On today’s podcast, putting the fun back into writing. Ralph Fletcher says nothing helps writers grow like practice, but not just any kind of practice will do, you’ve got to bring the joy! In his new book, Joy Write, Ralph shares the whys and the how of giving students time and autonomy for the playful, low-stakes writing that leads to surprising, high-level growth. Ralph talks about how the element of fun has disappeared from classrooms, so we started our conversation with why that is.
See below for a full transcript of our conversation:
Ralph: When you sit down with a bunch of children and they begin to write, I'm always interested in what they're going to be coming up with. We forget that writing process had its roots with romantic philosophers going back to Rousseau. Rousseau and those philosophers were really interested in children, not as unformed adults, but as just different. What are they doing? What are they going to say? How are they going to act? And for me, what are they going to write? It's wonderful to see what kids are going to write and how they express themselves, the quirky things that they do. That's fun for me, and it's fun for them to be able to express themselves.
I think that nowadays in the more academic writing world, it's more about checking off a list of things that the genre expects, so it's less about that and it's more about compliance, frankly. That's not that much fun. I understand that there's a balance. We do want to enrich what kids can do and we want to show them, it's not just all writing in a vacuum, but I think that some of the things that we really need to be advocating for and celebrating in writing, things like voice in writing. Voice, which is the unique way children express themselves, and how it's different. If you end up with a whole stack of essays or argumentation and they're all pretty much the same, well, I don't think that's good writing, and I have to say that I see an awful lot of formulaic writing as I go around the country. I don't think that's good writing. I don't want to read that. I don't want to read the same piece over and over and over again.
I have a little story about that by the way. I got a letter from a classroom that had read my novel Fig Pudding. I started reading the letters, and I started to notice after about the fourth or fifth one that they all followed kind of format. "I like this part," "I connected with this part" in the second paragraph, and then some questions at the end. And so they started to sound awful familiar, and the last letter attached to it was a Fig Pudding rubric, and I was like, "Oh my God, my book's been rubric-ed." A friend of mine said to me, "That means you've really made it. Once they put a rubric, man, that means you made it." Well, I don't want to be rubric-ed. I don't want those kids to be saying the same thing. When you start to see letters like that, you realize it's not about the kids really saying what they want to say, they're following a format that's been given to them, and it's not really authentic anymore. I mean I'd like to know what the kids think and not following the format.
I think that that kind of thing is happening a lot in the writing classroom. One of the things that I say in Joy Write is that once upon a time writing workshop flourished because we had teachers who valued originality, passion, voice, and kids could take chances in their writing. You know why? Because teachers were given space to take chances in their teaching. We could take risks ourselves, and therefore we could allow our kids to take those risks. It's hard to believe that we're going to have s where kids can be taking chances and taking risks if teachers themselves aren't given that leeway. One of the things I'm really advocating is we've got to give teachers more space to do the things that they believe, and what they really see those students need, not what an expert says reading some curricular map, but what their sense of their students tell them.
Josh: At the heart of your new book is the idea of greenbelt writing. Can you talk a little bit about what greenbelt writing is?
Ralph: First of all, I think it's important to realize that education, like everything else, has a lot of changes. Things come in, things go out, and if you're in education long enough you are aware of things that come in and out of style. I think that what's happened in the world of writing, I think the standards movement has made writing more academic, not just in high school, but really in middle school and also in elementary school. You'll hear teachers talk about how what used to happen in first grade now gets pushed down to kindergarten. I think that as writing workshop has found more academic writing, some kids aren't doing that well in that environment. Some kids are fine with it, but some kids are finding it constricting, confining.
I'm making an analogy with what's happened in population growth. This is not a field that I'm an expert in, but I know enough about the fact that many communities have seen a lot of subdivisions and developed land, and they've created green spaces, or greenbelts, where they're kind of benign neglect spaces where nothing happens, that they're allowed to remain wild. In the same way, in the writing classroom a lot of curricular land has been chopped down. A lot of wildness had been pulled out of the writing classroom. Even if we accept that that is the way it is, I think that teachers might consider creating greenbelts. A writing greenbelt, a place where that wild writing could still exist and flourish, and I think that we'll find that a lot of times the kids that are not flourishing in the more constricted world of writing workshop can find their stride as writers in a writing greenbelt.
