Thinking About Writing Instruction

I’ve just finished Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write. As usual, Ralph has given me some important questions to ponder (That’s what I love about Ralph.). I’m sure Ralph is right when he says that in many classrooms, schools, and districts, writing workshop no longer looks like a joyful (and hardworking) place where students consider their passions and interests, select topics and genres, think hard about their audiences, and write (a lot) in a safe and supportive climate created to match the studios of published writers. In so many classrooms today, the writing workshop has become a more teacher (or maybe unit) – driven place where, although there is some choice, it is often quite limited.  The issues of “rigor” and “meeting standards” are also front and center, creating an environment that can feel a bit more like we are pushing students to meet benchmarks rather than write really well, with strong voice, and from the heart.

In Joy Write, Ralph introduces a provocative idea – add some “greenbelt” writing to the schedule.  By “greenbelt” writing, he is talking about the free, wild, feral type of writing that lets student writers explore, wonder, sketch, and pursue projects and interests.  He is asking us to  find ways to put kids in charge of their writing, and encourage honest writing filled with voice and choice and authenticity.  This kind of writing, according to Ralph, should not be heavily influenced by the teacher (guided and supported, yes, but not graded or subjected to checklists and other measures).  Ralph suggests that we find ways to include this type of writing in addition to the writing workshop.  I’m all for this kind of writing.  I know how powerful it is.  I taught third grade during what I might call the heyday of writing workshop!

Here are some of my questions:

-Can we find ways to include this “greenbelt” type of writing in the writing workshop, or does this writing have to be different and happen at a different time of the day/week?

-Could we consider putting a week or two of “greenbelt” writing in between our writing units?

-If we keep this kind of writing separate from writing workshop, will teachers be able to find the time in their already jam-packed schedules?

-How can we get teachers to do some of this “greenbelt” writing so that they can feel the power of this kind of experience?

I’d love to hear your responses and questions.  I’d love to start a conversation about how we can get back some of the joy and energy that was so powerful in the writing classroom.

Thank you, Ralph Fletcher, for getting this conversation started!


Asking More Questions

I recently spent some time with my family in Denmark and Sweden.  While in Copenhagen for an afternoon, strolling over bridges and along canals, we came upon an art installation by Yoko Ono. It was quite simple. There were trees and paper tags. People were encouraged to write a wish on one of the tags and tie it on a tree.  Of course this intrigued me, so I grabbed a piece of paper and started thinking……Of all the wishes I could make, which one will it be? After spending some time reading other wishes and thinking about my own, I decided that today my wish would be:

 “I wish that people would spend more time asking questions, and less time worrying about having all the answers.”

Since that day, I’ve really been trying to work on this in my own conversations.  I am finding that when we ask questions, people think we want answers. I’m trying to work on asking the kinds of questions that lead to more questions, and answering questions with questions.  Yes, I do think this has seriously confused some of my friends and family members, but I’m finding the conversations more tentative, more exploratory, and more interesting.

I want to think about this with teachers and students when we return to school later this summer.  I want to ponder and discover.  I wonder if we are living in a world where people feel like they are expected to quickly have answers to questions (After all, we have only to grab our phones and look something up and we have the answer!). I wonder if people feel that a quick tweet or text is sufficient. I wonder if we should work on slowing things down, pondering ideas, talking hard about the work we are doing, the books we are reading, and the pieces we are writing. I wonder if we should to spend more time in the land of ideas, asking more questions, considering more perspectives.

I’m enjoying this questioning stance.  Maybe you can send me some good questions to ponder!




A Trip in Search of Family

I absolutely love traveling to new places.  I love meeting new people, eating new foods, seeing new sights, listening to new languages, and navigating new cultures. My most recent trip took my family and me to Denmark and Sweden.  The purpose of the trip was to discover some family history on my mother’s side.  My mother (who passed away a few years ago) loved Sweden and everything Swedish.  Her mother was Swedish and so she had traveled to Sweden as a young girl, and then worked there for three years after college.  We have all sorts of Swedish traditions, most of them occurring around Christmas. Our Christmas Eve celebrations, for example, have always been filled with herring, Swedish Meatballs, red cabbage, and, of course, beer and aquavit (called snaps in Sweden) and drinking songs.

My mother had two sisters, both of whom had a strong attachment to their Swedish roots.  All three sisters are now gone. So it was during a sort of random conversation about a year ago with one of my cousins that we said, “Why is it that we never went to Sweden with our mothers?” I guess it was because we were attending college and graduate school,  getting our careers off the ground, raising kids (and sending them to college – no money for traveling during those years), and honestly, I don’t think any of us really believed that our moms would ever pass on. I think we all believed that there was still time to make this trip with our mothers. The conversation continued.  “So why don’t we go now?  Why don’t we get all of the cousins and their families together and take a trip to Sweden?  We could go to all the places our grandmother lived, places our moms visited, and even meet our Swedish relatives!”  And so we made a plan to try to pull this off. We really didn’t think it would happen, but we decided at least the two of us and our families would try to make a go of it. Believe it or not, we did it!  Almost all of our cousins and families traveled to Sweden in early July (13 people in all)!

The trip was beyond incredible. We visited the town where my grandmother was born, the city where she grew up, the places our moms had visited, and the island in Stockholm where my mother lived when she worked in Sweden.  We met many of our Swedish relatives (second cousins, their husbands, children, children’s husbands and partners, and even their grandchildren) and we enjoyed them all!  My daughters met the next generation, and they are now Facebook and Instagram friends, and are talking about visiting each other in the future. We had family get togethers, and spent some time traveling with our own families.  On one hand I’m so sorry we didn’t do this trip with our moms, but on the other hand, I’m so proud that we pulled this off and had such a great experience. As one of my second grade students once said, “There is no such thing as too much family.”  After this vacation, I completely agree!