Joe Craig Writer & Musician -

A Few Thoughts About Everything

This page is a collection of rants, rambles, articles and expositions...

How do you get boys to read?

Do schools destroy creativity?

Why is reading so important in the first place?  <--------You might also want to check out my page devoted to the subject of READING:

Scroll down for a little piece of my mind. Several little pieces, in fact.

(Sorry this page is quite long, but I thought it was the simplest way for you to see all these various articles in one go.)


On Letting Boys be Creative

To be creative, you have to be wrong most of the time. Unfortunately, being wrong doesn’t go down very well at school. In fact, I think creativity is being educated out of kids when they get into Secondary School, and it’s a big problem.


I frequently go into schools – Primary and Secondary – to talk to kids about reading, writing and my Jimmy Coates books. But instead of just talking to them, more importantly I challenge them to come up with story ideas (providing a few helpful tricks for them to start with) and get them thinking creatively.


When I visit a Primary School, I’m often bombarded by dozens of ideas that amuse, surprise, entertain and sometimes even astound me. But within just a couple years that ability to conjure up the wacky, the off-the-wall, the daring – the creative – has virtually disappeared.


I’ve visited over 200 schools in the last couple of years, which means I must have run workshops for over 40,000 boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 13. By the time the students reach Year 8, I can predict almost word for word what their story ideas will be, from any given starting point. Even if they think they’re being subversive, in fact especially when they think that, the older the student is, the more predictable the ideas.


The biggest change comes in Year 7, which statistically is also when there’s the biggest drop off in reading – especially in boys. Now, it perhaps seems obvious that the withering of originality is greatly caused by reading less. But I think it’s also the other way round: they read less because their creative spark is consistently doused. Their connection with stories, with ideas and imagination, is stifled by the school environment. If the fun has gone from stories, why read?


Sometimes even very good teachers, with the best intentions, are inadvertently discouraging real creativity. It can be subtle, but it’s plain enough for me to see when I visit a school, and it’s very powerful.


And it’s affecting boys more than girls.


In every age group, the boys tend to go for the explosive, the spectacular and often the violent ideas. Girls often contribute ideas that seem more considered, and which often appear, to their teachers at least, more ‘sensible’. To generalise, boys want things in their stories to blow up; they want chases, demons and zombies. Girls usually suggest issues concerning the character’s family, the domestic world and real-life situations. Both types of idea are great, but it’s the boys’ suggestions that elicit concern and often embarrassment from their teachers. Teachers sometimes even apologise to me for some of their students’ contributions!


In the creative world of a writer there is no such thing as a bad or embarrassing idea. So to me, anything the kids come up with is great. But I get a very clear picture of what happens in the classrooms when I’m not around. Gradually, kids are getting the message that certain realms are out of bounds to their imaginations. As soon as you have to check whether what you’re thinking is OK, or safe, or acceptable, you’re being trained to be non-creative.


I often get the impression that teachers are drawn to the ideas from their girl pupils, whereas the imaginative world of the boys seems mysterious – sometimes even dangerous. I can sympathise with teachers who are afraid to be seen to be encouraging violent thoughts. But most boys’ imaginations run most quickly to two extremes: the violent and the absurd. I happen to think that’s exciting, but teachers seem to want to foster creativity within certain ‘safe’ parameters. Creativity is not safe.


I would love to see, in the context of an English lesson, the classroom transformed into an environment which rewards wacky, crazy-stupid and yes, even sometimes violent ideas. Until it is, boys’ creativity will continue to be ‘educated’ out of them at the upper end of Primary Schools and the lower end of Secondary Schools. And they will continue to give up on reading.


My favourite story suggestion this week was this: an army of Nazi-zombie unicorns invading from another dimension. Brilliant. That was from a group of boys whose wacky ideas weren’t just tolerated, they were nurtured. And as a group, they were big readers. Their teachers laughed with them, never once looking like they were about to issue any of those terrible phrases I’ve heard too often in schools: “Don’t be silly,” or “Sensible ideas only, please.” As soon as you hear anything like that, you know the very person trying to get you to read, or to write creatively, is actually putting obstacles in your way.


