Adapted from the introduction to Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing, by Ralph Fletcher
In the autumn of 1983 I started in the MFA writing program at Columbia. This led to a famous first encounter, at least for me. In September I wandered uptown from 116th Street to 120th Street, walked into Teachers College, and met Lucy Calkins for the first time. She was a brand-new professor. I signed up for Lucy’s first course on the teaching of writing. Soon after that I took a position with the TC Reading and Writing Project as a consultant in New York City schools, helping teachers find wiser ways of teaching writing.
I didn’t realize it then, but more than taking an interesting job, I had embarked on my career. I have spent most of my professional life speaking, demonstrating, and writing books about the teaching of writing. Recently I ran into a teacher, a man in whose classroom I had worked twenty years earlier.
“Wow, you’re still doing this,” he marveled. “Still talking and writing about how to teach writing.”
Well, yes. I believe he meant it as a compliment, though that word still hovered in the air. I felt a brief spasm of insecurity and wondered if perhaps his words concealed a buried criticism. Maybe after all these years I should be doing something different.
Many of my former colleagues have gone on to different jobs. JoAnn Portalupi, my wife and coauthor, left the field a dozen years ago and eventually became a fine artist. Me? Still talking writing, still trying to figure out the best ways to nourish young writers. I cut my teeth on the writing process movement. I lived through its infancy, passionate youth, and mature adulthood. We grew up together. It’s personal to me. This stuff is in my blood.
Institutional memory has been defined as a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences, and know-how held by a group of people. Because institutional memory is bigger than any one individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Age has always been considered something of a mixed blessing in this country (“Never trust anybody over thirty”), but after thirty plus years in this field, well, I can’t duck the fact that my years have given me a big dose of institutional memory. We certainly need strong new voices in education, but it’s equally important to listen to those who have been in the field long enough to have experienced the ebbs and flows, the ins and outs, the new fads and fresh expressions that eventually get replaced by newer fads and fresher expressions. Individuals with institutional memory are important to any organization. They (I) can tell you not only what things were like in the old days, but equally important—why.
The writing process à la Graves, Murray, Calkins, Atwell, and others was a reaction against the repressive writing practices of the 1950s and 1960s in which so many young writers felt disengaged. The writing process movement (and yes, it really was a movement) proposed a refreshing change, a bold new vision: let’s allow young writers to do what real writers do.
Some professional books aim to explain and instruct. Others challenge orthodoxies and hope to prompt readers to revise their thinking. In Joy Write I hope to do both.
In our march from womb to tomb there’s only a brief time when our ideas about writing/reading are in flux: when we’re forming attitudes we’ll have for life. For many children, preschool is probably too early. By middle school and high school, student attitudes about writing, their identity as writers and readers, have become fixed. But during elementary school (age six to twelve), children are both intellectually aware and open-minded. Those first six grades give us rare opportunity to instill in them positive attitudes toward writing and reading. Are we taking advantage of that sweet spot, or are we squandering the opportunity?
In Plymouth, Connecticut, I ate lunch with a group of fifth-grade writers, something I often do during my author visits. While we passed around slices of pizza, I asked each boy to introduce himself as a writer. There was one boy named Jason, a kid with a soft voice that quite didn’t fit with his large body.
“I like to write in my notebook,” he murmured.
I nodded. “What kind of things do you write in there?”
“Well, I collect my memories there—in a good way,” he said. “So I can cherish them, and have them forever.”
He stated this without a shred of embarrassment. None of the other boys snickered or rolled their eyes. They understood what he was saying.
My interest does not lie with policy, standards, assessments, or vying methodologies. What I care about are the kids like Jason, Emilio, Liza, Racheed, Solomon, Aaron, and Laverne. We have a few, precious years to inform their identities as writers. We must strive to see the writing curriculum through their eyes, as they experience it, from their points of view.
What kind of writers do we hope to see in our classrooms? Will they flourish or languish, be engaged or bored? Can we provide the necessary conditions so they can develop a genuine love of the craft? Having them go through the motions as we check off the various genres—is that really good enough? No, it’s not. We can do better than that. I want to create the kind of writing classrooms where they can look down at the sentences they have written, and cherish every last word.
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Ralph Fletcher has been a mentor to teachers and young writers everywhere. Ralph's latest Heinemann books continue this tradition.
His newest book, Joy Write, 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. What a Writer Needs, Second Edition mentors teachers and writers in the elements and craft of writing. Mentor Author, Mentor Texts brings inspiration to teachers and students by sharing Ralph's own writing across numerous genres plus writer's notes that reveal his thinking.
Ralph frequently works with young writers in schools, and speaks at education conferences in the U.S. and abroad, helping teachers find wiser ways of teaching writing. Ralph is the beloved author of many bestselling teacher professional books including Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide; Craft Lessons; and Breathing In, Breathing Out as well as the author of firsthand classroom materials such as Teaching the Qualities of Writingand Lessons for the Writer’s Notebook. Students know Ralph as the award-winning author of more than 20 books for children and young adults, including Fig Pudding, Twilight Comes Twice, The Writer’s Notebook, and Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid.