Learning From Ralph Fletcher: Teaching Authentic Information Writing

Two weekends ago, thanks to Bonnie Kaplan  and the Hudson Valley Writing Project, I had the great pleasure of attending Ralph Fletcher’s presentation: “Making Nonfiction from Scratch: How Can We Give Students the Time, the Tools, and the Vision They Need in Order to Create Authentic Information Writing?” I knew it would be a great morning of learning because:

  1. How can you NOT learn from Ralph Fletcher?!
  2. After having just finished a nonfiction genre study cycle  with my sixth graders, I knew that I could do better.

Ralph began his presentation with a spirited defense of keeping narrative writing at heart of our writing workshops, reminding us that what is remembered is connected to and embedded in story.  The elements of surprise and suspense draw us into stories, he said, they keep us on our toes and hold our interest.  Encouraging our students to write narratives about their lives allows them to develop their voice, because “kids find their strides as writers by writing about themselves.”

Then, Ralph turned his attention to nonfiction, and wondered aloud what happens to kids, quite often, when they write nonfiction. Why does it often have a quality of sameness, and why does it feel formulaic and lifeless?  Why do we focus on the five-paragraph format for nonfiction writing and not encourage writing that is playful, engaging, and humorous?  Can we not story tell even as we write to inform?  And, why does it feel as though nonfiction is something that is “done to” kids? Something that is not exactly enjoyable either to teach or to do?

I’ve been wrestling with this idea, too, ever since I’ve read Thomas Newkirk’s brilliant Minds Made For Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts  (which Ralph also referenced many times during his talk).

newkirk

Here is what Newkirk had to say about narrative writing:

All writing is narrated: it comes from a teller, a mediator, a guide who must win our trust, and in some cases wins affection.  As writers we are asking something extraordinary: that readers keep going by choice and not out of duty.  In my view, “information” is not enough of an incentive, unless we are writing a pure reference book.  One of our indispensable tools is …ourself…a self we craft…that invites you, the reader, to stay with me.” (p.84).

Ralph shared two core beliefs about the teaching of writing:

  • young writers need mentor texts that build a vision for what strong non fiction writing looks like, they need to “ride the momentum of a great piece of writing and find their own wave”.
  • students should sound like kids when they write non fiction – they need to retain a sense of playfulness.  Often, they can get numb from the facts they’ve researched for their writing and the prescribed format we as teachers often demand.  “Beware dump truck writing!” he cautioned – writing that is loaded with information and lacking in voice.

Then, much to our collective delight, he read aloud a wonderful piece he had written (for his soon to be published new book on writing nonfiction, I think): “Interview With A Coho Salmon”.  Filled with equal amounts of facts about the life cycle of a salmon and corny jokes, we were entertained even as we learned all sorts of new information and terminology about salmon and the particulars about their habitats, spawning habits, and life span.  This kind of writing was fun to read…and also seemed hugely fun to write!

Ralph spoke of our instructional focus on Type A writing – writing that is geared to show expertise on a topic, rather than Type B writing – writing that is exploratory, and allows kids to experiment and practice with writing moves and forms.    Both texts that he shared with us, “Interview With A Coho Salmon” and “Why the Earth is Farting” by Alan Weisman, were such excellent examples of Type B writing – we were engaged, we laughed, and we learned.  This, we felt, was writing we would love to explore with our kids!

Finally, Ralph shared 12 tips for teaching nonfiction writing:

  1. Choose choice! let kids find out what they care about – choice leads to voice.
  2. Share a variety of mentor texts – make time for kids to feel this work, allow them to “ease their brains into it.”
  3. Think audience – what information and format will work best? who do I want to read this piece of writing? Students should have another audience for their nonfiction, someone other than just their teacher.
  4. Don’t over do the pre-writing. Create maps to chunk information, not elaborate and time-consuming outlines. Think about small writing notebooks for topic and writing exploration.
  5. Help students focus large topics.
  6. Encourage students to interview as part of their research process – this allows them to find their focus, their zone of interest, or new perspectives.
  7. Rethink form. Why not several smaller pieces rather than one big article? In the real world, non fiction is exploding as a genre, but we teach in the same, formulaic way.
  8. Confer early in the process. Guiding kids to make good, clear choices early on sets them up for writing success.
  9. Remind them that skilled writers borrow from all genres.
  10. Get kids to talk before they write – talk allows kids to try out their ideas and their writing options
  11. Value passion, originality and voice.  Encourage the use of interesting, muscular verbs.  Move from the what of the piece to the how of the piece.
  12. Celebrate edgy writing that makes you sit up and take notice!

I left Ralph’s presentation full of new ideas and energy.  In fact, I could not wait to get back to my classroom and share “Interview With A Coho Salmon” with my sixth graders, knowing full well that they would want to try it out immediately.  And, this Saturday, I will share what happened when I did.