Josh: One of the things that's a hallmark in this book is this idea of choice.
Josh: So what makes choice so critical? And not, even as you've alluded to here, this idea of, "We're doing persuasive essays today so you can pick this topic or that topic, but we're all writing persuasive essays in this format." What does real choice look like in writing, and why is that so critical?
Ralph: If you look at my recent books, the last four or five books, Boy Writers, the book on making non-fiction from scratch, my books are about widening the circle and bringing more choice back into the writing classroom. So this is not just like something that I'm talking about in this book, this is a theme, or campaign, that I've been on for a while. I think that choice is very important. I think that we're creating this big, elaborate contraption. Think about all the books that have been published by Heinemann and other publishers about reading/writing workshop, probably hundreds of them, and it is a wonderful thing. I believe in it, and I remind myself every day that choice is the crank that turns the grinder. Without choice, the thing just stops and doesn't really flourish and won't work.
We think sometimes about choice in a limited way. Choice is not just a matter of what to write about. I mean that's part of it, and I really think it's important that students can decide what they want to write about and choose topics that are passionate to them, that matter to them, that they're interested in, but also choice includes how to write about something. How do you start? Do you start with sound effects? Are you going to start with some dialogue? Are you going to start by setting an ominous mood? That's something that the writer has to decide. What words you're going to include, is it going to be funny or snarky or serious. There's a million different choices.
One of the things that I always say is that a writer is somebody who is making decisions, and I say that to kids in kindergarten all the way up to high school. "A writer is somebody who makes decisions, so what decisions are you going to make today? As I come around and confer with you, I'm going to be interested in seeing what you're deciding." That question is legitimate and ongoing and vibrant if kids really can make those decisions. But if they're following a format, or following a heavy anchor text or rubric where they really are sort of checking off the things that have to be in there, that's not a format, that's not an environment that really encourages choice.
As I say in the book by the way, and the teachers that I talked to were almost unanimous in agreeing with this, that I think that kids in elementary and middle school have a lot more choice in reading than they do in writing, which is really interesting because that's switched around. Many, many years … 30 years ago, kids were given these very prescriptive things to read, and they had more choice in writing, but they had to follow these little SRA things. Nowadays it seems to me that choice is really, as I said, disappearing in the writing classroom.
Josh: So for a teacher in a classroom tomorrow that maybe has a more scripted, structured writing program that they're being asked to do, what's something you would say to them? Hey, here's a way you can bring a little bit more of this joy, choice, into your classroom right away.
Ralph: I feel for those teachers because it's a real issue. I was just speaking to a young woman about this issue. She had said a similar thing. She said, "I have to teach this way. I feel like our curriculum falls this way. I'm not a tenured teacher, so it's hard for me to really go against the demands of the district." First of all I would say this, that the metaphor that I use in writing is, in a writing classroom you have to get the flow of the writing going. It's like a body of water. If the water's just sitting there, you can't do much with it. Once you get it flowing, you can redirect the flow. I really think that the way you get the water flowing is you give the kids choice and you make them feel comfortable enough to be taking risks.
Now, teachers that have to follow a curriculum are finding sneaky and subversive ways, or just like ways to bring more choice into it. One thing I would say is that teachers are using the idea of "Free Choice Fridays" where they have a lot of choice on that one day of the week. It seems to be kind of a small greenbelt, but at least the kids will have times where they can really choose what they want to write about.
Also, a lot of teachers are using some version of the writer's notebook, and to me the writer's notebook is all about choice. It's all about play, and it's all about the kids' own passions. So maybe ask yourself, could I make a bigger space for the writer's notebook in the classroom? Because a lot of schools, and the way a lot of curriculum is laid out, writer's notebook is prominent for the first couple weeks, but then it sort of languishes a little bit, it kind of goes in the background. But maybe there's a way to keep that thing alive during the year because that is a container that holds a lot of choice.
