COLUMBIA — On Oct. 5, a mischievous group of villains hatched a dastardly plan to ruin the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival.
Creepy the Ghost would bring a host of bats to wreak havoc; the vampire, Vampyra, would summon a rainstorm with a magical spell; and the ghost, Berry Boo, would hog the hayride by loading it up with all of his ghostly friends.
That same day, the young members of the Boys Writers Club at Ridgeway Elementary School got wind of the misdeeds. Principal Ben Tilley handed each an envelope, its contents revealing a villain's plan. The boys' mission was to summarize those plans and dream up how to foil the wretched ghosts and ghouls.
The boys laughed and talked over each other as they worked. All the while, Tilley encouraged them, occasionally refocusing their efforts. By the end of their 50 minutes together, the boywriters had developed a strong defense. The villains’ defeat was inevitable — and the principal's goal to engage the boys in a writing project was met.
Tilley, who has researched gender differences in learning and strategies to address them, started the club last year as a way to help boys get interested in writing. Research and statistics from a variety of sources show boys are, for the most part, more hesitant writers than girls.
For example, in the 2008-09 school year, high school senior girls outscored boys of the same level on the writing portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test by an average of 13 points. In the three most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress studies done by the National Center for Educational Statistics, girls regularly outscored boys in writing by about 20 points.
Test results don't tell the full story, though. As a basis for the club, Tilley relied in part on author and educator Michael Gurian, whose book "Boys and Girls Learn Differently" details some differences in brain development that make girls more predisposed toward writing than boys. They include:
- The left hemisphere, which processes language in most people and controls many language-related skills, is usually better developed in girls, which makes girls better at language-based tasks than boys.
- The part of the brain known as Wernicke's area, which links language and thought, is usually more active in girls, providing them with better verbal communication skills than most boys.
Chapter 1: Secrets of the boys writers
Tilley said in creating the club, "The purpose is just to encourage a love of writing and a like of writing instead of looking at it as a drudgery or a task just to get through."
He follows a simple strategy: “It’s something I try to make fun,” Tilley said. “I try to make it engaging so that they enjoy coming to the boys writers.”
At the start of every meeting, he intones, “The official order of the Boys Writing Club will now begin.” A group salute follows. Writing activities, such as thwarting the pumpkin festival villains, corral the boys’ energy and hook their imaginations.
Whenever anyone gets a little off task or Tilley has an important message, he has a secret codeword ready.
“It’s disgusting so no one would guess what it is,” he told the boys after revealing the word during the club’s first meeting this year. It has to be kept secret so it maintains its power, he said.
Chapter 2: Boys' adventures in writing
To help craft the lessons and activities for the Boys Writers Club, Tilley draws from the work and research of various authors including Ralph Fletcher. Both Fletcher and Gurian have written a great deal about engaging children, boys especially, in writing.
“A lot of boys don’t find school as a place where they can nurture that talent (of writing),” said Fletcher.
He attributed this to multiple factors. First, he thinks traditional school environments discourage many of the things boys like to write about such as wars, guns and monsters.
“Teachers have kind of sanitized the environment, so nothing will offend the administration or parents,” he said.
Fletcher, a father of four sons, has 25 years of experience working with teachers to find better ways to teach writing.
Kelley King, associate director of the Gurian Institute, a not-for-profit group based in Colorado Springs, Colo., said many writing prompts in schools focus on writing about feelings, relationships and sensory description, which are less likely to pique the interest of boys. The Institute was founded to develop effective instructional strategies for both boys and girls.
Another factor both King and Fletcher think plays a big role in boys being more hesitant writers is boys are usually more visual than girls.
"Boys have traditionally gotten into trouble when they draw or sketch in class," Fletcher said. "To be fair, most teachers do allow kindergarten or first grade boys to draw, but drawing becomes a no-no in upper grades."
He thinks the opposite should happen, and teachers should find ways to combine writing and drawing — a comic book, for example.
Second-grader Jett Wooten, 8, a member of Ridgeway’s club since last year, said one of the most memorable parts of the club was a comic book he wrote with the other members last year. The comic told the story of the boy writers escaping a dinosaur that popped out of a movie they were watching together.
Chapter 3: Growing a passion for writing
To help the boys become increasingly interested in writing, Tilley encourages them to write about subjects they find interesting, something Fletcher thinks is vital for engaging boys in writing.
“Most teachers want kids to choose what they read,” he said from his home in New Hampshire. “They should do the same thing for writing. The writing is much better when it’s something you’re passionate about.”
At the first meeting of the year for his fourth- and fifth-graders, Tilley told the boys they would be working on the school newspaper and encouraged them to find story ideas that interested them.
The boys wasted little time in firing off a variety of ideas including the school’s ban on Silly Bandz, rubber bracelets that children collect and trade, interviewing a soldier from Columbia and exploring principals of the school’s past.
Overall, 28 boys participate in the this year’s club — up from 23 last year.
“We ask the teachers to recommend boys whose writing could just use a little bit of an extra push; or a little bit of encouragement writing; or students who really didn’t show much of an interest in writing, and we’re trying to build some interest,” Tilley said.
Tilley keeps the club small so students get plenty of one-on-one time with him to help develop their writing skills.
During the writing exercises, Tilley moves around the room, offering help and encouragement to the boys. At some meetings, he holds individual conferences to discuss each boy’s writing.
The club meets three days each week. Second- and third-graders meet every Tuesday, kindergartners and first-graders on Wednesdays and the fourth- and fifth-graders on Thursdays.
“Some of the teachers say that some of their boys who are in writing club seem much more relaxed about writing,” Tilley said. “They’re not so stressed about it.”
Additionally, many parents have told him their boys enjoy participating in the club.
The success of the Boys Writing Club has even resulted in the founding of a spin-off, mystery-writing club for girls at the school.
At the end of the day, though, the success of the club relies on how the boys react to it.
“I really like it,” Jett said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
As you might guess, the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival was spared from being spoiled by that nasty pack of ghosts and ghouls. With solutions including running a fake hayride and setting up an elaborate fan system to blow away Vampyra’s clouds — it was the Boys Writers Club to the rescue.