Author Ralph Fletcher wrote the book on Writing Workshop, literately. Heinemann published Writing Workshop, the Essential Guide, from Ralph Fletcher and Co-author JoAnn Portalupi in 2001. In it they wrote:
“Students who learn to write well truly have one of the most powerful tools imaginable."
We talked with Ralph about the early weeks of Writing Workshop. Ralph stressed the importance of a teacher showing interest in their student’s writing. He says when this happens, students become more open and it invites better teaching. He also talks about how important fostering student identity is and the student’s need to feel comfortable in their classroom, as if it were their home. We also got a preview of Ralph's newest book with Heinemann due out in the Spring of 2017.
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See below for a full transcript of our conversation:
We started our conversation by asking Ralph what teachers should consider in the first few weeks of Writing Workshop?
Our goals I think change during the year. What we want to do at the beginning of the year is different than the middle, and probably different from the end. I think in the beginning of the year, you want to establish a sense of the right tone in the classroom. I always the quote by Peter Elbow who said that, "A good writing teacher is both a good host, and a good bouncer." In other words, a host is very inviting, and the bouncer has the high standards. I think that a writer teacher has to have both those aspects, but I think early in the year you really want to be a good host. You want to let those kids feel like they can write for you, and that you're receptive. How do you do that? Well the way you do that I think is that you really show interest in what they're writing. You have to let their writing affect you. To really be there as a human being before we're there as a teacher with skills we want to teach. If the student writes something that's funny, laugh.
Yeah, and if it's a sad thing, look that student in the eye and say, "I'm really sorry that this happened." Because I think that ... One of the quotes that I always remember is that, "If you want to affect somebody, you've got to let them affect you first." At the beginning of the year when I'm moving around the classroom, talking to young writers, I really want to let them know that their writing's affecting me. The content of it, what it's about. I think that once you do that, those students will open up themselves, and then you've kind of created a space where you kind of earn the right to teach them some stuff.
How important is the classroom space, and how does that space enable a teacher to confer?
I think the space is very important in different ways. First of all, I think that the space has to reflect you. Well, you and the students, but its got to feel comfortable for you. I think that having, I mean in a very practical level, having the desks grouped in clumps allows you to confer more easily with students. I think that if you have a long row of let's say, 8 desks sort of stuck together, it's very hard to get between student number 2 and student number 3, there's no room for you in there. I think that you want it so that you can confer, and I think conferring at student's desks is important. Sometimes it's tempting to just want to pull them up to your desk, but then there's a kind of secondary conferring that takes place when you talk to students. There may be a student who's adjacent to the student you're conferring with, and that student is listening also to the conversation. The other thing about space though, is that I just want to say a couple more things.
I think it's important that children feel like their classroom is a place where they can be at home. What I mean by at home, it's got to be a place where they feel comfortable, they can be themselves. Some students really like to write at their desks, some kids really like to just lay down on the rug with a pad of paper, maybe a marker and a clipboard, and I'd like to think that a classroom can accommodate both. The third thing that I want to say is that, I think it's important to have a common space, particularly in elementary schools where the kids can gather on the floor for share, and for like a little pep talk or mini lesson at the beginning. Again, it's tempting to sort of speak to the whole class, but there's something about that little ritual of bringing the kids together, talking to them for 5 or 7 minutes before you send them back that is important. I think having a common space for that, and for readalouds, and for share is very important.
What tools do you feel are essential to the Writing Workshop?
Well in terms of tools, writing is one of those things that fairly low intensive in terms of material, it doesn't need a lot of stuff. I mean, basically there needs to be different kinds of paper, I think that's important, especially for the primary students so the kids have choice. We don't all write on big pieces of paper, we don't all write on little pieces. I think you want to ... That's a reflection of the choice that you're giving children in the classroom. I am a big believer in our writer's notebook. I always say that it's not the tool in a classroom, but it's a powerful tool that you want to be aware of, and there's been a lot written about that. I've written some stuff about it also. Having a notebook is important because I think that the notebook is meant to be taken home. Sometimes the message we give kids is that you're a writer between 9 and 9:45 in the morning. The day is long ...
A child who goes to see his mom or dad every other weekend, that kid has stories to tell, and that notebook can follow him or her home so they can be writers all the time. That's important. I want to just say another obvious thing, but it's worth mentioning is that, I think that one of the tools in a writing classroom obviously is an abundance of mentor texts, different kinds of examples, poetry collections, picture books. You want to have those in the classroom, you could almost make the argument that the writing in the classroom can only be as strong as the literature that supports, and surrounds, and buoys it up. I think that ... I mean, it's not that you need to have 100 or 200 copies of books, but you need to have a selection of strong books that you can refer to again and again during the year.
