Tuesday, November 19, 2013

              Tips for Teaching Students to Write Poetry

1)  Marinate kids in lots of poems. Students need two kinds of poetry: playful poems they “get” quickly, as well as deeper poems that haunt them.
2)  Write small. Poets take pleasure in naming the world.  Look for the odd, disturbing detail. 
3)  “The secret wish of poetry is to stop time.” (Charles Simic) Try to render the experience, not explain it.  Don’t say too much. 
4)  Try to create tension in the poem.
5)  Look for the mystery in your subject.
6)  See if you can end with your strongest line.
7)  Listen to suggestions, but learn to trust yourself.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

     How To Cook A Flower

                                    Stir seeds into well-drained soil.
                                    Fold in a half-cup live worms.
                                    Sprinkle in occasional rain
                                    until green shoots appear.
                                    Blend in sun mixed with shade.
                                    Add a dash of moonlight.
                                    Bake on low four to six weeks
                                    in the unhurried oven of summer.
                                    When the air starts smelling sweet
                                    it’s ready to be served—almost.

                                    Swirl in butterflies.
                                    Whip in bees.

                                                                    © Ralph Fletcher

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

For some reason I’ve been obsessed with photographing milkweeds this autumn. Here's a poem that's lovely and has a lot of personal meaning for me.


Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.

   from Two Voices in a Field by Richard Wilbur

 This poem reminds of the fall my brother Bob was killed in a car accident. I think it's a hopeful poem. It reminds me that it's possible to go forth, live, love, and prosper, even after you have been totally shattered.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ralph Fletcher Speaking Schedule

   There may additions/deletions in the future, but this should be pretty accurate. 

October 17 and 18, 2013
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ
Contact: Michelle Rosen

November 3
Texas Christian University
Fort Worth, Texas
Contact: Connie Briggs
Cbriggs1@twu. edu

November 4 and 5    Author Visit
Kincaid School
Houston, TX
Contact: Elizabeth Holloway

November 12
Contact:  Mary Jo Casilio

November 17-20
NCTE National Conference
Boston, Massachusetts
Presentation on Friday Nov. 20  at 4pm
“The Persistent Call of Stories”

December 4   Author Visit
Peaslee School
Northborough, MA
Contact: Melissa Farrell

December 5 Author Visit
Northeast School
Stamford, CT
Contact: Sandra McDonald

December 6 Author Visit
Jefferson Elementary School
New Rochelle, NY
Contact: Pamela Haas

December 10
Principals Meeting CFN 406
Brooklyn, NY
Contact: Karen Ames
January 11, 2014
The Learning Community
Contact: Christine Alves

January 28, 2014    Author Visit
Cottage Lane School
Blauvelt, NY
Contact: Willy Sullivan

January 29, 2014   Author Visit
North Street Elementary School
Greenwich, CT
Contact: Cheryl Heike

February 22, 2014
Ka Hui Heluhelu Conference
Honolulu, HI
Contact: Jody Chang

March 3-7, 2014
International School Bangkok
Bankok, Thailand
Contact: Elizabeth Rossini

April 7, 8, 9, 10   Author Visits
Merrimac, NH
April 7: Mastricola Elementary
April 8: Thorntons Ferry
April 9: Reeds Ferry
April 10” Upper Elementary
Contact: Conti, Sydney

April 11   Author Visit
Albert S. Hall School
Waterville, NH
Contact: Jen Allen

May 15   Author Visit
Friends Academy Middle School
Locust Valley, NY
Contact: Steve Rubenacker

May 20, 21, 22   Author Visits
Berkeley Heights, NJ
May 20:  Shrewbury Boro School
May 21: Little Silver School
May 22: Fair Haven School
Contact: Colleen Doogan

July 9-12, 2014
Australian Literacy Educators’ Association
Darwin, Australia
Contact: Helen Chatto

Friday, September 6, 2013

           Bringing The Boys Into Your Writing Community

I’ve spent most of my professional career helping teachers find wiser ways of teaching writing. In the past few years I’ve become interested in how we might do a better job of engaging our boy writers. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that boy writers are struggling. According to the most recent NAEP test results (2011) 38% of 8th grade girls scored “proficient” or above—only 18% of 8th grade boys scored proficient. The tips that follow will help nourish all writers, but boys in particular will benefit.

         *Try to understand boy writers instead of judging them.  

