Quick Tip Tuesday: Instant messaging and boy writers

May 11th, 2010

Instant messaging, or to use the proper lingo, IM, may not seem like serious classroom writing. But according to Ralph Fletcher, author of Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices, teachers can use some aspects of IM-ing to help reluctant boy writers become more engaged in classroom writing projects. In this week’s Quick Tip, Ralph talks about some of the characteristics of IM writing and then details how to borrow from instant messaging and adapt it for classroom use.

Some notable characteristics of IM writing include:

  • Ferocious fluency. Kids write fast; I’ve watched my boys’ keyboarding skills increase steadily. Fluency allows their writing to keep abreast of their thinking.
  • Quantity. Twenty years ago research showed that British kids wrote about one hundred words per day, whereas American kids were writing only about one hundred words per week. A writer is someone who writes a lot. I still believe that kids need quantity–frequent, sustained, writing occasions–as well as quality. How can you get better at a skill like skiing, cooking, or yoga if you don’t put in the time and do it on a regular basis? When kids are IM-ing they are churning out a high volume of words, plus sustained time on task, without which they cannot become strong writers.
  • Strong social component. Ann Haas Dyson (1993), among others, has convincingly demonstrated the inherent social component to writing. When boys send off an IM they get an almost immediate reaction from the other person. It’s like playing catch; one boy tosses a verbal ball to his friend, confident that his friend will throw it back. This social dynamic keeps the energy high, the conversation moving, and the writing flowing.
  • Self-directed topic selection. Choice rules. If someone else brings up a topic that holds little interest for a kid, he can simply sign off, or try to redirect the conversation back to a more interesting issue.
  • Experimentation. Many kids use IM to try on new versions of themselves. It’s common for kids to have several screen names, each of them slightly different people, allowing kids to write from various points of view, and try out new writing voices.

Other noteworthy aspects of IM are that it allows kids to:

  • Get immediate response (not wait a day or two for a writing conference).
  • Incorporate new vocabulary into their writing.
  • Express a range of emotions (anger, hurt, concern, boredom).
  • Discover through actual experience that words have the power to express an idea but also to mislead, hurt, and accidentally make another person angry.
  • Write at home where they can be comfortable.
  • Multitask. It’s not uncommon for my sons to be IM-ing to a dozen different people all over the country while at the same time working on a homework essay and downloading a song.
  • Write about high-interest topics.
  • Have their content/meaning valued over their mechanics.

What Can I Do in My Classroom?
Clearly the “IM gods” must be doing something right in terms of how to get boys engaged in writing. You can’t help but improve your skills at anything if you spend an hour or two practicing it every night.

Legions of boys (and girls) are becoming more fluent, more confident, more alive, and more aware of the power of written words. Of course, IM is not allowed in most schools. I’m not suggesting we turn our classrooms into stations where boys do no more than feverishly IM each other, but perhaps we can borrow aspects of the IM world and adapt these conditions to our classrooms. Consider these suggestions:

  • A boy writer must be engaged. This is a nonnegotiable. He must feel invested in the writing he is working on. We ignore this basic truth at our peril!
  • Make sure the boys have real and varied audiences for their writing. Sharing and celebrating should not be a rare occurrence but a regular event in the classroom.
  • Create the kind of classroom where boys feel “at home” when they write. For instance, let them write on the floor, or in a corner of the room, if that helps them concentrate.
  • Signal to boy writers that daily, private failure is a necessary ingredient for them to become strong writers. We can do this by showing examples of professional writers (E. B. White did nine drafts of Charlotte’s Web before it got published), and by sharing our own failed drafts. Take a long-term perspective on what they write. When responding to their writing, our message should not be “You did that wrong,” but “I know you learned some things on this piece that will help you on your next piece of writing.”
  • Consider setting up “out of bounds” spaces where kids can do writing that’s not for public consumption. For instance, you might allow them to fold over pages in their writer’s notebook where the content is personal.
  • Consider out-of-school writing experiences. Find out what kinds of writing your boys do at home. See if you can tap into the energy of that writing and bring it into the classroom.

My sons Robert and Joseph have participated in the Oyster River Players, a local theater group. They have had semi-major roles in plays like South Pacific, As You Like It, Annie, and The Match Maker. They have done soliloquies, danced, and sung solos. Watching them perform on the stage I often thought: This is a side of my boys that teachers never see. Wouldn’t their teachers see them differently if they could see Robert dancing as Bert Healy in Annie, or Joseph singing “Consider Yourself” as The Artful Dodger in Oliver?

In the same way it’s important to remember that we see only a fraction of our boys’ lives as readers and writers. IM, emailing, writing on blogs, creating websites, scribbling for fun in notebooks, creating comics with friends–all of these represent an important part of boys’ lives as writers. True, some of these arenas are private, but we can inquire and show an interest. Even knowing a little bit about boys’ out-of-school writing lives will give us a richer understanding of what engages them as writers.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. V  |  May 11th, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    This was a section of the book that stuck out to me when I read the book recently. I loved how Fletcher was able to highlight the positive aspects of a wide variety of literacy modes, making sure to place value on activities that might otherwise be discounted.

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