This is a little bit more ambitious, but what about having open cycles? I talked about this when JoAnn Portalupi and I wrote Teaching The Qualities of Writing. Our idea would … There would be some genre focus in the fall and a genre focus in the spring, but there would be a time when it would be an open cycle where the students could decide for themselves what to write about, also what genre to put it in.
Josh: One of the things that you mentioned earlier was about the student … For students, even when there's choice in a writing workshop, that sometimes you still have those students that are sitting there with a blank page. What would you say to teachers who are experiencing that? Who have those students that have a harder time getting started, or they're not sure how to coach them in getting started, and they want to support those students to grow.
Ralph: Well, many teachers, I would guess almost every teacher who works with young writers, is going to have a reluctant writer or two. By the way, often that young writer is a boy, but not always to be fair. You've got a kid who just seems to be checked out, disengaged. I know there's no magic answer and every kid is different, but I really think that the answer to that issue is to find out what that student is passionate about, what he cares about, and invite him to choose to write about that.
Oftentimes kids have a body of knowledge about something, and it may seem obscure to us, some of these fantasy cards like Magic or something, or it could be a video game, but they really know a lot about it. They know a lot more than we know about it, so to invite them to write about that, and try not to be judgemental about it. I think sometimes in our head we've got like … And even myself, I notice myself, I have like a hierarchy of good topics and not-so-good topics and kind of like silly topics. You've got to let go of that because I think a good writer can make anything interesting, and so invite them to write about that. In Joy Write, I have a chapter on the reluctant writer, and we really take a look at how we can motivate kids.
Josh: One of the other things that you talk about in Joy Write is the idea of what you call feral writing, which might be a topic that not everyone is as familiar with. How would you describe what feral writing is?
Ralph: Well, I like that word feral because if you look up the definition, a feral animal is an animal that was domesticated and goes back to the wild. I think, unfortunately, a lot of the writing in the writing workshop has become domesticated and needs to get some more wildness to it. In my book I'm really advocating for writing that's informal because I think that's the way a lot of us use writing ourselves in our lives. If you ask yourself the kind of writing that we're doing every day, we make lists, we jot notes, we're writing to a friend, we're making plans. I would say like for most of us 80% of the writing we do is not meant to be published or brought out to the real word, and so I would argue that any kind of writing is valuable for young people to be doing.
I think we want to teach kids in unpretentious prose, encourage them to feel comfortable doing that, and embrace all the kinds of writing that they do, which includes their own collaborations with friends, fooling around in a sketchbook, making notes. All that is writing, and the interesting thing is that in my research, one of the things I discovered was a lot of kids don't think of it as writing. So one of the things we can do in terms of how do we encourage it is we can sanction it. We can tell the kids that we recognize that they're doing it, and that we do see it as writing because clearly all the conditions are there. There's audience, there's response, there are choices being made. It absolutely is writing. A lot of it's done at home too, by the way. It doesn't have to be done in school. A lot of the greenbelt writing can be done at home.
One of the things teachers have asked me is like, "Well, Ralph, how do respond to this kind of writing? Do we feel like we have to read it all? Do we have to confer with it all?" And the good news is, no. Again, when I think about this I go back to how do communities treat these green spaces? We don't really go out and try to improve it. We don't go out there and prune bushes. In general, we know it's there, we recognize the sovereignty of those spaces as a survivability for species that can't survive too much in neighborhoods, but basically we leave it alone. We may have a little fence, a little warning, to say this area is wild and be careful, but basically we don't do much. I think the same thing is true for teachers responding to greenbelt writing – recognize it, honor it, but celebrate it with … Give it lots of benign neglect. Leave it alone. Don't feel like you've got to come in in there and confer with it.
On the other hand, if a kid wants you to read something, you could read it. Sometimes of course you get in these situations where the kid's written the Great American Novel, "Will you read this?" And you may have to be tactful and say, "I'd love to read just like your favorite page." So there's a way to respond to it and not have to read 50 pages or so of it.