        Let’s face it: elementary teachers, who are overwhelmingly female, may not always “get” boy writers and their quirks, strengths, and struggles. Sometimes we may look at boys as defective girls (I confess that I have done this myself), try to notice what unique strengths boys bring to the table.
Boys and girls really are different, and I’m convinced that some of that difference is biological. A mother I know has two girls and two boys. She told me: “The boys made sound effects, revving  their toy trucks, for instance, almost from the moment when they could vocalize. My daughters never did that.”
Boy writing often differs from the writing created by girls. (For instance, in his book Why Gender Matters Leonard Sax points out that in their drawings, little girls draw nouns whereas little boys draw verbs/action.) Try to appreciate the difference.

         *Tune in to boy’s humor. 

         Your relationship to your male students will improve substantially if you can broaden your sense of humor. Boys revel in humor that's offbeat and subversive. That’s why books like Captain Underpants and TV shows like The Simpson’s are universally adored by boys.

         *Embrace choice. 

         Once upon a time choice was a staple in writing classroom but as I go around the country I’m sad to report that I see less and less real choice in writing classrooms. This is so unfortunate. We all know the power of a “just-write book,” but what about the power of a “just-write topic” for writing? We must allow boys the opportunity to choose what to write about and how to express themselves.

         *Bring boy-friendly mentor texts into the classroom. 

         A book like Jon Scieszka's Knucklehead will resonate with boys and give them an image of what their writing could look and sound like.

         *Build on strengths.  

        When a boy’s story gets covered with corrections, he will get overwhelmed and discouraged. Praise is a crucial ingredient in nurturing boy writers. It’s important to find something the student has done well, and point it out to them. 

         *Let them see you write. 

         And share your writing with your students. It sounds simple, but it’s so important. This will earn you major street cred! Boys will respect that you’re taking the same risk that they are taking.

         *Don’t punish boys for poor handwriting.  

        Primary age boys lag girls in small motor coordination, which contributes to messy handwriting and puts them at a disadvantage in the classroom. That's a developmental issue, not a character defect! Try not to make handwriting a bone of contention. “If you can read it, and I can read it, it’s good enough.” The world seems to be moving inexorably toward keyboarding, so handwriting should become non-issue in the future.

         *Be realistic about revision. 

        We should talk to students about the drafting process, showing them craft elements and encouraging them to try those strategies in their writing. But for many boys it’s one (draft) and done. That’s okay. Don’t belabor the drafting process. Most boys have a finite amount of energy for any one writing task. If you watch carefully you may notice that a boy will use the new writing strategy on his next piece of writing.

         *Go for engagement first; the quality will come later. 

         A teacher friend recently told me this story:
         I could tell that my boy students were already turned off when we started writing workshop at the beginning of the year.
 “We can’t write what we really want,” they said. “Like, we can’t have any shooting, or stuff like that.”
         “I’m not so sure about that,” I told them.
         The boys looked at each other, surprised. One boy asked:
         “Could we have, like, a story with us shooting at some aliens?”
         “I don’t see why not,” I replied.
         The boys stared in amazement. “Really?”
         “Would it be okay if we had to blow up their planet?” another boy wanted to know.
         “Sure,” I told them.
         The boys were ecstatic. And off they went, passionately writing their sci-fi stories.
         If boys are already checked out, how successful can we possibly be at helping them improve their writing? Moving toward them, embracing the passions and the things that move them, seems like a small price to pay if we are serious about our goal helping boys become life-long writers.

       For further reading check out my books Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know (Henry Holt) and Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices (Stenhouse).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

                              The Writer's Notebook

       I always tell kids that the most important book I've written is one that will never be published: my writer's notebook. As the old American Express commercials used to say, I don't leave home without one! But the notebook has relevance for students, too. It provides conditions that are necessary for them to grow into strong, confident writers.

     A Place To Live The Writing Life

       When we teach the language arts, we aren't satisfied with reading and writing as mere frills or adornments. We want them to become an integral part of our kids' writing lives. It's great when kids read during reading time, but it's not enough. We want them to be reading all the time.

         The same thing is true for writing. It's not enough for kids to be writing once a day. We want them to see themselves as writers, and the writer's notebook can help make this happen. A student who keeps a notebook can begin to live like a writer--noticing, paying attention, listening, collecting, musing, wondering, playing with language, taking pleasure in her own words. And because the notebook is portable, it encourages kids to write not just during the workshop but at all hours of the day.

