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!


No Words

This morning I’m preparing to write two cards.  One card to congratulate a family member on their recent wedding.  One to a dear friend who just lost her 26 year old son.  One card is bright and sparkly with a silk bow and bold silver and gold lettering.  The other has subdued grays and blues and a smaller, cursive font. In one card, I’m sending wishes for a long future together, filled with love, laughter, and eternal happiness.  In the other, I’m urging my friend to take life one day (sometimes one minute) at a time, and to have strength, hold onto memories, lean on the people she knows and loves.  Life is complicated. I don’t know what else to say. I can’t find the words.


Endings Can Be Hard

“30 Days Left! We can do it!!” This on a school bulletin board in May.  This week, calendars in classrooms and faculty rooms are marked off with thick Sharpies. ….. 19 (crossed off), 20 (crossed off), 21 (ready to be crossed off), 22 (circled in bright colors with sun strokes radiating outward and LAST DAY! written across the rest of the week).  

Of course I am excited for the school year to wind down and summer to begin.  Of course I look forward to long days with no schedule, reading on the beach or in the hammock, and trips with family.  Of course I can’t wait to take long walks with my husband and dog, and take time to relax and refresh. But there is another part of me that grieves at this time of the year.  I don’t like endings.  I struggle with transitions.  You would think I would have figured this out after 25 years of teaching, but I still find the end of the school year difficult.  I don’t like the barren look of classrooms with empty bulletin boards and everything neat and packed away. I don’t like all the boxes lined up in the hallways for teachers who have to leave the building or move classrooms.  I don’t like saying goodbye to staff members who are retiring or heading off on a new journey. The truth is that I miss my “school family.” I miss my meaningful work.  I even miss my schedule.

I have to give myself a week or two to adjust to the summer way of being.  At the start of the summer, my eyes still open early and I feel the need to get up and get the coffee going.  At the start of the summer, I feel a bit lost with nothing on the calendar.  At the start of the summer, I always make a huge list of things I want to accomplish.  

Of course it doesn’t take long to adjust to the slower, more relaxed pace of summer.  I get used to the later waking time, the time spent drinking coffee and reading in the mornings, the long, endless days spent doing whatever comes to mind, and the long To Do list that remains largely undone.  Then as August winds down, and the new calendars start to go up in classrooms, and new bulletin boards welcoming students back to school begin to appear in the hallways, I  grieve the end of summer.  

Summer Pleasures

My dad grew up in Brooklyn.  Not today’s Brooklyn of hipsters and coffee bars and fancy food venues, but the Brooklyn of old.  The Brooklyn where kids played on the stoop and chickens were raised in yards.  The Brooklyn where boys ran free in the streets and jumped from roof to roof to show off for the girls. My dad has so many wonderful stories about his youth in the Marine Park neighborhood.  He told me this beauty the other night:

Dad: “When I was a kid….we all carried salt shakers in our back pockets in the summer.”

Me:  “Salt shakers?  In your back pocket?”

Dad: “Yup.  There was a truck farm where they grew tomatoes right down the block.  We’d play baseball all day long, and then, when we were really hot and sweaty, we’d run down to the farm, grab a few fresh tomatoes, find a cool spot under a big tree, sprinkle salt on the tomatoes, and ahhhh. That’s what summers were made of.”

I just love this story.  It captures so much about the simple pleasures of summer, of youth, and of the good old days!

Considering Resistance

I was talking recently with two friends of mine; both are mothers of teenagers, and both are experiencing the joys and challenges of raising adolescent children.  One said that her daughter had recently uttered the words she had never wanted to hear. She had actually screamed, “I hate you, mom!”  Of course it was said in the heat of the moment.  Of course everyone knew she really didn’t mean it, but it was hurtful.  My other friend turned around and said, “If your kids aren’t angry with you once in a while, then you are probably not doing your job as a parent.”  This struck me as being true.  Of course part of being a good parent is to say no and deal with the fallout.  Being a good parent means sometimes having to be the bad guy, the unpopular person in the room.  We know that children learn from having limits set and enforced at times.  We know that sometimes we have to push our kids into areas that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. We know that sometimes a bit of unpleasantness at the moment will lead to something worthwhile and much better in the long run.

Is this true with coaching as well?  Is it true that if you don’t meet with some resistance from teachers and administrators, then you are probably not doing your job as a literacy coach?  I’ve met with a bit of resistance over the last few weeks.  I know it’s the end of the school year and people are tired.  I know that maybe this isn’t the best time to introduce new ideas.  I also know that I want to give teachers, administrators, and especially students, everything I have until the last bus pulls out of the driveway on the last day of school. It’s hard to hear that teachers aren’t happy about initiatives I’ve suggested.  It’s hurtful.  But maybe, just maybe, being a coach involves (even requires) some resistance.  Maybe resistance is just part of the learning process. Maybe (hopefully) we will move through this patch of unpleasantness toward something that is going to be much better in the long run.