"Reading Don't Fix No Chevys": Literacy in the Lives of Young Men
reviewed by Elizabeth Shellard - 2003
Title: "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys": Literacy in the Lives of Young Men
Author(s): Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0867095091, Pages: 248, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com
What constitutes literacy? What makes a person literate? What type of reading holds educational value? Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm directly address these sometimes unsettling questions and call into question the type of literature taught in high school English programs in “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys”: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men.
Through interviews with a diverse selection of high-school-aged boys, Smith and Wilhelm attempt to uncover the many factors that influence boys’ reading achievement and literate behaviors in school. Their study is motivated by numerous standardized score reports showing that boys frequently score lower on tests of reading comprehension and writing than girls, studies that show many boys to be uninterested in reading for pleasure, and their own observations that many boys frequently do not seem to take interest in the literature read in their high school classes.
Like many studies that attempt to investigate the influence of gender on a particular variable, the authors include a discussion of the social construction of gender, as well as historical notions of literacy and gender. Millard’s research, which is grounded in critical theory, is presented to lay the groundwork for later arguments that changes in reading habits may occur due to home and school (environmental) influences and media access.
A substantial portion of the publication consists of transcribed text of Smith and Wilhelm’s conversations with the boys in the study. Educators should take note here; the majority of the boys expressed interest in activities that provide challenge, choice, clear goals, immediate enjoyment, and social interaction. Additionally, most of the boys expressed an interest in reading for a purpose, referring to reading as “a tool to address an immediate interest or need” (p. 39). Newspapers, instructional manuals, and how-to books were often cited as reading materials that served a purpose.
Three questions posed by the authors towards the end of the book most clearly capture the core of the authors’ investigation into literacy in the lives of adolescent males. Consider these questions from the perspective of current practices in most schools:
Admittedly, these are tough questions to answer. Smith and Wilhelm acknowledge that, as educators, they “tend to come down on the side of schoolish answers” (p. 185), but concede that their study has pushed them to question the place of literature in the high school curriculum. And this seems to be exactly what they hope their book will do for others.
During the course of the interviews, Smith and Wilhelm asked the boys to describe the type of activities in which they enjoyed participating. Many boys described reading video game magazines to learn how to beat their favorite game, listening to and composing music, and hanging out with friends recounting stories from the day. Are these literate activities? Or, more importantly, should they be considered literate activities?
Other than the perpetual challenge of overcoming the traditional and accepted, there is little reason why schools should not make a greater effort to build on these student interests. Smith and Wilhelm write, “Our work has caused us to wonder how we, both personally and as a profession, have taken school definitions of what counts as literacy so much for granted when this definition excludes so much of what passes for literate activity in the world” (p. 186).
Don’t be mistaken, nowhere in the publication do the authors assert that traditional literary texts and skills such as reading comprehension not be taught in school. To the contrary, the authors stress the importance of such skills and of instilling a passion for more traditional literacy in their students. Rather, Smith and Wilhelm’s point seems to be, should a book such as The Scarlet Letter be taught year after year if each year students are bored by it?
As the interview transcripts included in the book reveal, if students are not engaged emotionally with texts, meaning that they do not care about the characters or issues presented, they will not engage in a nuanced reading of the book. Smith and Wilhelm propose selecting curricular texts that “better capitalize on the boys’ desire for competence and their desire to figure things out and apply what they have learned … [and that] build on boys’ currents interests to help them outgrow their current selves” (p. 195). In this way, the educational aims of English and literature classes can be met while also maintaining student interest.
A strength of this study is Smith and Wilhelm’s recognition of each student as an individual who possesses his or her own interests, strengths, and preferences. Throughout the study, the authors refrain from making sweeping generalizations about the performance and interests of boys in general. They express great concern over “losing sight of the individual” (p. 19), fearing that when this happens, many students may lose interest in their schoolwork and especially in reading.
Educators would be wise to view Smith and Wilhelm’s recommendations as applicable to all students. Although the authors’ conclusions are based on their interviews with young men, it seems plausible to hypothesize that girls would benefit as well from more responsive teaching and the inclusion of texts in the curriculum that address their needs and interests. I know I have seen just as many girls as boys who have sat in class daydreaming, if they attended at all, because they just were not interested in the book being read in class. Smith and Wilhelm seem to concur, as they conclude their book by suggesting that schools must better meet the needs of their students, or risk continuing to “disenfranchise boys—and many girls…at a huge cost to the students themselves, to…their teacher, and to society at large” (p. 204).
“Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys”: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men reminds all teachers that they don’t just teach English, they teach students--individuals who have needs and interests that influence their academic performance and engagement. The overriding message seems to be that teachers can improve the academic performance of their students by getting to know each student individually and making an effort to teach responsively.