Ralph Fletcher on boy writers and his new book

As the father of four sons and the author of countless nonfiction and fiction books, Ralph Fletcher has a natural interest in boys and writing. He has spent the last several years working with boy writers and their teachers, as well as interviewing other male authors about writing for boys. Ralph shared his insights on the subject in Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices and in his video, Dude, Listen to This. Now he has written a book for students (fourth grade and up) called Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know, published by Henry Holt and Co.

Ralph talked about the new book and about engaging boy writers in a recent conversation with Stenhouse General Manager Dan Tobin. Leave a comment or ask a question — we will pick a random winner to receive a signed copy of Boy Writers and Guy-Write.

Let’s start with the new book. How do you see Guy-Write being used in a classroom? And how does it relate to Boy Writers?

Teachers are the audience for Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices. I wanted to give teachers a deeper understanding of boy writers, and to suggest concrete ways we might widen the circle for them.  I ended each chapter with a practical section titled “What Can I Do In My Classroom?” Here I list concrete steps teachers can take to engage boy writers.  I think teachers will appreciate Guy-Write, but in fact I wrote this book for boy writers. I wanted to make a book you could hand to a boy writer, a book that would speak to him in a voice that is anecdotal, friendly, but also serious. The message of the book is: Let’s look at a range of subjects and genres that guys want to write about, as well as some practical tips and strategies you can use to strengthen your own writing.

In both books, you talk about edgy topics that boys might like to write about, including violence and bathroom humor. In your interview with Jon Scieszka in Guy-Write, he discusses writing about things like pee, vomit, and war.  What’s your advice for teachers on where to draw the line when it comes to letting boys choose topics?

While there’s no universal line for these issues, I would ask teachers to consider how they might give boys more leeway in terms of topic, language, and humor. If you do them more freedom, you’ll get more engagement. Consider this story a teacher told me:

“Early in the school year one of my first grade students made a story with a picture of a man and a thought bubble above his head. It said: ‘This man dreamt of sumbody who fartd.’ I was going to deem Michael’s story to be inappropriate, but I had just read your book BOY WRITERS, so I decided to try a different approach. Next day I handed back the stories one by one. I could see that Michael was getting nervous. Finally I got to his piece. When I read it out loud the other kids laughed, as I knew they would. Then I held up the book Walter The Farting Dog and I said: ‘Michael’s story made us laugh, just like this book did when we read it. Good writing can make us laugh.’ I figured that this was the first piece Michael would share during the school year. If he had a bad experience, well, I feared it might affect his entire year, so I wanted to make it positive, and it was. Michael was beaming.”

In this story, I appreciate the teacher’s willingness to rethink her practice. It’s not always easy to change! Of course, the teacher is responsible for the tenor and decorum in the classroom. Ultimately, the teacher can put forth his/her own “line in the sand” (as to what is and is not permissible) but you could also indicate a willingness to rethink and revisit this issue as the year progresses. Students will respect that.

In your chapter on sports writing, you zero in on two common problems: overuse of clichés and too many boring play-by-play details. How do you teach students to recognize when they might be boring their readers?

I write for myself. I am my first reader, and I believe that people are far more alike than we would like to admit. Thus, I assume that what’s interesting to me will be interesting to the reader. The problem, of course, is that the boy writer who played in the “big game” will in fact find every pitch highly interesting! Because he participated he may be oblivious to the reader’s boredom.

There are some developmental issues at play here. Up to and including third grade students will tend to write bed-to-bed (or play-by-play) stories. But by fourth grade students can be taught the power of summarizing. That allows a writer to skip the boring parts, to deal with six or seven innings in one brief paragraph, and then slow down at the most crucial moments.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the emphasis the Common Core Standards place on nonfiction and on analytical writing and argument [though Appendix A of the Standards defines narrative as “creative fictional stories, memoirs, anecdotes, and autobiographies.”] Do you worry that creative writing may get squeezed out?

We know only too well how things go in education—we swing abruptly from one end of the continuum to the other. There’s nothing wrong with teaching nonfiction, argument, and analytical writing. I’m heartened that more attention will be paid to these real-world genres. But yes, I am afraid that a hyper focus on Common Core Standards may lead teachers to neglect narrative writing. That would be a serious mistake.  Story, after all, is the mother of all genre. When kids write real stories about their lives they can include the honest, specific, accurate information that will make the writing come alive. I believe in the power of story writing. I have watched thousands of young writers find their stride by writing stories.

One more thing, and this may sound like a cranky quibble, but I don’t like the connotation of the phrase “creative writing.” It sounds too laid-back and nonrigorous. I much prefer the term “expressive writing.”

I like the way you wrote about boys and emotion. You challenge the stereotype of boys being unemotional. They just might express it differently from girls. I remember there were some very emotional conversations in the boys writing group featured in your video, Dude, Listen to This! Do you find that writing provides boys a way to express emotions they have trouble talking about in conversation?

When it comes to emotions we must be careful not to oversimplify or over-generalize. I have met many tender boys. I have also met girls who are tough as nails, who keep their emotions tightly bottled. Still, it does seem like girls have an easier time sharing their feelings. Boys seem to benefit from a separate vehicle for doing so. For instance, I have watched my sons act in a theater production where they are suddenly expected to express a range of emotions. In every case they rose to the challenge.

Sports is another arena where boys are allowed to express emotion. Boys learn at an early age that “Big boys don’t cry,” but when my son’s high school lacrosse team got beat in the state tournament, all the players had tears in their eyes as they walked off the field for the final time. Many were openly crying. Nobody made fun of that—not peers or parents.

In a similar way, writing seems to be one of these arenas where boys allow themselves (and allow their friends) to share a richer range of emotions: sadness, loneliness, loss, jealousy, etc. Many boys find poetry a perfect vehicle for this kind of emotional writing. Of course, this is also true for girls.

One last question: So what have you got against vampires?

Ha! Okay, well, let’s have a bit of historical perspective. A few years ago vampires became the rage. Then the hot thing was (is) zombies. What’s next? My 1st grade niece Liza insists that fairies will be the next big thing. Maybe she’s right.

I’ve got nothing against vampires. (One of my neighbors is a vampire, but he’s quite friendly–on several occasions he has dropped everything to help me sharpen my chainsaw.) But on a serious note…I am against anything that gets done and overdone to the point that it loses its freshness. I don’t like formulaic writing! In my book Pyrotechnics on the Page, I argue that each writer has the responsibility to reinvent our language, to conjure up its power and its magic, each time he or she sits down to write. We can’t fall back on hackneyed scripts or formulas. We have to make it new.

39 comments August 7th, 2012

Quick Tip Tuesday: Instant messaging and boy writers

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.

1 comment May 11th, 2010

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