        A Place To React

        "Writer's react," Don Murray wrote in his article "The Writer's Habits." This is important. Many students adopt a passive stance toward their learning. No wonder they do--to our students curriculum often feels like a one-way conversation. The writer's notebook nudges students to become more active learners. It gives them a place to react to their world, to make that all-important personal connection. And the notebook provides a place that is safe: no grades, no one correcting their grammar or commenting on their penmanship.

        A Place To Experiment

        Our writers will grow by writing for specific purposes. But they will also grow by fooling around with ideas, words, images, phrases. In today's educational climate, the prevailing winds blow against his kind of language play but I believe it is crucial. (See my Stenhouse book, Pyrotechnics on the Page)  Unfortunately it is being squeezed out of school by testing, curriculum mandates (including the CCSS). That's an ominous trend. As writing-just-for-the-fun-of-it becomes an endangered species, the writer's notebook becomes that much more valuable.

       The writer's notebook gives kids a place where they can enjoy language for its own sake. One student I know used his notebook to list his favorite words: hanky panky, gobbledygook, nincompoop... Another child was shocked to discover that no word exists for the space between your thumb and forefinger, so she invented a new word! After that she created a list in her notebook for other words she invented.

       My notebook has a poem by Adrienne Rich; the poem itself is shaped like a swan reflected in water. This breathtaking poem inspired me.

       The writer's notebook is not a new idea. Writers have been scribbling notes and sketching in day books for hundreds of years. And it's important to remember that the writer's notebook is nothing more than blank pages bound together. But with your guidance, and through your own modeling, these blank pages have enormous potential to spark young writers. "A notebook is a place where I can store little pieces of strength," wrote one 5th grade boy. Amen, brother. Long live the writer’s notebook!

PS My resources on this topic include:
      A Writer’s Notebook (HarperCollins)
      Breathing In, Breathing Out (Heinemann)
      Lessons for the Writer’s Notebook (Heinemann)
      Also check out Notebook Know-How by Aimee Buckner (Stenhouse)


Friday, May 10, 2013

Guiding Principles For Drafting A Story

A few guiding principles are operating while I’m drafting a novel. These aren’t overt. They don’t sit at the forefront of my consciousness. They run quietly and almost invisibly in the background while I’m doing my work. Here they are, in no particular order:

         1) I want to make this story interesting to me. I figure I’m a lot like other people—if I find it intriguing/engaging, other folks might be interested, as well.

         2) I want to empathize so deeply with my characters that I can understand why they do what they do (even when I’m appalled by their actions).

         3) I want to love all my characters. (see # 2)

         4) I need to create dramatic scenes (with temporal action and dialogue) as well as narrative summary.

         5) Usually I get lost in the story before I get found again and figure out exactly how the story will unfold. Getting lost is good! For one thing, it means that the story has put its spell on me.

         6) I shouldn’t be afraid of what’s odd, weird, or different about my story, how it departs from the conventional. Most memorable art has something odd/unusual at its core.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Big writing day

I'm working on a YA novel. I wrote 1,860 words today. I'll admit it: I'm impressed! :-)  And I actually think a lot of it is pretty good!

(My mentor Don Murray was big on counting words--whenever I do, I think of him.)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

New Book About Boy Learners

    I highly recommend "Writing The Playbook," a new book by Kelley King. It's a wise, practical book, and very much in line with the thinking I lay out in my books Boy Writers and Guy-Write. Available from Corwin.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Falling Back in Love With An Unpublished Manuscript

         I have an idea for a book. Actually it’s more than an idea—one of my editors liked it well enough to give me a contract—but I haven’t written it yet. I put it away for a while. I often find it helpful to have this away-time from a manuscript. For one thing it gives me a necessary distance, so I can look at it with some objectivity. I had planned to get back to it in a month or so, but other projects intervened, then I partially tore my Achilles, and now a bunch of months have passed since I worked on it.
         Now I’m ready. I want to start revising it, but first I have to fall back in love with what drew me to the idea in the first place. At first, this can feel awkward as a dinner with an old flame. I realize that I hardly remember her, er, I mean it.  We need time to get reacquainted. In order to produce a good book I know I’ve got to rediscover the magic, the mystery, the allure that originally drew me to this idea.
         I’m sure other writers have various ways of rekindling the romance. For me, it starts with rereading. If it’s a novel, I need to get to know the characters again, their strengths, quirks, secrets and weaknesses. What they want, and what they fear. 
In this case I’ll be working on a poetic picture book. I reread slowly and I reread for pleasure. I want to remember the rhythms of the language. At this stage of the process I try to be generous with myself. No, the manuscript isn’t perfect (alas, it almost never is) but there are definitely a number of good things in it. Now is the time to savor the positives.
As I reread the manuscript I start to get excited. That’s a good sign! I reclaim my original purpose.. I can see what I was trying to do so many months ago. I start getting ideas for embracing my original vision but also for extending it. If I can do that I just might be to create a book that’s better, more fully realized, than what I wrote the first time around.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Guy-Write workshops in Hong Kong

