Category Archives: Writing

In the Classroom: Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write

Some may have read or heard this story before, but for those who haven’t here it is again. It is what made me passionate that no young writer I taught ever had the same experience.

So my story. I loved writing as a child — until something happened. This was my high school A.P. English teacher telling my parents I shouldn’t take a role in the school play (my passion at the time) so I could “work on my writing.” He never told me what was the matter, never met with me to show me what I needed to do, and I never asked (as I was shy and he was a strong personality we admired very much). So I messed around and messed around with my school essays, clueless as to what was wrong. My mother remembered me up late at night and feeling so sorry she couldn’t help. I went to college worried and this impact my writing to the point where I was sent to a tutorial for help. I figured out that my problem lay in revision so handed in first drafts full of typos (this was the day of the typewriter) as they were still better than if I tried to revise them. The professor overseeing the tutorial told me it was all in my head and there was nothing she could do. So what I did was avoid all English classes for my undergraduate and graduate studies. (And, boy, did I yearn to attend them. Some sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Instead I read voraciously on my own — classics, everything.)

In the early 1980s I became deeply involved with the burgeoning personal computer movement in schools, finally matriculating as one of the first classes for a program in computers and education at Teachers College Columbia University. I was surprised to find out that I was good at programming — doing it and teaching it (having been a miserable math student). And then, as one of my final courses, I took Lucy Calkins’ summer institute in writing. It was the second one and it was a revelation for me in many ways. The idea of the workshop — of a process — has informed my work as a teacher ever since.

A few years later I broke through my own writing phobia by writing an essay that got me a competitive fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton. At the same time I was becoming more and more active online in children’s literature and educational communities. All of this made me finally believe I could write. And I did — books for teachers, articles, blog posts, etc. And a book for children that was lauded for its writing. I’m currently working on a new project and was elated when recently the editor I’m working with celebrated my ability to write fiction.

All of this informs my beliefs when it comes to teaching writing to 4th graders. These include:

  • Creating situations where students feel invested in their writing
  • That they have audiences
  • That they find joy in the work
  • That they understand that there are many different ways and reasons to write — some being completely private, some to figure out a problem, and more.

Of late my impression is that writing instruction in schools is highly driven by testing, common core curriculum, packaged programs, and consultants. Often these are highly scripted and allow little opportunity for children to write for themselves. As I work in a private school, I have far more freedom than many of my public school colleagues, but this overall approach affects us too as it is now presented in language arts communities and organizations as best practices.

What has struck me is that the focus in now on kids learning structures, on expository writing above all, and no consideration of audience or, worse, joy. And so I was eager to read Ralph Fletcher’s Writing Joy: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing. It happens Ralph was my writing instructor when I took the TC institute those many years ago and we have run into each other over the years. (His wife, it happens, was my instructor then too.)

Ralph is blunt about the reduction of joy in today’s writing programs. In the book he does a clear presentation of the history, of the current situation, and then makes some very smart suggestions. That is, find places for kids to write for fun, in ways that they truly care about, that aren’t graded, that can be full of spelling errors, etc He suggests “Greenbelt Writing” a sliver of a place in children’s daily school lives where they can play textually, away from the regular writing curriculum. This would be on the side, a sort of recess time (as I understand it), an enjoyable and relaxing place with the goal of kids having fun writing, of finding joy in it.

Last year I started a weekly BoB session to replace reading logs (see this post for details). The kids love, love, love this. They read, they update their BoBs (Book of Books), and chat with me. Sometimes we talk as a group about what we are reading. Mostly it is a quiet and serene time. (I bought a bunch of soft lights that we put on their desks so we can avoid the bright overhead.)

Reading Ralph’s book made me decide I want to do something similar with writing. It will be tricky taking over another period for it, but I’m determined to do so. I’d love a cool acronym for it that goes well with BoB. Any thoughts? I see it as a greenbelt time where kids will write whatever they want, to share or not.

This isn’t a regular review, but a personal response to Ralph’s book. It is a short book, to the point, clear, and may be uncomfortable for some, but also it is kind and offers some fabulous suggestions I hope others consider. As I already wrote, I sure am.

Thanks, Ralph, for writing what really really needs to be said today.

