Saturday, November 04, 2006

BOY WRITERS by Ralph Fletcher: Author Interview

Ralph Fletcher's new book BOY WRITERS just came out from Stenhouse Publishers. It is a GREAT read. I have to admit that I am a huge Ralph Fletcher fan and he is a friend of mine, so I pretty much like anything that he writes, but I love this one. I think the boys and literacy issue has gotten much worse since the testing craze. There are so many books out there that address Boys and Reading but this one focuses specifically on writing and what teachers can do to help boys become writers. It really talks to teachers. I had an awful writing conference with one of my boys a few weeks ago. A few days later I read the chapter on conferring in BOY WRITERS. I immediately saw myself in the conference and realized where I had gone wrong. Somehow Ralph is able to talk to us, letting us know what we can do to support boys, without being critical of the mistakes we may be making. I learned a ton and it is an interesting read. Here is an interview with Ralph Fletcher about the book. 

A YEAR OF READING: What is the big message that you want readers to leave with in Boy Writers?

RALPH FLETCHER: Many of our writing classrooms are not meeting the needs of boys. They are not inviting, stimulating places for boy writers. We don't welcome the strengths, passions, and quirks of boy writers. No wonder test data show that boy writers perform far below girls. If we don't do a better job of engaging boys and pulling them into our writing community, well, we're going to lose them. We already are. Test results nationwide show boys performing far below girls on writing tests. 

A YEAR OF READING: As the dad of 4 boys, how do you hope that classrooms will change to meet the needs of boys? 

RALPH FLETCHER: It's probably too late for my sons. Joseph, my youngest, is in 8th grade. But there are other Josephs coming up. This book is for them. There is a scene in the movie "Big" where the toy company executives explain a new toy to the character played by Tom Hanks and he frowns: "Well, that's not fun!" Boy writers feel something similar. They quickly learn the limits of the school writing game. Can't write fantasy. Can't write comics. Can't write stories with any fighting, hitting, weapons, farting, war. Can't draw illustrations. That's not fun! No wonder so many boys turn off from writing and see it as a "girl thing". I'm proposing what may seem like a radical idea: Each one of us should look at our writing classrooms from a boy's perspective and honestly ask ourselves: Does this environment engage boys? If not, let's make some changes. In BOY WRITERS I suggest many ways we need to alter our classrooms. My friend Don Murray says "Do the writing only you can do." I'd like to see writing classrooms where teachers don't merely tolerate but encourage boys to do the kind of writing only boys can do. I'd like to see boys allowed to write stories along the lines of Jack Gantos' books and the Captain Underpants series, to name a few. Boys' pieces would include war, humor, adventure, danger, sarcasm and satire. 

A YEAR OF READING: Do you see the same patterns in boys' reading? 

RALPH FLETCHER: Well, I'm not a reading specialist but there are strong parallels between reading and writing. Writers like Jeff Wilhelm have pointed out that boys are drawn to texts we may not value: comics, video game guides, etc. It bothers me that my son Joseph would rather watch TV than read. Yet this morning before the bus came, he sat reading his Lacrosse magazine. Reading is reading, right? Sadly, I think we often give kids MORE choice in reading than we do in writing. Many teachers allow students to choose their books but give them very little choice as to what to write about. If we believe young readers need to choose books that interest them, shouldn't the same thing be true for young writers? 

A YEAR OF READING: What role do teachers play in helping boys become writers? 

RALPH FLETCHER: It's huge! Every day we give kids explicit and implicit messages about themselves as writers. The boys may not show it but they are listening. They want our acceptance and approval. We haven't talked much about praise, but I think it may be more important than we imagined. As a parent I used to take my 3 or 4 year olds to Chuck E. Cheese's. Did I like those places? No! I find them loud and frantic. The canned music is obnoxious. The food is pretty bad. But my boys wanted to go. Did I judge them, or criticize them for wanting to go to Chunk E. Cheese's? No, I took my kids there because I know that little kids honestly and sincerely like the Chuck E. Cheese environment. It engages them. It's a place tailor-made for their raucous energy. They feel at home when they're at Chuck E. Cheese's. In a similar way, we shouldn't judge boy writers negatively for their zany choice of topic, their earthy humor or violence. This is who they are. This is where they live. Ultimately every teacher plays the role of host of the classroom. Will boys feel welcome, or unwelcome, at the party? If they don't feel welcome, they won't write. It's up to us. 

A YEAR OF READING: What were your best and worst experiences as a boy writer in school? 

RALPH FLETCHER: I'm a bit suspicious of globalizing my experiences. Whatever writing woes I may have had (especially due to my horrific handwriting), I eventually did become a writer. But as I reflect, two things seem worth mentioning. First, I wrote a great deal at home. That was where I discovered the fundamental pleasure of putting one word after another. That's where I found my stride as a writer. Interesting that at home I really didn't get encouragement from my parents; nevertheless it was a safe place where I could write for myself. Second, I must say honestly that I had many writing teachers who weren't very effective but they didn't deeply injure my psyche as a writer. Since I didn't have lasting writing scars, when I finally did encounter a few strong writing teachers (in high school), I was ready to bloom.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:47 PM

    I was very interested in your interview with Fletcher about his new book regarding boy writers. I think the topic of boy writers is extremely timely in this "teach to the test" era. I am a 2nd grade teacher struggling with ways to validate and support the boy writers in my classroom. I plan to read the book ASAP.


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