On March 1 and 2 I did two "Guy-Write" workshops with boys (grades 3-5) at the Hong Kong International School. I was inspired by their passion, creativity, and originality. These boys really love to write! We spent two wonderful hours together. That was perhaps a hair too long (next time I might limit it to 90 minutes) but overall it was a rewarding experience for us all. I think I learned as much as they did.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sap Season!

Here in New Hampshire the maple sap is running.  Our local elementary school even has a "sugar shack" where kids can boil down the sap they gather from local trees. The best weather for syrup-ing has sub-freezing temperatures at night, but above freezing during the day. When those conditions exist, the sap will flow.
      I love to feel the change of the seasons, when the land slowly morphs from winter to mud season to spring. Buds appear. The ground is swollen with water from melting snow. Creeks are lively and full, making their own tinkling music. The maple sap is running, and I find that my creating juices have started flowing, too. It's a season that makes me want to write.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Living in the Digital World

In the spirit of total candor, let me admit that I am profoundly ambivalent about the new digital world in which we live. On the plus side, I have met many new people via Facebook, Twitter, and my blog.  I now think of myself as belonging to an electronic community that spans the world.

 Also, I keep relearning the unfortunate fact that I'm a "digital immigrant." As a result of my birth date, these technologies are foreign to me. I speak with a heavy accent, so I try new technologies partly to push myself and to gain at least a little bit of fluency in this new digital world.

     On the other hand, I really do believe that something is lost in this new digital world. For instance I get many schools inviting me to do a "Skype author" with their students. I have author and teacher friends (hi Franki!) who love Skype visits. I wish I shared their enthusiasm! I have done a half dozen Skype visits, and may do some more, though for the most part have found them unsatisfying. There are often technical glitches, not to mention that maddening one-second delay.  I can't see the kids' faces too well so it makes it hard for me to read my audience. I feel detached. I've come to believe that nothing can replace having a real author in a school.

     Nowadays publishers expect authors to have a strong online presence. That is a reality, and there is certainly some upside to this, but I do worry that I spend too much time Facebooking, blogging, tweeting, etc when I should be writing. If you're going to create something of lasting value you have to delve deeply into your subject matter. And it won't happen instantaneously. It will take time and intense focus.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Helping Students Inhabit Textual Houses