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Writing “Authentic” Historical Dialog

My reasons for looking at dialogue in a different way were mainly because I was heartily tired of reading what I have taken to calling the Berlitz phrase-book approach to dialogue and character-thought. In the phrase-book approach all language is modern, except when specific words are inserted. Sometimes words from entirely the wrong language are used: Modern French instead of Old or Middle French for the Middle Ages, for instance. Get me after a drink or two and I’ll tell you which writers in particular get their languages wrong, but otherwise I shall mutter their names to myself, unhappily.

That is from this fascinating blog post: “Dialogue in Novels — a Medieval Experiment by Gillian Polack.” For those interested in how to balance the historical real with the contemporary reality — that is what your intended reader will make of it —this is very good stuff.

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More About Endings, Ambiguous and Others

Endings have always been my Everest. Or, really, if writing a novel is like climbing Everest, then my tendency is to get within eyeshot of the summit and say, “Well, that’s far enough.” In the seventh grade my English teacher had only one rule: Our stories couldn’t end with it all turning out to be a dream. Thanks to me, this rule soon expanded to include everyone dying in a bus crash, an asteroid hitting Earth, etc., etc.

I just finished reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my 4th graders. When we got to the last few pages  I warned them to be irritated. Why? Because of the horrible ending. Not only does it all turn out to be a dream, but Carroll blathers on in the most twee and sentimental way. So, I’m with that 7th grade English teacher — no ending-with-a-dream.

But that 7th grade teacher’s admonition is only a tiny piece of Kristopher Jasma’s thoughtful NYTimes essay, “The End, or Something.” Jasma looks at many aspects of the struggle and importance of endings including those ambiguous ones and how and what is satisfying and necessary both for the writer and the reader.

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The Thing About Voice

At its core, writing is about cutting beneath every social expectation to get to the voice you have when no one is listening. It’s about finding something true, the voice that lies beneath all words. But the paradox of writing is that everyone at her desk finds that the stunning passage written in the morning seems flat three hours later, and by the time it’s rewritten, the original version will look dazzling again. Our moods, our beings are as changeable as the sky (long hours at any writing project teach us), so we can no longer trust any one voice as definitive or lasting.

From Pico Iyer’s thoughtful essay, “Voices Inside Their Heads.”

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Craft and Commas

I admit that commas flummox me. They feel unduly fussy to me and so when in doubt I leave them out which is probably not a great strategy. And so I’m always interested in anything that can help me use them more effectively, say these posts by English prof Ben Yagoda over at the New York Times’s Draft blog: “Fanfare for the Comma Man*” and “The Most Common Comma Mistakes.”

* Love the correction for this post: “An earlier version of this article misstated the length of time E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker as five centuries.”

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The Joys of Word Processing

My hunch is that using a word processor makes writing more like sculpting in clay. Because it’s so easy to revise, one begins by hacking out a rough draft which is then iteratively reshaped – cutting bits out here, adding bits there, gradually licking the thing into some kind of shape.

That is what John Naughton thinks in “Has Microsoft Word Affected the Way We Work? and is actually exactly what I’ve long thought — that very same metaphor, in fact, of sculpting because that is what it feels like when I write. I always hated writing longhand (perhaps because of my third grade teacher being disapproving about the slant of my cursive), detested typewriters since I made so many mistakes (and correcting made the pages look like a guy with a bunch of shaving cuts on his face), and took to computers with their non-judgementalness like a duck to water.  Now, on my trusty computer, I start out with an idea, push myself to get words down, and then keep improving, changing, adjusting, fixing, and otherwise revising to make it what I really want it to be.  That lump of clay becomes something.  Amazing.

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Thoughts on Newbery: Historical Fiction, Slavery, and Didacticism

I’ve been teaching a unit on the forced immigration of Africans during the time of the transatlantic slave trade for many years and can say that it is definitely the hardest topic I teach and, for many of my 4th grade students, the hardest for them to learn. The idea that living people took other living people in bondage, treated them as less-than-human, kidnapped young children from their families without a thought, were complicit in acts of murder and violence, and more is very hard for my 9 and 10 year-old students to take in. As is understandable at their age, they put themselves in the position of the children they are learning about. And so, when reading The Kidnapped Prince, Ann Cameron’s adaptation of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography or the draft of my forthcoming Africa is My Home: The Story of Sarah Margru Kinson, students will ask with such pain — did his parents go after Olaudah? Did they try to get him back? And what about Sarah — did she ever see her parents again? Or, most heartwrenchingly — would my parents come after me?

