Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Resource Book Review: What a Writer Needs

What a Writer NeedsWhat a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am participating in a National Writing Project workshop from late June through mid July. Our first reading assignment has been Ralph Fletcher's What a Writer Needs. My initial reaction is that Fletcher does not necessarily distinguish teacher from student when he discusses writing. True, he provides many examples of work generated by students of all ages. This underscores the immutable reality that we are all writers and should view ourselves as such.

There are few writing exercises to be found here. That is not Fletcher's way.

What a Writer Needs promotes the concept that as a teacher of writers we need to be both guide who knows when to get out of the way, as well as an active and vital participant in the writing process. With guided encouragement, we are to help ourselves and our students write about the things and ideas which they truly care about.

Most students write far far better than they will ever know. We have to let children in on the secret of how powerfully they write. We need to let them take inspiration from they already do well.

Fletcher devotes several chapters to some of the better known tools of the craft: character, voice, beginnings and endings, tension, and language. I appreciate that Fletcher handles each of these less like a nuts and bolt chapter on what is right and wrong but more true to his overall message and tone of encouragement. We can learn how to tease these things out of our students, but only if they can see and hear their classmates successfully use them. Yes, you can use examples from literature, but the real sell on a soul is when one experiences the concepts and realizes that they truly are accessible.

As an aside, some of the most powerful messages delivered by Fletcher were the student samples included in his book--especially those from younger grades. It is natural for an English teacher to look at a piece of writing and think about how he/she would assess it...what comments we could have made.

Fletcher does not get into assessment or grading, and that is ok. This isn't that book. Additionally, there is an undertow in this text--stop setting kids up to please you. Stop asking for writing which earns your smile or disdain. Who we are and what we say and how we go about each affects students and their writing far beyond what we know.

I like that Fletcher uses and promotes the use of the word "mentor". Actually a prominent chapter of the book is on the role and good use of a mentor. I anticipate that a core element of the NWP experience will include mentoring. This word is changing the way I view my role in the class--there is indeed a different spirit to the word "mentor" as opposed to the word "teacher".

It is ok to be a mentor. It is ok to open your love of language, story-telling, and books to the students. While I see many similarities between the role of mentor and teacher, Fletcher categorization of our roles seem to blur as the same as what we expect of ourselves as teachers: high standards, build on strengths, value originality and diversity, encourage risk-taking, passion, and look at the big picture. The difference lies in the willingness to coach or guide--and I firmly believe that while all coaches are educators, not all educators have it in them to coach. Coaches can reach kids in ways that a teacher may not. That sounds harsh and perhaps critical, yet that is not the spirit or my intention.

With the right coach or teacher, the person becomes bigger than the text. A teacher or coach can be like a mountain--the closer your get to them, the bigger they seem. They care more about the name in the grade book (or on the jersey) than the letter/score in the grade book.

I think this can be a challenging transition of mind for some. I wrestle with it as I write this and as I read Fletcher's thoughts. I would never not consider myself a teacher, but I'm beginning to interpret what Fletcher means when he calls for us to mentor. My gosh, it is ok for me to write with my students...and share it? Isn't that a little self-absorbed? Isn't that risky?

Additionally, I struggled with the concept that it is more important to make time available for students to write, and I supposed that will be the greatest challenge for me.

How can I find or make time?

Where can I snip free some of the elements of my teaching which would allow for significant blocks of time for writing?

It is time for an overhaul of how I look at writing and have been trained to look at writing.

I applied to the NWP because after 16 years of teaching and experiencing many new initiatives, curriculum changes, philosophies, and adjustments because of law or nuance, I wanted a fresh perspective. I see this as an opportunity to step back and open my eyes and ears and overhaul what I do and why I do.

Fletcher's book What a Writer Needs could just as easily have been titled What a Teacher Needs, or What a Student Needs, because when it comes to the unique vocation of mentoring young writers, we write with and not for.

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