(This is something I wrote for writing teachers.)
Some years ago I spent a great deal of time looking at houses with a real estate agent. After awhile I noticed that each house visit tended to follow its own particular ritual. On this particular day the agent pulled up to the house and headed toward the front door, muttering: “The lock box should be around here somewhere…”
            The lock box was usually attached to the electric meter. She found it, unlocked the box, and removed the house key. The first door was a glass storm door. She pulled it open and used the key to open the front door. It was dark inside.
            “Let’s see,” she said, reaching around to the right. “There should be a light switch right here.”
            Sure enough there was. As a house-savvy agent, she knew that for safety reasons building codes require easy access to light switches upon entering a house. She flipped on several lights until we can see enough to get our bearings. I glanced at the living room on the right, the den on the left, and a stairway straight ahead of me.
            “I figure the kitchen should be right through there,” she said.
            “Do you think that door leads to the basement?” I asked, pointing.
            “Probably,” she replied.
            The first few times I felt awkward and alien entering a stranger’s house.  But after going through the same ritual, over and over, I soon knew what to expect. Soon I found that I could anticipate the features of each house I entered. Occasionally I’d find a surprise—the fireplace in the kitchen, the lavish hot tub in the middle of the living room—but most houses followed a predictable structure determined by cost, efficiency, building codes, and common sense.
            Our students live in word houses. Many of them would choose to live in video houses, or houses of sound, but in school we expect them to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours dwelling in texts. By “texts” I don’t mean spoken language. I mean reading and writing. 
Are our students comfortable living in the textual world? Some may be but surely many students are not. They stumble blindly into word houses (whether in reading or writing), unsure of themselves, feeling their way through the darkness.  They bang their shins against stairs, crashing against railings, tripping on risers that are invisible in the dark. They feel disoriented, anxious, perhaps even a little bit panicked. Look at the body language exhibited by these students during the act of writing:
*She slinks low in her desk.
*He awkwardly encompasses the sheet of paper with his whole right arm, covering it so that nobody can read what he has written.
*He writes, bites his pencil, erases a word, writes, erases until there is a hole in the paper. Then he gets up, sighing loudly, crumples his paper, and stuffs it into the trash.
Many students don’t look comfortable reading, either. My stepson, Adam, devoured fantasy novels, the longer the better. But he discovered that school was full of required readings. He had very little choice about which textual world he inhabited, and how he could occupy that space. 
I remember one day when I helped him decipher a difficult poem by Conrad Aiken. I thought of his bedroom. He would never allow me to barge in and tell him where to put a poster, where to position his stereo in that personal space. Yet he looked passive, dispirited, as we tried to climb into this poem. Finally he sighed in exasperation and cried: “Just tell it what it means!”
            Most students look ill-at-ease as they slink through the textual houses we provide for them. If they aren’t comfortable inhabiting these dwellings, how can they learn?
            The word comfortable has a suspiciously laid-back feel to it, one that feels out of step with today’s educational climate where rigor is the operative word. Comfortable makes me picture overstuffed pillows, thick rugs, beanbag chairs. But I believe that being comfortable is more than window-dressing. I believe it’s a crucial condition for all language learners. How can we make the classroom a place where students can become comfortable as they think their way into the new, challenging textual worlds we provide for them?
            For me being comfortable starts with wearing the right clothing. In my closet there are certain shirts, loose slacks, and cotton sweaters I think of as “writing clothes”. They feel good against my skin. I have found that I when I am physically comfortable I can be myself. Being myself is an essential reference point if I am going to write well. And it is crucial if I hope to write with any kind of voice.
            To feel comfortable I require a familiar place: my office, or certain airy and well-lighted public places. Now I am almost ready to begin.  Like most writers I have developed a particular routine, a personal writing ritual (mine involves great quantities of coffee) that allows me to smoothly enter the textual world and stay there.
            Helping students live comfortably in the textual world begins with creating true community in the classroom. (Many other educators have explored this topic. I particularly like Life In A Crowded Place by Ralph Peterson.) Here’s an eclectic list of some ways you can help your students feel more comfortable as readers and writers.
*Create a more beautiful place. Norman Mailer once wrote an essay in which he argued that the very architecture of urban housing projects represents a kind of violence to the people who live there. No wonder, he said, these structures so often get vandalized and defaced by graffiti. In a similar way, many teachers are recognizing the need to transform the unattractive rooms in which children read and write and breathe. 
A truly comfortable place recognizes that each student is different and will use the space in his or her own particular way. Some kids like to work at their desks. Other kids need more space and choose to write/read at a big wooden table. Still others want to lie on their stomachs with a clipboard, or sit in a rocking chair, or on a couch.
*Build on familiar texts.  Many teachers fall back on the familiar novels, tried-and-true writing assignments. Over the years we become so comfortable dwelling in these texts they begin to feel like old friends. These texts may be comfortable to us, though not necessarily to students. It’s easy to forget that our students, who are entering these textual worlds for the first time, may not feel nearly so comfortable.
Nancie Atwell says she often begins the school year by asking her 7th and 8th graders to return to a book they have read before. This is like visiting an old friend or relative. Students who have already inhabited a particular book can bring a wealth of prior knowledge to the new reading. They will feel more comfortable rereading it than they would walking into a brand new textual house.
*Encourage kids to keep a writer’s notebook.  My colleague Artie Voigt says that the notebook is a “low-risk, high-comfort place in which to write.” The writer’s notebook is a place where students can write in a safe place. This is a personal place where you can loosen your tie, stretch out, and take off your shoes. This is a place where we can write without any danger of ridicule, judgment, or grades—the great killers of comfort. 
“I think writing notebooks are important because kids are very comfortable writing in them,” says Franki Sibberson, a teacher in Ohio and author of Day to Day Assessment in Reading Workshop (Scholastic). “And because they are comfortable, they produce good writing. And then, when they go to craft a piece, they have lots of writing to start with. Once they have a notebook, they never stare at a blank page again. They can always find somewhere to start by looking at past entries.”
*Think about language. In her book Going Public (Heinemann), Shelley Harwayne says that the way to transform a school is to look at the language we use to talk to students. She asks her teachers to talk to each student as if the teacher’s words are being broadcast over the loudspeaker to the entire community.