Reading a huge variety of primary and secondary sources on the topic as well as a variety of historical fiction over the many years I worked on Sarah’s story made me incredibly aware of the challenges we adults have as we figure out how to communicate to young children such difficult historical truths. Especially when we choose to tell them as historical fiction as Kimberly Brubaker Bradley did for Jefferson’s Sons, the story of  Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally HemingsHaving firsthand experience with research of this period I can say that I have tremendous admiration and respect for Bradley’s research and her efforts to tell this story for children. She does an excellent job giving young readers a sense of life in Monticello at the time. Considering her young audience, she is judicious in communicating horrors —the whippings and the selling.  By doing so she creates scenes that pack incredible emotional punches. The ending, in particular, is absolutely harrowing.

But. As a teacher, someone who spends her days giving lessons, the book seemed one big lesson to me. Beverly, Maddy, and Peter felt familiar to me — not as children of their time, but as children of my time, asking the questions my students would be asking, speaking as they would, responding as they would (in a 2011 vernacular and sensibility rather than ones more in keeping with the actual historical period). And then there were the teachers in the book acting as my colleagues and I would, earnestly and honestly attempting to answer the children’s questions as clearly and thoroughly as possible.  Mostly this was Sally,but there were others  too — say Beverly when he is older, Miss Ellen, Uncle John, and Jefferson himself (in an oddly removed way).  Over and over it felt like the child characters were standing in for the 2011 readers, asking their questions as they would rather than as someone in 1805 would (and would probably not because these seem to me to be 2011 questions not 1805 questions anyway). And the answers felt 2011 too, caring adults like ourselves patiently explaining a situation to 2011 readers more than the actual 1806 children. At least that is how it felt to me. Here are a few examples:

“She [Miss Martha] loved to come to Monticello and act like the boss of everything.”  (5)  Very 2011 vernacular.

“This was news to Beverly.  ‘Are you a slave, Mama?'” (22)  While I can certainly imagine my 2011 students asking this question I have a hard time imagining Beverly being so surprised in 1805.

“Mama,” Harriet said, “why are we slaves?” (33) Sally responds with just the sort of lesson I might do or a parent might today.  (This is just one example of what happens often in the novel. Sally is usually the one responding with the lesson, but others do on occasion too.)

“Enslaved people,” Mama said. “That’s what she [Miss Martha, Jefferson’s daughter] meant. Don’t worry about it.” (53)  This really stuck out for me for the 2011 language in addition to being an explanation for the 2011 intended audience rather than her 1805 son.

“But I’m the same people she is,” Beverly said.  “I’m her brother.”  (53) Again, this is more a 2011 child speaking as it seems very unlikely to me that he’d voice this idea of being Miss Martha’s brother in such a way in 1806.

“If you and Master Jefferson got married,” he asked Mama, would you make Miss Martha stay away?  (68)  What, I wonder would make Beverly possibly imagine that Jefferson, president of the United States, would marry his mother?  Another question that I’d expect of my 2011 students more than of an 8 year-old boy living in 1806 Monticello.

“If she acts prissy,” said Beverly, “I’ll punch her.”  (74) That last bit — totally for the 2011 child audience. Would a child in 1806 speak that way?  I can’t imagine it.

“…France never allowed slavery.  In France, people with dark skin aren’t automatically seen as inferior to people with light skin.” (105)  Hmmm… I am very dubious that there weren’t racist people in Paris when Jefferson and Hemings were there. And France was quite active in the slave trade elsewhere into Napoleon’s time.  And Sally’s language — she sounds like a teacher yet again. Was she schooled by Jefferson to speak this way?

“It’s Greek,” Miss Ellen said.  “Aristotle. Know who he is?”  (136) in Maddy’s section we get Miss Ellen (one of Jefferson’s grand-daughter’s) as another teacher in addition to Sally.

“…but all I’m allowed to do is get married and have a dozen babies.  Like I’d want babies, or a husband. It’s stupid.” She [Miss Ellen] glared at Maddy.”  (138)  Yet again this is language and a view point for 2011 children not 1812 children.

“You want to know if great people can own slaves?” Uncle John asked. “Can a person still be great and still participate in evil?” He tapped on Maddy’s shoulder. “That’s what you are asking?” (255) Another lesson for the 2011 young readers, this time from the father-figure, Uncle John.

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