#IMWAYR: Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher

IMWAYR 2015.png

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

joy writing.jpeg

As luck would have it, my copy of Ralph Fletcher’s  Joy Write: Cultivating High-impact, Low-Stakes Writing arrived the week we were getting ready for the PARCC test – i.e. low-impact, high-stakes writing.  I read it with relish and relief – relish because few people write with as much joy about writing workshop as does Ralph Fletcher, and relief because Ralph’s note of caution about current writing workshop practice is something I have been grappling with and needed to hear his voice of encouragement.

For some time now, Ralph Fletcher has been asking us to examine how we structure and prioritize student choice in our writing workshops.  In Making Things From Scratch, he introduced the exploratory notebook and new strategies to help our students move away from the sort of formulaic nonfiction writing they tend to write and towards writing that has authentic voice and creative energy.

In Joy Write, Fletcher expands the scope of his analysis to include all aspects of writing workshop.  Having been there from the very inception of the writing process movement, he brings the force of  his institutional knowledge to this task, and the questions he poses about the way we’ve come to run our classroom writing workshops are both insightful and timely.  In my own sixth grade classroom, for instance, we follow our school’s genre based writing curriculum: we move from one genre to the next through a predictable series of steps, beginning with mentor text studies and culminating in writing celebrations.   Although I see the value of predictable routines and scaffolds in moving my kids through a year of writing in which they grow as writers, I would be the first to agree with Fletcher that hewing only to a genre based workshop saps the creative energy and “buy in” of my young writers; or, as he puts it:

Today in many classrooms we find children being taught exacting writing formulas. When format dominates the writing, there’s little wiggle room or opportunity for kids to make writing their own…They are directed to write in a particular genre in a way that’s highly structured and externally imposed.  From a student’s point of view, the writing is less about me and more about what the teacher tells me to do. (p 22)

So, what’s a teacher to do? If we’ve gotten away from the essence of writing workshop in this age of high stakes, test-oriented writing, and want to find our way back to the joy of student-driven writing within the parameters of our curriculum and state mandates, what is our path forward?  Well, Ralph Fletcher has some ideas:

In this book I am proposing a new concept: greenbelt writing. Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated…I am talking about informal writing..I am talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over their shoulders.

… a wild territory where kids can rediscover the power of writing that is:

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood  (p39)

Greenbelt writing, as described by Fletcher, encompasses everything from blogging to Slice of Life writing to…whatever our students feel moved to write about in the form they choose.  The most important factor in this kind of writing is the fact that we (i.e. teachers) have little to no presence or influence: it’s all about what our kids feel they have to say, in the way they want to.  I loved reading through all the varieties of inspired creativity such freedom invites, and the sense of empowerment it creates:

But many students – more than we might imagine – will find their stride through greenbelt writing.  That’s where they’ll (re)discover the passion of writing, the thrill of saying exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, savoring how it feels when you create every word, comma, exclamation point and can say with proud confidence: “This is what I wrote, and it’s all mine.”  (p.97)

In my own classroom, thanks in large part to Ralph’s words of caution every time he presents at conferences or takes to Twitter, I have found that making time for greenbelt writing has led to a much greater sense of writing partnership with my students, and (as a consequence) their own sense of personal investment.  Even when it comes to our weekly Slice of Life writing, for instance, “giving over” the platform to my students so that they can propose how they want to write changes the dynamic instantly.   Carving out the time for such endeavors is tricky, after all, do we even have time for the things we are mandated to do, let alone the things we would like to do?

Ralph Fletcher  believes we can:

What will kids remember about writing in school? I want them to remember … writing that is fun, passionate, and joyful, and reflects what matters to each student.  This is the best way I know to create writing classrooms where the student can develop the concept: I am a writer.  (p.40)

Each student as a joyful writer – now that’s something wonderful to consider and work towards.  So, even as we dive into testing season and all it brings, I would urge writing teachers everywhere to go get a copy of Joy Write, read it, and bring greenbelt writing into their classrooms.