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Friday, March 27, 2009

Ralph Fletcher: A Way with Words

Tonight I had the genuine pleasure of hearing Ralph Fletcher speak on Helping Young Writers Develop Writers’ Craft at an event sponsored by the Tri-County Reading Council here in New Jersey. For those who may not know him, Ralph Fletcher is a writer of picture books, novels, and poetry. He is also a teacher of teachers, having created such excellent writing instruction books as Craft Lessons: Teaching Writing K-8 and Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide.

What I personally took away from his talk is that we, as teachers, make writing far too complicated. We perhaps attempt to accomplish too much in any given writing lesson, which makes the average student reluctant to write (How can I possibly get all that stuff right?) and the average teacher reluctant to teach (How can I possibly choose from among all those skills that students must demonstrate?).

Throughout his presentation, Ralph shared many examples of student writing which were equal parts skillful, humorous, and charming. Some pieces made us laugh out loud; another piece, when shared, caused a colleague at my table to remark, “If one of my students wrote that, I would not be able to hold back the tears.” These authentic examples reminded us, in Ralph’s own words, that “story comes first,” and that we, as readers, need time to respond in a natural way to students’ writing.

Interspersed between picture book readings and student examples were the “nuggets of wisdom” we had all come to hear. How shocked we were to learn that we already knew them! As writers, as teachers, we already knew what he had to share. But in our attempts to follow the curriculum, meet the standards, and pound every nail, we had forgotten the simpler things.

Ralph had three straightforward, yet powerful, ideas to share on the topic of Craft Elements His first: Take advantage of micro-texts.

The readers of this blog know how I feel about picture books and the unique role they play in modeling colorful, yet concise, writing. As I posted at the sister site (which provides support for picture books in the middle grades):
When we ask our students to "write a story," we rarely mean a story with chapters. Why, then, should we have students read only those types of books? Picture books provide succinct models for student writing. Nonfiction picture books also exemplify brevity versus exposition in presenting the facts that the reader needs.
Ralph illustrated that very idea by pointing out that in first grade, children write what they are reading: few words with many pictures. This changes as they move up in grades, however, until by fourth grade students are reading novels that they couldn't ever hope to write, given their existing skills. In other words, (mine, not his), children who have little or no access to micro-texts are being denied accurate, realistic models for their own writing.

As an example, Ralph shared his wonderful picture book Grandpa Never Lies. He then recounted a classroom lesson he had observed about that very book, and how the teacher had used the analogy of a snowball rolling downhill, growing ever larger as it progressed. The recurring line of the book acted in much the same way, growing with importance each time it was repeated.

Such a concept is easy to study in the context of a picture book; so much harder to extrapolate from the noise and confusion of a novel.

Ralph’s second observation: Use literature that kids already know. (By the way, I dig Ralph because he uses the word kids. Too many teacher bristle at that!).

Is it okay to reread books? Absolutely! According to Ralph, “Really deep connections come from rereading books.”

And if students say, “But we read that book last year,” your response can be, “Great! Then this time we can read it the way that writers read.” That, in turn, leads to new, fertile ground for understanding: How do writers read differently from readers?

And lastly: Note what your student writers are already doing.

Yes, we can spend time marveling over what professional authors have produced, but are we taking time to recognize our own students as writers? Are we acknowledging their efforts? Are we, in Ralph Fletcher’s words, “putting kids into the game” and allowing them to be in the “circle of authorship?”

Celebrate the successes you see, no matter how small. Use students’ work to model strengths, but never to illustrate deficits.

It is so tempting, he says, to try to teach everything (voice, leads, character development, etc.). This leads to teachers “mentioning” elements of writing rather than actually teaching them. One of the most important skills that we miss, due to our efforts to “teach it all,” is that of having children critically reread their own writing. How can they improve their writing if they never take time to reflect upon it? It is so much more beneficial to take your time, focus on just a few aspects of writing, and teach those well.

In closing, Ralph reminded his audience that when looking at student writing, it’s important to “respond as a human being first and a teacher second.”

I’m glad he said that. Sometimes I forget. Even though I already knew it.

So check out Ralph’s work, both for your students and for yourself. Craft Lessons is my favorite (I bought my third copy tonight, since colleagues have “borrowed” my previous two), A Writing Kind Of Day: Poems for Young Poetsis hugely popular in my class during Poetry Month in April, Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid is an autobiography with authentic voice, and Grandpa Never Lies is on my “Gotta Have” list after hearing it tonight. (These and several others are featured in the slide show at the bottom of this page).

Also check out Ralph Fletcher’s homepage, which features tips for teachers and young writers, plus additional information about the author and his work.