A week ago, I sat down and read Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Joy Write, on a Sunday afternoon. A wonderful synopsis of the book is posted over at Two Writing Teachers by Stacy Shubitz; for me, the book really crystallized the tension I often feel between teaching certain genres I know my kids need and the messier, experimental writing that kids also need to grow as writers. Because I only get to see each class for roughly forty minutes each day, time has been one of the challenges as I’ve wrestled with this inner conflict. While I don’t completely agree with everything Ralph Fletcher says (and I’ve been a fan of his work my entire career), I do love his ideas about greenbelt writing and its importance, especially for struggling writers. I don’t feel a writer’s workshop is an “either/or” proposition for secondary grades, but instead, I think a writing studio includes greenbelt writing as well as more structured writing that includes more 1:1 help and guided instruction, an inquiry stance on writing that includes the use of modeling and mentor texts, and the use of writer’s notebooks for thinking and trying out different writing/text structures.
Fletcher introduces his concept of Greenbelt Writing in Chapter 5 and then has subsequent chapters explaining what it might look like. Fletcher defines Greenbelt Writing as:
“Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated. I’m talking about informal writing. Writing that is wild, like the pungent skunk cabbage that sprouts haphazardly along the edge of a swamp. I’m talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over the shoulder.”
Fletcher also says that the more “developed” and structured modern writing workshop can be supplemented with greenbelt writing, a “wild territory where kids can discover the power of writing” that is (39):
- infused with choice, humor, and voice
- reflective of the quirkiness of childhood
In Chapter 10, Fletcher says, “…instead of giving reluctant writers more structure, let’s give them more freedom. Invite students to try out any of the writing types detailed in Chapters 6 and 7, and especially the ideas found in Chapter 8” (85). Fletcher then tells teachers to encourage these kinds of writing: free-writing, journal writing, writing in a favorite genre, collaborative writing, humor, obsessions, and edgy writing. Several teachers he interviewed who have tried greenbelt writing with their students say their students gain confidence and see themselves as writers, processes that are essential to growth as a writer. Fletcher acknowledges teachers may not completely buy into the idea that greenbelt writing will lead to “…stronger formal classroom writing” (86). However, Karen Huy, a third grade teacher, says “Before I can even get reluctant writers to regard themselves a writers, I have to get them to see all of their many forms of writing as writing” (87).
With these ideas and arguments (as well as counterarguments from personal experience and included in the book) in mind, Chapters 5 and 10—“Greenbelt Writing” and “The Reluctant Writers” —were the two chapters that resonated with me the most; they pushed my thinking and perspective, and as a result, I scrapped my plans for the last 3.5 weeks with my 6th grade Writing Connections and rebooted to have a “Greenbelt Writing” unit. While a formal unit is not truly in the spirit of the book, it is a starting point for us and a space for us to experiment with greenbelt writing; it also gives us this space to simply write, share, and hopefully thrive while sustaining our writing stamina. I also see the greenbelt writing project as a space for us to plant seeds for the 2017-18 year and to figure out how to better balance greenbelt writing with the required genres I know my students must learn. Though I am presenting this as a unit to my 6th grade writers, I am trying to stay true to Fletcher’s urging that we not keep out as teachers but adopt a “hands off” (40) approach in terms of letting students pick their genres of writing/writing projects and evaluating their work/knowing when it is publish-ready. Most importantly, this unit is designed to give students “spaces and opportunities to experience the pleasure of writing” (40).
Last week, we began by brainstorming topics we were interested in writing about. I then introduced our project guidelines to both of my sections of 6th Writing Connections. I have organized our project into two writing cycles; in each cycle, students choose two writing projects to develop and publish on our 6th Writing Connections KidBlog. We also reviewed our calendar and timeline for Writing Cycle 1.
All of my 6th graders are struggling writers, so I thought about how to keep the writing open yet provide some flexible writing structures for those who might want something to help them start. I crafted the following menu and stations for each kind of writing that students could visit:
Students always have the option to free-write most of the genres; some of the genres are ones we have done earlier in the year, like different kinds of poetry and personal narratives. While I know Fletcher railed against the use of any templates in his book, the reality is that many of my students honestly have NO idea where or how to begin even with lots of modeling. I primarily used writing/text structures from Gretchen Bernabei (I have all of her books!) because I love how her work provides flexible writing/text structures to help students who need “training wheels” to get them going with their selected writing pieces if they are not sure how to begin with their choices as a free-write. Her text structures and “kernel essays” also give them ideas for exploring different ways writing might look within a genre. Here are my go to resources I used from Gretchen:
- Gretchen’s wonderful page of writing strategies that are available to everyone for free
- Text Structures from the Masters
- Fun Size Academic Writing for Serious Learning
- The Story of My Thinking
After they reviewed the list of options, they visited each “genre” station and decided which kinds of writing they wanted to do. I asked students to pick two choices, indicate the topic, share if they planned to write with a partner, and share if they planned to create any of the writing pieces as a VoiceThread (we have a district subscription). I took everyone’s contract and created a master roster that is now posted in the room so students can double-check their chosen writing projects. Here is a sampler of student topics and writing pieces:
- Favorite places (local, like Mom’s house; others are more exotic like the Bahamas)
- Medical Marijuana–persuasive/argument
- Family stories
- Favorite memories, like the first day of school
- Traffic/car accidents
- Anxiety and worry stories–one student is writing about his fear of tornadoes
- School rules–persuasive
- Gun control–persuasive
- How to bathe a dog
- Made up story–the disappearing boy, dogs, the dangers of technology
- What if humanity became extinct
- How to make a spinner
- Personal narrative–“my scars”
- Readers’ Theatre Scripts–time travel, soccer, smartphones
- How to build a skateboard
- How to make slime
- Assorted poems (free verse, color, Where I’m From)
- Persuasive–why I deserve a dog, why I need a certain kind of shoe, why the school day should be shorter
- Valuable advice–being a good friend, being a good student in middle school
- How to stay organized
- Poem topics: flower, wildlife, nature, ocean, beach, my dog
- Archery–how to
For the last three days, students have been working on their projects with enthusiasm. I had three students who were ready to publish poems today in period 6-3; they LOVED seeing their work on our class blog and learning how to publish on the blog.
It’s also worth nothing that nearly every student chose to do one collaborative project, and many are interested in trying VoiceThread. I’m excited to see what students create the next three weeks, and I will try to do a follow-up post near the end of May. I’ll also continue to contemplate the arguments and ideas Fletcher presented in his wonderful book and dwell in this metaphor of informal writing as a greenbelt.