Saturday, August 18, 2012

Boy Writers

Another summer read for me has been Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher. This book explores some of the particular challenges that many boys bring to writing workshop, challenges such as their love of including violence in their work and their earthy humor. He is clear to recognize that every boy writer, indeed every writer, is unique. Yet he points out that these qualities are often found in the writings of boys as a group.

This spoke to me because I have often struggled to find the balance between letting students find their voices in their own stories, driven by their own topics and interests, and wanting them to also be aware of the impact of their choices, particularly when they are incorporating violence or what might be seen as inappropriate humor into their works. I also want them to branch out beyond the popular culture infused topics (super heroes, Star Wars, video games) that they often embrace.

This book has no easy answers, but it does show how simply disallowing these types of writing can lead to some students disengaging from writing workshop. I remember when our school participated in a simulcast with children's author, Mo Willems. He referred to how he "shamelessly" copied Charles Schultz's Peanuts in his early writings as a child, and how much he learned in the process. While I want them to grow into developing their own characters, my students' use of super heroes can help them develop stories that they relate to and that gives them incentive to work on their writing skills.

And the humor, ah yes. At the end of last school year my students went through all their writings from the year. Not even I had read every piece of writing in their folders. They passed back to me any pieces that they did not want to take home with them. As I looked through them I found one poem about farts that one of my boys had written. I had to admit it was hilarious. He had used language effectively to create a humorous poem. I'm not sure what my reaction would have been if he had read it to me when he wrote it. This book helps me prepare for such times.

Summer Reading: Opening Minds

Summer is a great time to catch up on books I have been wanting to read. I have been looking forward to Peter H. Johnston's Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Minds. I loved his earlier book, Choice Words, which explored how the words teachers choose when they respond to their students can have a major impact.

In Changing Minds, this idea is explored further. It has given me food for thought as I prepare for this new school year. Peter Johnston draws on research and anecdotal observations to show how some words ("You are so smart." "You are so good at math or art or writing, etc.") support a static view of students that can undercut further effort and result in students playing it safe. Other words ("Wow, you worked really hard on this." "I can see the strategy you used to solve this." "You have communicated your idea clearly.") support a more process oriented approach to learning that encourages students to stretch, risk, and grow. He goes on to further explore how our words can set the tone for our classroom and for our students' interactions with others.

The words I use as I teach, at times, just come from habit. This year I want to keep Changing Minds in my mind and make more intentional choices about the words I use as I respond to my students.