Stella M. Chávez

When you think of book clubs, you don’t necessarily think of boys. And when you look at the most recent Nation’s Report Card, the scores reveal that boys don’t fare as well as girls on reading tests. Here’s one book club that’s bucking that trend.

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At W. W. Samuell High School in East Dallas, a group of 9th graders, mostly boys, sit around a table discussing the 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451. It’s about a futuristic society where books are banned and the ones found are burned. It was also the selection for the citywide literacy campaign Big Read Dallas earlier this year. English teacher Lauren Dowdy helps provoke a discussion by asking them questions about the part they’ve read. She asks how one of the characters refers to the people on TV. One student answers that the character calls them family.

“And what’s strange about that?” Dowdy asks. “Why does she call them family?”

“They don’t have an actual family,” the student responds.

This isn’t your typical English class. The students in this afterschool book club are all part of Samuell’s Early College High School program. The fact that four of the five kids here are boys stands out in light of the dire statistics on reading. Nationally, girls outscore boys by 10 points in 8th reading, according to results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. Dowdy says even those who like to read can fall behind if they aren’t challenged.

“I just wanted to give some of my students that I know are readers give them a chance in a smaller group setting to feel more collegiate, discussion oriented, which we don’t always have as much time for in class, but give them a chance to read a challenging text and talk about it,” Dowdy says. “I thought they would enjoy that.”

The club meets once a month after school. Dowdy provides cookies, juice and organic popcorn. Not everyone shows up each time, but those who do seem interested. Like 14-year-old Joel Luera.

“I like how this book kind of sets a precedent for current day, because like now everyone’s getting connected through like social media and the internet,” Joel says. “And you still know these people, but you’re kind of disconnected from them because you’re not having an actual interaction with them.”

Reaching more boys like Joel at an early age is critical, says Victor Saenz, an associate professor in the College of Education at UT Austin.

“By the time they get to middle school in the grades 4-8, boys are twice more likely than girls to be held back a grade and then they begin to internalize this idea of being different, of being disabled perhaps, of being dumb,” Saenz says.

He adds that the gender gap among Hispanic students in particular hasn’t gotten enough attention even though more than half of all public school students are Latino.

Dowdy, who taught for five years at Dallas’ alternative school before moving to Samuell, says the key is finding books students are interested in. Teachers also need to be able to sell the idea of reading to even the most challenging kids. She says students at the alternative school became interested in Shakespeare and one boy wanted to write all of his poems about Julius Cesar.

“I sense that it’s sort of for some of them a little bit of relief, especially the boys, just to be a in place where it’s like, ‘ok, I can be smart, I can talk, I can share, I can have the right answer,’ and that’s valued and rewarded,” Dowdy says.

The students will get another chance later this month to dissect author Ray Bradbury’s dystopian society before moving on to the next book. Their likely choice: Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.