You've talked about the importance of low stakes writing. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Low stakes writing is something that I've been exploring in my newest book with Heinemann. My thinking is this, that I think that all kinds of writing are really important. It's a thinking tool, we think a lot on paper, but it's a little bit more than just like talking with somebody. When you write, I think there's a process of distilling your ideas a little bit, you sort of explore it somewhat. There's some sort of transformational process that goes on, and I don't want to be mystical, but I'm not sure you can even quantify it.
I think that the writing is important. We want to encourage a lot of low stakes writing, and by low stakes I mean writing where they're not being graded, corrected, assessed. Nobody's casting a critical eye on them, but they're using writing as a way to think loud and push their thinking on writing. By the way, this is the kind of writing that we do everyday for ourselves, making lists, jotting a note. I think it's what literate people do in the world. I envision classrooms where kids are doing lots of this kind of writing, and I think that there's ways we can encourage it, and I think that ... Again, I think teachers want to find a way to make sure that kids feel comfortable doing it, and that they feel like they're at home, and that they can really be themselves to explore. Because often times when kids do this kind of writing, they haven't figured everything out. It's not like they're competent, they understand everything. It's very tentative kind of writing.
We have to respond to it as such. I think that one of the things that's happened in recent years is that Writing Workshop as we know it, has become a little bit more, let's call it, domesticated, settled, it's become more academic frankly. I think that in many cases the spark, the sizzle, has gone out of the Writing Workshop. I've had teachers who've confided to me that they fear that's happening, and that their kids are somewhat turned off to writing ...
Because of the proliferation of academic genres.
Some of it has been sparked by common core, and standards movement. Whatever the reason, I think that we need to keep our eye on the big picture, and remember that our goal, particularly with elementary school is we want to encourage ... We want to really create kids who a, define themselves as writers, and b, kids who are passionate about writing, who love it, who really say, "I love to write, I love to read." I think that under this informal writing and low stakes writing, I also ... I kind of think of it as kind of like a greenbelt writing. In the world at large, cities have created green spaces, or greenbelts where ... They can be a park, there's wildlife, there's nature, it's not really all manicured, and they have seen the tangible benefits of doing that.
I think as our Writing Workshop becomes a little bit more settled and format driven frankly, I think that there's an increasing need to have greenbelt writing in our classroom, where kids can do the things that kids have always done with their writing, working with a buddy, writing a science fiction piece. Things that may not fit into traditional genre, or units necessarily, but that are things that kids are passionate about and that also help them create interest. Well, it makes them interested in writing, it also it's going to help them create stamina by doing this kind of writing. I envision classrooms where we have almost side by side, we have workshop writing, but also more of this low stakes greenbelt writing that kids are initiating on their own.
I do want to say that I think that we need to ask ourselves about identity as writers, because I think that's really important, how children define themselves. This is true in every field of course. There's some kids in first grade ... If you ask a bunch of first graders, who's good at baseball? All the kids put their hands up, "I'm awesome." By about fourth grade, the kids know "She's really good, he's really good, I'm not that good."
It's really ... I did it for myself, I'll just speak personally. I did it with myself with art. At some point, around third, fourth grade I realized that some kids can draw, and I was not one of those kids.
Which is really sad when you think about it. I'm 9 years old, but I've already decided that I'm not a good artist.
We see that in writing also. We see that in reading also. "I'm not a writer, I'm not a reader." We want to create schools where kids can say with confidence, "I am a writer, I am a reader." I think that that will happen if they take pleasure in doing it. I think pleasure is not just a nice little thing to talk about, I think it's very important, because if kids see ... If they experience pleasure in doing it, they'll do it on their own, they'll do it at home, and they'll define themselves as writers, which is really, really important.
Well, and in many ways you're writing to discover your identity too. I mean, it's that the joy of that writing draws out your own identity in learning that.
Yes, that's true. I think that there's a lot of ... There's a lot of kids who basically wouldn't see themselves as writers initially, but if we create a space where they can do that kind of writing, they discover, "Hey, I kind of like this myself." Again, I've seen the thing happen in myself. My wife was an artist, as "Let me sort of do some dabbling in art," and I've realized that I'm not as hopeless as I thought. I think that we should be opening doors, not closing doors in elementary school and middle school. We want kids to hang in there as long as they can. I think that trying to ask ourselves, what can we do to really foster that self identity as readers and writers is really important. It's a question that I keep asking myself.