Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Reading is like basketball. I love it."

I’ve invited Guest Blogger Deb Hanson, Media Specialist, to describe the Guys Read program at Veterans Park Academy for the Arts, Lehigh Acres, Florida. I read an earlier version of Deb’s report on Marc Aronson’s blog, Nonfiction Matters (,) and was in tears by the end of it. (But then I burst into tears at “76 Trombones” during The Music Man last week.) Anyway, Deb’s report made me contemplate, once again, the special place in heaven reserved for hard-working innovative teachers and librarians. Back on earth, I wanted to spread the word about her (and her colleagues’) terrific program.

There’s a video about Guys Read: If you’d like contact Deb directly, her email address is


“Reading is Like Basketball. I love it.” This was one of the comments scribbled on a sticky note on May 14th, 2009 by one of 24 boys who participated in the inaugural, experimental Veterans Park Academy Guys Read Club. It sums up the program in a way nothing else can.

In December 2008, an idea to begin a Guys Read Club for boys began as a small group of dedicated adult men on our faculty volunteered to be mentors to 24 of our most reluctant middle school readers – all boys – boys who also demonstrated some kind of leadership potential (positive or negative). We began the club by inviting the boys to breakfast and giving them an opportunity to tell us what they were most interested in learning about, talking about, or doing. From there we took their top interests (football, basketball, sports) and chose activities that included reading, to engage them in the process of learning and thinking and talking and doing.

By May 2009 the boys had read dozens of websites, articles, magazines and, yes, even books – about football, basketball, baseball players, local high school athletes, steroids, hockey and more. They had bonded with their mentors, gone on a field trip to a local college basketball game, started promoting books to their classmates, and created a promotional video for the school book fair. But most of all their attitudes about reading had transformed. When asked their “thoughts about reading” in December, the sticky note responses read “Boring”, “LAME.” “Reading isn’t fun for me. I hate reading.”. In May, 2009 we got notes that said, “Awesome.” “Reading is like basketball. I love it.” And “Reading is way more exciting than what I thought thanks to Guys Read Club.”

The most difficult part of this experiment was finding enough time and the right time to have club meetings. Because many of the boys participated in after school sports and teachers had after school meetings, we chose to meet before school at 7:30 AM. This meant the kids had to get there early and they missed “social time” out in the courtyard with their friends. Also, most of our mentors were teachers with first period classes, so we had to end the meetings by 8:00 AM. The second problem we had was that many of these boys would miss breakfast if they came to the club meetings, so we fed them at the meetings. Finding donors for donuts and juice every week proved to be difficult, but we provided it anyway through personal donations by staff members.

At one point we found that some of the boys were taking advantage of the food and fun, but were not contributing to the discussions or reading. This is when the mentors decided to assign each mentor to a small group of boys, keeping track of them outside of club meetings as well as during meetings. They also added some competition to the activities, thanks to the advice from Marc Aronson and Charles Smith. Both these strategies worked and by the end of the year, the boys were much more involved and active.

One of the biggest challenges, and I think mistakes on our part, came when we decided to get the boys into books and have each small group read a book together. Because we did not have multiple copies of good choices of non-fiction at lower reading levels, some of the groups chose to read novels. While some novels proved to be good reads (like Tears of a Tiger) and engaged the boys, others did not. When we do it again, I hope we will find more good non-fiction books related to the boys’ interests for their first book to read together.

All in all, our Guys Read Club has been good for these boys. They feel special. They’ve learned that reading is not boring and lame when it helps them learn about things they are interested in. They’ve learned that people care that they succeed. They feel more comfortable with finding information and reading for fun. They are willing to risk being seen with a magazine or book in hand. The last meeting of the year included a 6-station reading and physical challenge in the gym, where teams of boys had to read an article or figure out a reading puzzle and then perform a physical task such as free-throw shooting, football throwing, etc. in the fastest time possible. They loved the challenge. The combination of reading and physical activity and competition was a winner! Afterwards each boy was given a certificate and a copy of Guys Write for Guys Read to take home this summer.

The impact of the club has reached well beyond the boys for which it was formed. Other boys are now asking to be included. Girls are asking if we can have a read club just for them. And so, next year our hope is to have “Read Clubs” for every middle school student. They will choose their clubs based on their interests - sports, music, famous people, cooking, romance, and more. Time will tell if this idea is successful.

2008-2009 Guys Read Club

• Adult male mentors committed time & energy
• Targeted most reluctant readers
• Focused on student interests
• Started with short reading assignments – websites, articles, excerpts from books
• Got free magazines from ESPN
• Kids love to eat – provided breakfast
• Worked up from websites to books
• Gave students right reasons to read (find info about stuff they love, make choices about sports/teams/etc.)

• Too little time for meetings (needed 45 min – 1hr)
• Kids were selected by teachers, not self-selected
• Required a lot of planning, coordination, commitment for the mentors outside their regular work hours and duties
• No funding for program initially (did get parent group to purchase Guys Write books)


Mark Herr said...

I really like the idea of starting with websites and working up. I think some kids read more than they realize, once you include less traditional formats.

It does sound like a ton of time and effort from the mentors, so I hope long term that it is something that can keep going. Praise to all involved, mentors and students alike.

Eva M said...

This is very inspiring - it makes me ponder how a similar program might be adapted for a public library setting.

teacherninja said...

That was awesome and I plan to incorporate some of these ideas with my reluctant reading ESOL students. And I just watched Music Man with my daughter last week! Weird.

DebH2U said...

Hi all... thanks for your kind comments. Mark - we know many boys typically do not like to read fiction (as they are made to do all too often in school), so starting with non-fiction short articles and websites about the topics that most interested them was essential to our success. In addition, the adult male mentors were a key ingredient - the boys needed those strong male role models to connect to and aspire to be like. Eva, if you're wanting to do something like this in the public library, I'd suggest providing food and asking adult men from your community to serve as mentors. Teacherninja, great idea to use this approach with your ESOL kids. Best wishes all of you! - Deb H.