If staff members at Crone Middle School in Naperville were to list things that can make boys think reading is cool, here's what they'd include:
Basketball, sports books, free food and a chance to bond with Dad.
The school combined those elements in its first Books and Breakfast 4 Boys event designed to promote literacy among the male segment of the population, which remains less likely to enjoy reading and less likely to meet benchmarks for English language arts on standardized tests.
"We're always looking for ways to engage one of our tougher audiences, which is typically the boys," seventh-grade English language arts teacher Jayne O'Gorman said. "They just like to be on the move more, so sitting and reading is hard. Boys sometimes don't think it's a cool thing to do."
Smaller percentages of boys at Crone have been meeting or exceeding standards on the state's main standardized test for the past two years it has been given.
In 2015, 61 percent of boys met or exceeded standards compared with 73 percent of girls, for a gender gap of 13 percentage points. In 2016, scores fell and the gap widened to 21 percentage points, with 49 percent of boys meeting or exceeding English language arts standards, compared with 70 percent of girls.
To raise boys' scores, teachers brainstormed classroom exercises and curriculum tweaks. But reading specialist Beth Hillman said an achievement gap like the one between boys and girls in reading can't be closed in the classroom alone. It has to involve other elements of students' lives, too.
So teachers started with a book they thought would pass the "cool" test.
Principal Melissa Couch said the whole school read Kwame Alexander's "Booked," about a soccer-playing boy sidelined by an injury whose father tries to interest him in the power and enjoyment of words, and even enjoyed a visit from the author in February.
Then teachers encouraged boys to take it a step further and read another of Alexander's books, "The Crossover," a coming-of-age novel about a young basketball player. The hoops theme gave teachers the perfect activity to highlight during Books and Breakfast 4 Boys, and the event created extra encouragement for boys to give the book a try, Hillman said.
"It was really good. I'd recommend it," sixth-grader Stephen Bradshaw said during the breakfast as he answered hoops trivia questions with his great-uncle, Jim Filip, whom he had already beaten in the shooting game H-O-R-S-E.
Reading, Stephen said, is "like a mini movie in your head."
Clearly, he's gotten the point his teachers wanted to convey: Reading is fun, engaging and can cover any topic, include any interest.
To further capitalize on many Crone boys' interest in sports, the school featured another of author Alexander's books during the breakfast, called "The Playbook: 52 Rules to Aim, Shoot and Score in this Game Called Life."
Seventh-grade science teacher Josh Cournaya read a few rules from "The Playbook" to nearly 40 students in all grades and their male role models as they visited the library. Among them was an encouragement to practice, supported by a quote from NBA player Kevin Durant, and an inspiration to live with no limits, supported by some words from the late Moses Malone, a former pro basketball player in the ABA and NBA.
"Champions train," one part of the book read. "Chumps complain."
Boys like sixth-grader Jacob Porch-Tucker and their dads sneaked in a few minutes to train in the gym, shooting hoops and enjoying some morning together time.
"I wanted to hang out with my dad," Jacob said.
He got to do just that during the breakfast, after his teachers got him and his peers to hit the books.
"He loves reading and he loves basketball," Mark Tucker said about his son. "So this was right up his alley to pair books with basketball."