PYROTECHNICS ON THE PAGE: PLAYFUL CRAFT THAT SPARKS WRITING, it is a must-read for writing teachers. In this new book, Ralph shares his wisdom about the need for word play in our work with children. We had the pleasure of interviewing Ralph about the ideas in his new book.
FRANKI: It seems that, although your book is about playing with words, your message is bigger than that. You address the absence of play throughout the day. Can you talk a bit about your concerns with that?
RALPH: Yes. I don't think we value play as a learning environment anymore. We are not teaching corporate executives but, rather, children. Kids love to play. And many researchers have shown that play is a rich learning environment. Why shouldn't we take advantage of kids' affinity for play?
FRANKI: Why do you think play is important in writing? How can playing with words improve student writing?
RALPH: Strong writing is always fresh and memorable, never formulaic and predictable. When a student writes playfully, he/she imbues the writing with those qualities that make us sit up and take notice.
FRANKI: Talk a bit about how playing with words has been important to your own writing?
RALPH: I play with writing every time I sit down. I'm always wondering: how can I say this in a way that's never been said before? How can I find a new arrangement of words, a new phrase? Wordplay is very important in poetry and picture books, but it's also important in my novels and even my professional books.
FRANKI: When in the process is your language most important? At the beginning or during revision? Do you think all writers focus on language at different times in the process?
RALPH: I once would have answered that question by saying: during revision. Katie Wood recently attended one of my presentations and she stated that she doesn't really think of the stages of writing as being distinct. I realized that she's right! They are all mixed together. I'm thinking about language while I'm drafting, while I'm rereading, and also while I'm revising. So I would say that language play is important throughout the process. It's not confined to any one particular part of the writing process.
FRANKI: You include several lessons in the book to support word play. Do you think there are particular things that kids need to know or be invited to do?
RALPH: Children need lots of examples of wordplay, both from literature as well as from popular culture. They also need to get from their teacher an unambiguous signal to be playful.
FRANKI: Do you think it is more important that children play with words orally or in their writing?
RALPH: Hmmmm, interesting question! I think kids do play with their language in their talk. When they do so, the teacher could "bracket" it, point it out, and invite students to do similar things in their writing. But yes, if we want kids to "have a go" at wordplay, they could try it verbally with another student. Talk gives kids a low-risk high-comfort place where they can begin to experiment with playing around with words. .
FRANKI: You talk about the danger of “naming”. Can you talk a bit about that?
RALPH: When it comes to naming vs. usage I vote with usage every time. Unfortunately, I think we often go no further than having students name the technique. It's nice if students can define alliteration or metaphor, but if they can't use it in their writing--so what?
FRANKI: What is the one thing you hope teachers who read your book walk away with? What is your hope for kids in writing classrooms?
RALPH: I don't know if I can distill it to just one thing. Here are two. First, I think strong writing contains an element of surprise. Wordplay--the surprising, unexpected effect that happens when words rub together--is a great way to create surprise.
Second, it's tempting to look at wordplay as some kind of exotic side dish rather than the "meat-and-potatoes" of real writing. I disagree. I see it as central. It's not merely a way to show off or be clever; rather, it's a way to powerfully hone what you want to say. For instance: Recently at my sister's wedding, my 80 year old father got up to speak. Here's what he said:
"You know the Wizard of Oz, the moment when the movie goes from black and white to color? Well, the first 22 years of my life were black and white. But when I married my beloved wife Jean, my life switched to brilliant color. I had 52 years of glorious technicolor. And when she died in 2004 my life went back to black and white."
When my father finished speaking, everybody had tears in our eyes. His wordplay wasn't merely clever--it created a powerful moment we will never forget.