Nurturing Seeds of Writing Joy with Greenbelt Writing

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):

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • 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:

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
  • Flowers
  • 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
  • Problem-Solution–bullying
  • 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.

Revisiting Book Tasting to Support Readers

booktasting

My colleague Jennifer Lund and I have been working with some of our ninth grade teachers this week as part of a unit they are doing with students to give students an opportunity to select a book and engage in self-facilitated reading.   As many of you may know, I used a strategy, “book tasting“, during my time at Creekview High to support inquiry and literature circles.  Jennifer and I decided to adapt it for this unit, but our challenge was tweaking it for eight sections of classes, a variety of readers, and completely open choices rather than giving students a pre-selected “menu” of choices to choose from as part of an inquiry unit.  We felt this would be an effective approach since we’ve noticed ninth graders sometimes are overwhelmed by all the choices available.   Because students here often ask for specific kinds of books (romance, mystery, a book like Hunger Games), we decided to create “sampler trays” of books by the most requested categories of books.    After some collaborative brainstorming, we decided upon these categories:

  • Romance
  • Action/Adventure
  • Mystery
  • Sports Fiction
  • Dystopian
  • Comedy/Humor
  • Gritty/Realistic Fiction
  • Hot/Popular Reads
  • Nonfiction

I created signage and we affixed those signs to individual book carts.  We utilized some previously created booklists and crafted some new ones to choose the books that would be the “appetizers” for each book cart/category.

bookcart

Because neither of us had done “book tasting” with this many classes at once or in a context in which students could choose any book, we then thought about how to tweak the activity to accommodate these needs and  complete it within a single 50 minute class period without rushing the students or shortchanging the selection experience.  After much thought, we decided this would be our game plan:

  • Introduce the activity and briefly outline the details of the book tasting with students.
  • Give students 10 minutes to “sample” our “trays” of tasty books.  Because we knew some students might also have definite ideas about specific books, we decided we would also offer browsing the stacks in the same area as an additional option.

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  • Work in three segments of “tasting” that would include roughly four minutes to read the first few pages of the book and then about two minutes to write a quick response and rating of the book using the book menu below:
  • Ask students to help with a few housekeeping activities upon the completion of the tasting:   A.  return books back to the appropriate cart with the book cover facing outward.  B.  Books from the stacks would be pushed to the center and we would clean up the “leftovers” afterwards; these books were then recycled either to the appropriate cart for its particular category or housed on the “Hot and Popular” cart.  Overall, most students did a great job helping us with these tasks.
  • Students then check out their books, grab a bookmark, and then check in with their teacher to share their choice.  We collected the completed book tasting “menus” as the ticket out the door.

We honestly were not sure how the activity would go—we had concerns our adjustments to the structure of the activity might be off, that we might run out of books and/or not have time between classes to replenish carts, or that our estimated timing/pacing would be way off, especially since we were working with multiple classes and diverse kinds of learners with a wide range of previous experiences as readers.

As it turned out, all of our fears were quickly allayed as the process flowed beautifully for each class on the first day.  Nearly every class section responded with enthusiasm and intense engagement with the activity.  Even the two sections that were not quite as stoked as the others (one was an early morning class; the other was at the end of the day) still participated in a positive way.  With the exception of the early morning class, all of the classes seemed very intentional in their book selections and interacting with the choices on the book carts.  Jennifer and I both felt the book carts as “sampler trays” gave the students a flexible structure to be more deliberate with their choices.  I like Jennifer’s take on the book tasting approach:  “The purpose of book tasting is to scaffold students’ making independent choices.”  We also observed students selecting books from both the carts and the stacks;  we also overheard conversations in which students shared opinions, questions, and recommendations to each other about books.  We also had students in each class inquire about specific titles, authors, topics, and series as well, so we used our laptops to do quick lookups in the OPAC.

Book Tasting with 9th Grade, 2/25/14

What struck us the most was how intently and deeply focused students were during the four minute “tasting” phases of each book in nearly every section; in many sections, some students would be so engaged that they would continue reading with a specific choice even after it was time to move on to another.   We used the book menu and the six minute cycles as a guide and tried to respect the needs of the students as readers if they lingered or finished slightly early.   One particular class shocked their teacher with their engagement with the books,  whispering to us “They hate reading!”, but in retrospect, we think that we perceive as disinterest or disdain for reading is really more about the lack of choices that is so pervasive in high school Language Arts choices. Overall, this variation of book tasting was tremendous fun for us as the teachers as well as the students, and we hope to do it again with other classes.

