Supporting Boy Writers: An Interview with Ralph Fletcher

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Have you ever banned a topic from your writing workshop? If you have, you’re not alone…but you may want to think twice about that policy.

In classrooms across the country, teachers tell me there are certain topics they’ve banned from the writing classroom. Video Games. Movies. Zombies. Hunting. Fights. Explosions. The list goes on. Often, there’s a regional factor to these decisions that I find interesting. With good intentions, teachers want kids to explore many topics—rather than sticking to what seems to be the same old, same old. For example, in New York City, some teachers tell me they’ve heard just about enough stories about playing in the park. In the Midwest teachers tell me they’ll jump out a window if they hear one more football story. Locally, here in Vermont, the pet peeve seems to be Minecraft.

Though the topics and the reasoning for banishing a topic may vary, there is one thing they all have in common. With very few exceptions, the topics teachers are most likely to ban from their classrooms are, more often than not, topics chosen by boys.

This pattern is not limited to region, nor is it limited to one age group or another, nor is it a very recent phenomenon. In fact, researchers have known for quite a long time that boys are having trouble in school.

Recently, one of the school districts I work with analyzed their literacy data and came to the startling realization that nearly all of the boys in their district were below or just barely at the grade-level benchmarks in literacy.

Yikes.

Read that paragraph again if you’re not shocked!

So, we’re on a mission now. We’re looking for anything and everything we can do to promote reading and writing for ALL students—boys and girls included. We’ve been brainstorming ways to encourage boys to participate more in whole class conversation, and ways to encourage boys to select books they want to read, and topics they want to write about. We’ve been thinking about our habits and language we use as teachers.

We’ve also been reading Ralph Fletcher’s wonderful books, Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices and Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know to help us think about the way we run writing workshop, and especially to help us rethink the issue of topic choice. (Spoiler alert: everyone has basically agreed that this year, they’re not to going to be so quick to ban so many topics!)

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Recently I tracked down Ralph Fletcher himself, to ask him for advice on how to help the teachers and students I work with. He was kind enough to do a quick email interview with me.

Beth: In Boy Writers it is clear that getting to know about kids’ writing lives in and out of school is as important as anything they actually write down on the page. What questions can teachers ask boys to get to know them better?

Ralph: My friend Cyrene Wells wore her New England Patriots shirt to school, signed by Tom Brady! The boys were enthralled and shared their own sports passions. So ask questions, yes, but also share what moves you. When you do question boys it’s important not to judge. For instance, a boy might love to hunt. Maybe you’re a non-hunter, or a vegetarian, but it’s important to stay neutral and not communicate disapproval.

Beth: Recently, bullying has been on everyone’s minds, with stories floating about, like this one. How do you encourage boys to write about a whole wide range of topics, including sports, video games, and other “boy” topics, without feeding into the culture that expects boys to behave certain ways in order to fit in?

Ralph: I talk to boys about this in Guy-Write… how to know when you’ve gone too far and need to dial it back. I think the example you cite (and I could cite many others) is just plain silly. Let’s take a deep breath and use some common sense.

Beth: Increasingly one-one devices are becoming more and more common in schools, with easier access to “safe” social media, and shared document platforms to use in the classroom. How do you see this as being helpful (or not helpful) for encouraging more boys to get excited about writing?

Ralph: My philosophy is: whatever makes it easier to write is good! Boys love technology and many find that writing on a laptop increases their flow/fluency. I’m all for eliminating sloppy handwriting as a hindrance to writing. Also, I think these devices can facilitate “cross-talk” between boys. But finally, technology by itself does not make a writing program. Districts first need to ask themselves: what do we believe about how kids learn to write? What are our core beliefs? Then they can ask: how might technology further those goals?

Beth: For teachers who want to start up a writing club for boys, either during school or outside of school, do you have advice for recruiting boys to want to join?

Ralph: “If you build it, they will come” (Field of Dreams). If you create a boys’ writing club and spread the word, boys will show up. Make sure it’s not a heavily teacher-run club. The boys have to feel like they own it.

Beth: Would you say that there’s an equivalent to boy writers during reading time? Could teachers transfer a lot of what we know about boy writers into supporting boy readers as well? Are there key differences in how you might support boys as readers versus as writers?

Ralph: Yes! I’ve never really thought of that but it’s a smart question and it makes perfect sense. I don’t see myself as an expert on boys reading, so I wouldn’t venture further than that.

Beth: Ralph, your books are such a great resources for teachers who want to inspire a love of reading and writing in all their students, boys and girls included. What can we expect to see in the future?

Ralph: Yes, I’m busy with a bunch of writing projects. I’m going to do a companion to Marshfield Dreams…not a sequel exactly but more stories from that time in my life. Fig Pudding is being released in a new edition and I’m going to add an epilogue with some new material.

As for professional books, I’m hard at work on Making Nonfiction From Scratch. This will be published by Stenhouse sometime next year.

I’ve developed a passion for photography and am pursuing that. I’m a “word guy” but it’s refreshing to immerse myself in images and light. It’s a word-free zone! Maybe one day I’ll write a book combining my images with some prose or poetry.

Ralph Fletcher is a renowned educator, writer, international speaker, and all-round inspiration to teachers and kids alike. He is the author of numerous professional books and videos, as well as many books for kids, including the marvelous books Flying Solo, Fig Pudding, and Marshfield Dreams. 

Ralph speaks at national conferences around the United States and abroad. He also conducts his own one-day seminars and does occasional author visits to schools. Visit his website for his speaking schedule, complete list of books, and more