So do be silly. Don’t censor your imagination before it’s even had the chance to get going. When it comes to creative thinking, there are no sensible ideas. Take, for example, this: a boy discovers he was genetically engineered by the government to grow into the perfect assassin and is in fact only 38% human. Not sensible. And yet that – the idea behind the Jimmy Coates books – has worked very well for me so far.

On Asking the Right Question

So, what are you reading at the moment?


The question probably sounds like a friendly opening to a conversation. But many kids find the same question less friendly.

That’s what I've found a lot of when I've visited schools over the last couple of years (over 200 events, with over 40,000 kids, and counting!)


When you ask children 'What are you reading', many of them hear, ‘Careful how you answer this – even if you are reading something, it might be the wrong thing.’


That’s certainly how I used to feel when I was asked the question at school or by my parents – and I was asked repeatedly. Usually I was reading several magazines, the sports pages of yesterday’s newspaper and a couple of non-fiction books. But in my head this didn’t count as ‘reading’.


Fortunately, that perception is changing – faster in some schools and libraries than in others – but I think there shouldn’t be any ‘wrong’ answer to the ‘What are you reading?’ question.


I’ve seen how popular comics and graphic novels have become and how they can develop the confidence and self-esteem of otherwise cautious readers. That can only happen if a child choosing a comic doesn’t need to think about the reaction their choice is going to provoke in adults.


Even when a young person feels quite secure with their reading choices, the developing relationship with books is a fragile one which can be threatened if an adult plants doubts – even accidentally. We may want children to move on to fiction, but fiction will always be there for them when they’re ready, as long as they keep reading something in the meantime.


So, if we can’t ask someone what they’re reading without sounding like we’re judging them, what should we be asking? I think there’s a question at least as important as the ‘what’: the ‘when’.


When do you read?


Most adults I’ve asked can tell me that fairly easily -- in bed, in the bath, over breakfast, on holiday, on a train. But try asking a kid the same question. Almost all of them find it very difficult to say. That means reading hasn’t become a habit – and that needs addressing.


For a start, hardly any of the children I’ve spoken to have any kind of reading light by their bed -- they don't even know what I'm talking about when I ask them. One boy in Year 7 said: ‘I have a TV remote control, if that’s what you mean.’ He was only half joking.


I do most of my reading in bed. One of my earliest memories is of my dad fixing a new reading light to the wall. That was before I could even read at all.


I think it’s easier to entrench reading as a habit if it’s linked to a time of day or a particular daily activity. Bedtime reading is the most obvious example, but it can be any time – so long as there is a time. I’m not talking about a formal ‘literacy hour’ -- that makes reading just another school chore like maths or geography.


The reading habit is the combination of gripping material and a regular time in which to read it. Both can be the catalyst: either you're gripped by consistently good books so you have to find the time to read them (which I think can be a very adult perspective and doesn't really work if a child isn't already reading) or you set aside a regular slot (however brief) for reading, so you have to find books or magazines to fill it.


There are more great reads out there than there ever have been, so now we need to help kids find the right moments in their lives to read those books. The school holidays are an excellent opportunity to do that. The routine at home changes, so there’s the chance to embed reading as a daily activity. Then, when school arrives again, the task will be to protect that reading slot or move it to fit in naturally with life during term.


A lot of hard work goes into creating a culture of reading in a school or library and providing the right material, but it’s an uphill battle if reading isn’t part of a child’s out-of-school routine. Children should have their own time and space in everyday life when it feels unnatural not to be reading.


So, how can we help children find that daily time-slot for reading? How can we find new ways of encouraging them to read at bedtime, for example? Should we try launching a Jamie-Oliver-style campaign to promote reading lights?

I don’t have all the answers. But I know what the new question should be.