Not long ago, Alex Carrera was killing time at a yard sale when she spied a book that caught her attention: “The Trouble With Boys. ”
The fourth-grade teacher at Felton Elementary School in Lennox fished a dollar out of her purse and made the purchase.
The message of the book by Peg Tyre jibed with Carrera’s classroom experience: Girls are outperforming boys in academics, and the gap is growing.
Inspired, Carrera came up with the idea for “Diego’s Dudes,” a reading club that involves her, a handful of boys who struggle with reading and Diego, the mascot of the club and the calmest of Carrera’s three Chihuahuas.
This fall, the small group began meeting three days a week, sitting on the floor of the empty classroom while the rest of the boys and girls romp outside during recess. For 15 minutes, the four boys read out loud passages from books of their own choosing while Carrera moderates. (Then they join their classmates for the second half of recess.) As for Diego, well, he tends to just lay on the floor and blink.
“He’s a good listener, and he doesn’t judge,” Carrera said. “He just wants to hear a good story. ”
The voluntary club is merely a drop of medicine in an ocean of need, but it sure made an impression on the SoCal Honda Dealers Association. Recently, the organization selected Carrera among five teachers in Southern California to be honored for Teachers Appreciation Week.
Carrera was nominated for the award by her principal, Scott Wilcox.
“It’s boys, and it’s Hispanic boys and minority boys, who are dropping out of high school,” he said. “You stop kids from dropping out of high school by intervening with something out of the box like this in the early grades. ”
Felton Elementary serves a high-risk population. Nearly 95 percent of the students are Latino; about 70 percent of the students are native Spanish speakers who are still learning English.
One of them is Edgar Vera, a member of the club. At the beginning of the year, Edgar not only felt shy about reading, but he also refused to speak English. Now he’s an eager participant during reading time.
“This club made me think that reading is fun for me,” he told a reporter during a visit. “I learned words and now I like a lot of reading. ”
Another student in the club, Charles Allen, said the group has helped with his comprehension of certain words, like “embarrassed. ”
“I used to say ’embraced,’ ” he said.
The gender gap in reading is a phenomenon that transcends ethnicity. A 2010 study by the Center on Education Policy found that boys lag behind girls in reading in all 50 states.
Males also are increasingly outnumbered by females on college campuses. It is widely reported that women in the United States now earn 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees and more than half of all doctoral degrees.
Taking a page out of “The Trouble With Boys,” Carrera decided that the key to getting boys excited about reading – especially those who are “reluctant readers” – is to let them choose the materials.
With this in mind, Carrera was careful to recruit one of her most rambunctious boys, Miguel Tuznoh, to select the books for the group.
“He’s had trouble in the past with behavior,” she said. “He’s considered a leader. I picked up on that, and so rather than using his leadership skills in a negative way, I decided, ‘OK this is going to be my ringleader.’ ”
Miguel shared his criteria for book selection: anything “Gooey, disgusting, worms, sports … ”
“Boy stuff,” Carrera chimed in.
The reading list thus includes books like “How to Eat Fried Worms,” “Tales from the Crypt: Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid” and “The ‘Air’ Apparent: Kobe.”
The group is currently reading a book by Ellen Potter called “Slob,” about a fat kid who is a genius inventor but gets picked on. Carrera suggested that because she is female, she might have been subconsciously out of touch with the kind of selections more appealing to the male gender.
“They want to read biographies, irreverent humor, comic books,” she said. “Girls want to read about superstars. Right now Taylor Swift is big in my class. ”
The boys not only selected the books, but they also came up with the three rules of Diego’s Dudes.
“The only thing I say is ‘Give me three rules that have to do with character,’ ” Carrera said. And so they did.
Rule No. 1: Treat the books and mascot with care.
Rule No. 2: Come to the club meetings on time.
Rule No. 3: Respect our friends when they’re reading out loud.
“Mind you, they came up with that,” Carrera said. “We can’t laugh, we can’t make fun. And you see, they are helping each other out. ”
Next year, Carrera wants to add an element to the program in which male role models come to the class to read out loud to the boys.
“A lot of boys who struggle with reading don’t really have a male role model who they see reading,” she said. “I want to include male role models to come in and say, ‘This is my favorite book. Check it out.’ “