Friday, February 24, 2017

How I Turned Writing-Phobic Students into Writing Machines (or How Ralph Fletcher Rocked My World) Part 1

It’s no secret that I have an author-crush on Ralph Fletcher.

I was lucky enough to see him in person (twice! woohoo!), and I could hardly contain my joy. I threw my hand up like an excitable fourth grader when he asked for volunteers.  I asked questions - so I could pretend he was talking just to me.  And at the break, I got him to sign two books for me (I always thought it was ridiculous to stand in line to have an author sign books…until I became a bonafide Ralph groupie.).

I love the way he writes. I love the way he speaks. And I love the way he looks. Okay, I know the last one was a little bit more information than I needed to share – but it’s true.

So what sparked this author crush? His crazy-good, life-changing Writer’s Notebook books

Book Love

A Writer's Notebook
Ralph Fletcher has written a lot of books about teaching kids to write the way real authors write (and each one is filled with ah-ha moments and practical tips), but the one that sparked my insatiable desire to learn more was A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You

I’m not kidding when I say that once I applied the techniques in this book, I started looking forward to the ELA writing block – every single day

Why? Because my students loved it!

Not only did Writers’ Notebooks change the way I taught writing, but they turned even my most reluctant writers into writing machines - who actually wanted to share what they wrote. Be. Still. My. Heart.

Writer's Notebook Defined

So what exactly is a Writer's Notebook?

Ralph Fletcher describes it this way:
“A Writer’s Notebook is a blank book where a writer can engage in the fun, often messy job of being a writer – practicing, listening, playing with language, gathering images and insights and ideas. The purpose of such a notebook is to nourish the writer. It is one of the most essential tools of the trade.”

Yep. It’s just a simple, blank notebook where writers collect ideas (lists), free write (fluency), and practice targeted skills (figurative language/word choice/sentence structure).

Essentially, it’s the place where ideas for future writings (i.e. pre-writing and drafting gems) are stored. 

That’s it. Nothing else. No full-length pieces. No final drafts.

But believe me, if you want to see dramatic improvements in your students’ writing it’ll be more than enough.

Writer's Notebook in Practice

There are many ways to use Writers' Notebooks, but I either use them as stand-alone exercises to build writing confidence or as warm-up exercises during the mini-lesson portion of Writer’s Workshop. 

Sometimes students generate lists (e.g. annoying personality traits, character names, substitutes for overused words). 

Not only do student-generated lists serve as great pre-writing tools and year-long reference pages, but students feel a sense of ownership as they create and share these lists in pairs and small groups.

 Writer's Notebook Collections and Quick Writes

Sometimes they'll draft free writes about something that's on their minds or about something I suggest (e.g. recounting an event that happened over the weekend, taking a stand on a controversial issue, writing a character description). 

Free writes (10-12 minutes drafts) help students experiment with different writing styles. Since free writes are non-threatening by design, students find it easy to develop a style that feels natural and conversational. 

***An extra free write bonus is that many of these short pieces will become part of longer assignments later in the year.

Character Snapshots

And sometimes students fool around with language to help them develop a unique writing style (e.g. playing with punctuation, practicing sentence-building techniques, experimenting with word choice).  I can't think of a more entertaining way to teach grammar and mechanics than to have students create visually-rich pages which will be repurposed as valuable guides for the editing and revising stages of the writing process.

Visual Writer's Notebook

Although Ralph Fletcher emphasizes that a pure Writer’s Notebook should be filled only with pieces dreamed up by each student, I have found that many students need to have a suggested topic to fall back on in case they're not inspired to come up with their own on any given day. 

There are also times when I require students to write about a pre-determined topic (Shhh…don't tell Ralph.) in order to make the scary process of writing a five-paragraph essay or a full-length narrative fun, easy, and achievable for inexperienced writers. I'll talk more about that in a future post.

If you'd like to view more sample pages you'll find them under the Visual Writer's Notebook tab above this blog or by clicking the button below.

In my next Writer's Notebook post, I'll be sharing a short video on how to set up notebooks and I'll  be including a downloadable Writer's Notebook cheat sheet.

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.


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