Book Tasting with 9th Grade, 2/25/14

A few brief reflections we think are share-worthy:

  • Giving students that quiet time to read and sample their books is crucial.   It is essential that teachers resist the urge to offer commentary to students or attempt to “coach” them into selecting a particular author or book—those behaviors defeat the purpose of book tasting as a scaffold to helping students have opportunities to select their own choices.   Respect students as readers and be a respectful observer, not participant.  Sharing ownership of the learning experience is at the heart of book tasting.
  • We paused to wonder how much quiet time our students have in their lives here at school as well as at home.  For a student body that is usually plugged into their earbuds and devices, the experience of reading without the buzz of music or a text may be new for some of our students.
  • The book carts are an accessible entry point for all readers but are especially helpful for those who might not have clear choices in mind but know there are certain kinds of books (like a mystery) that they might prefer.
  • Choice is such an essential element for learning.  The book tasting activity provides enough structure to support participation yet is flexible enough to not stifle students’ interests.
  • We plan to look at the roster of book selections from each class section and get a sense of what kinds of books students selected for their independent reading unit.

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Many colleagues expressed interest via Twitter in learning about this activity.  We encourage you to take it and adapt it for your students!   We hope this post will be helpful for anyone interested in using the book tasting strategies.  Some additional resources of interest:

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Video Interview: The Importance of Choice for Igniting Student Passion and Learning Through Research Projects

Earlier this week, I ran a short feature on our art gallery inspired by student research.  In the video below, Teagan takes a few minutes to discuss her work and the importance of choice in igniting student passion in research/inquiry projects.

Book Tasting Tweaks, Late Winter 2012

Last fall, I blogged about our book tasting I did with Susan Lester and her 10th Honors World Literature/Composition (Media 21 cohort) students; these texts were a springboard into our unit of inquiry on issues in Africa.   We just finished our later winter book tasting last period, and I did a few modifications from fall that I thought teachers and librarians might like.

Book Tasting Tweak 1

For this book tasting, which is our springboard into a unit of inquiry on war and veterans, I created a book tasting LibGuide.    Although we had hard copies of all the books except for two on the menu, I wanted students to have a portal for our book choices and book review tools.

In the LibGuide, I included widgets for NoveList and NoveList K-8, which we are fortunate to have access to through GALILEO, Georgia’s Virtual Library, so that students could read book reviews for their choices and/or browse suggested “read alikes” or browse additional books by topic if they chose to do so.  I also used the “books from the catalog” feature in LibGuides to create a visual list of books so that students could peek at the covers on our large screen in one of our library commons instructional areas before heading over to the book cart; I love the fact that you can sort your “books from the catalog” by call number with one mouse click!  For the two books that we didn’t have copies of but that we thought students might be interested in reading, I was able to hyperlink to the books in Amazon (although I could have easily pushed them to any other source like LibraryThing reviews or NoveList) so that students could get a preview since “books from the catalog” allows you to add a hyperlink (which is handy when you are creating a list of eBooks from a database like Gale Virtual Reference Library).  Finally, I included a widget for our Destiny OPAC and a LibGuides built-in widget for Google Book search.  This LibGuide page gave students a virtual portal for learning more about a book and reading reviews after browsing the hard copy of the book.

Book Tasting Tweak 2

For this book tasting, I followed the principle of “less is sometimes more” by giving students a blank 3 x 5 index card after we reviewed the LibGuide.  I instructed students to use one side to jot down notes to themselves about the books they were browsing; on the other side, students indicated their top two book choices.

Susan and I collected these at the end of the class, and I used the notecards to quickly and easily compile a roster of students and top choices.  Since we have enough copies of what everyone wanted and enough money left in our budget to purchase the few additional titles we need, I’m able to give every student his/her top choice.

Here were the choices:

  • 2 students chose Code Talker:  A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two
  • 2 students chose Dear America:  Letters Home from Vietnam
  • 1 student chose Faith of My Fathers
  • 3 students chose Fallen Angels
  • 4 students chose Purple Heart
  • 1 student selected House to House (self-selected through browsing/discovery  rather than a selection from the original menu)
  • 1 student selected Sunrise Over Fallujah
  • 1 student selected The Long Road Home:  A Story of War and Family
  • 2 students selected The Things They Carried
  • 3 students chose Soldier Boys
  • 3 students selected What  Was Asked of Us
  • 1 student chose I Am a Soldier, Too:  The Jessica Lynch Story

Next Steps and Reflections

Now we’ll talk to students about how we might group our Fishbowl inquiry groups for March; it looks as though theme, veteran group, or war might be some focal points for group formation.    We’ll also give the groups some options for variations on their approaches to Fishbowl discussions.  Students will use their texts to discover an issue or topic they want to research related to war and/or veterans (which I’ll be blogging more about in a few weeks).  In conclusion, I think we were all happy with the way the book tasting rolled–students had room for choice, discovery, and exploration without any organizational structures that were overly fussy or complicated.  I’m excited to see how the student engage and respond to their texts as we kick off our unit the last week of February!