I spent the weekend reading Walking Trees by Ralph Fletcher at the recommendation of my friend, Evi. I LOVED reading his memoir of the 1985-86 school year where he was hired to be a staff developer for Lucy Calkins’ Teachers College Writing Project. He spent the year teaching teachers how to teach writing.
One reason I enjoyed Ralph’s book is that he shared the background of how and why Lucy started a Writing Project in 1981. He pointed out the aspects of Writing Workshop and he honestly remarked on the ups and downs of trying to teach teachers.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“I would first have to master the nuts and bolts of launching or beginning a writing process classroom. This meant helping teachers set up a classroom where children could use some of the strategies professional writers use – choosing their own topics, working at their own pace, drafting and revising, editing and publishing – and assuming far more responsibility for their writing than they had ever assumed before.”
He was told by a Principal: “The central truth to all staff development is that teachers are resistant to change. These teachers have seen every dog-and-pony show around come down from the district, only to be replaced by a new one the next year… You win good teachers over slowly to a program like this.”
A Principal told Ralph: “You are suggesting a radical approach to teaching – valuing what children have to say, encouraging kids to write what matters to them, getting the teacher to leave the front of the room and really listen to her stories.”
Ralph learned from Lucy and others and started: “I find myself thinking of a quotation by Jacob Javitz..’If we stand at all, we stand on the shoulders of great teachers’. “
After reading student writing, he replied: “It gave me a deep sense of accomplishment to know that I shared some small part in this creation.”
About writing conferences: “The most absorbing part of my job continued to be the writing conference with individual children…I learned how to find something – anything – to enjoy about each writing conference I had….Writing conferences gave me an excuse to get to know kids well. Put another way, writing conferences were the vessels into which beginning friendships with children were poured.”
At a school in Harlem, Ralph asked a fellow staff developer: “What’s the point of all this writing stuff anyway? Who are we trying to fool? Most of these kids will never become writers. Most of them will never go to college.” Joanne replies: “You’re right. But writing matters a lot for these kids because it gives them a way to make some sense of their lives. That’s what happens when kids start to write their stories. That’s the real benefit.”
About Personal Narratives: “Writers write about the worlds they know about and that’s why you’ve been working mostly on personal narratives this year, writing the stories of your lives.”
About Poetry: “You have to marinate the kids with lots of great poems before they start to write…I read the poems twice and ask the kids two questions. What feeling did this poem give you? What picture dd you get in your mind?”
When Ralph discussed a few difficult teachers with Lucy, asking for advise, Lucy replied, “Why don’t you drop them?…It doesn’t make sense for you to be working with teachers who are that resistant. You’re wasting your time. I mean it. You can tell them if they want you to, and if your schedule permits, you can work with them next year. But you shouldn’t be working with them. Your time is too valuable. There are too many other teachers you could be working with instead.”
Demitris, a first grader wrote when asked his opinion of writing workshop:
“I like to write because it is fun. And everyone can read my booklets. And I like it because when ever I make a mistake whith spelling nobody can tell me to do it over. I like writing! I like what I write in my booklets. And sometimes my stories go on the buleting board. And when I forget a word I can put a currat. It is fun to write. And I like to read my classes booklets. Everyone can be an author even little children they just have to put their ideas on the paper they don’t need to spell the words right.”
Ralph Fletcher will be a keynote speaker during the TCRWP Writing Institute. I can’t wait to hear him in person and have him autograph my copy of Walking Trees!