptops is teaching the boys about technology and word-processing.

Meanwhile, an end-of-the-semester pizza party for the boys and their NIU pen pals painted a vivid picture of how the boys had changed, Downey says.

“They got to meet the person they had been writing to, and to me it was just amazing how comfortable they felt with each other just talking,” she says. “It was just fun to see their excitement, talking about the books and their own hobbies.”

For NIU's students, the project enlightens them to the importance of a child's input in the curriculum. “You can learn from students,” Nelson says, “and make better selections and decisions as their instructional leader.”

The future teachers “also are aware of the fact that this gives the boys a tremendous amount of self-efficacy because they are the people with the information these NIU students want, and I think our NIU students sense that,” she says. “And suddenly, they have some books that they can look at and say, ‘Ah, boy books.' ”

Nelson has learned to broaden the selections to include more non-fiction and to make sure she provides books that cover a wide span of reading levels.

She also has enjoyed the surprising insight some of the boys have offered: One told Nelson he wouldn't recommend Jerry Spinelli's “Maniac Magee” to his mother because “she would be crying from the start.”

Wolff believes the idea could spark a reading revolution across the country if teachers and parents could ensure the critical e-mail safeguards. Plenty of people probably would love a chance to read books and correspond with children, she said.

“There still are some of my boys who are resistant. This is not the miracle we're going to take to George Bush and say, ‘Here's the answer,' but it's got tremendous potential,” Wolff says. “I have 27 students, and I try to do this, but to keep up with 27 books is beyond my capability. The one-on-one is the beauty of this.”

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