It took months of persistence, but Ralph was finally able to take a few moments from his crazy schedule to answer a few of my questions. As you likely know, Ralph Fletcher is the industry guru for boys and writing. For years I’ve freely promoted his book, Boy Writers, as my favorite for getting boys to write – be sure to read my book review. Here are the highlights from my interview with him…
1. Can you tell us about your background and how it influenced you in regard to boys and literacy?
Well, I’m first and foremost a writer. I wrote professionally since I got out of college and started doing freelance writing for magazines. Later I earned an MFA degree in writing at Columbia University. It was then that I met Lucy Calkins and got involved in the Teachers College Writing Project.
2. Your book, Boy Writers, is my favorite for getting boys to write. It inspired me in my own writing, as an adult. What motivated you to write it?
Boys are struggling in writing classrooms. That’s clear in test scores (girls ahead of boys by 20 points on writing proficiency tests nation-wide). But I didn’t need tests to know that. I saw it with my own eyes. And as part of the writing process movement I am aware that we privileged a certain kind of writing—sincere, serious, nice, emotional—that is not exactly what most boys are good at.
In general, we have sanitized the writing classroom (no weapons, no war, no blood, no farts) to such an extent that there’s not much left for boy writers to sink their teeth into. It’s boring! I hoped to widen the circle for boy writers. We need to get them engaged if we want them to become stronger writers.
3. Your website, http://www.ralphfletcher.com, is loaded with great tips for young writers. Of all the great pieces information you provide, can you comment on a few?
I have always had an interest in young writers. When I do author visits I give young writers 3 bits of advice:
1) Get a writer’s notebook where you can write something every day. Practice is necessary to became better at anything.
2) Read everything you can get your hands on.
3) Don’t forget to be a kid. A real childhood is one of the most precious things any writer could have.
4. What advice would you give parents who have a son that doesn’t like to read or write?
- Look for easy, low-pressure occasions (a car ride, vacation) where he might like to write. You might get him a notebook that’s unlined, and encourage him to draw (even if he’s older).
- You might also suggest he use the notebook as a scrapbook to collect stuff—photos, feathers, ticket stubs, etc. Boys are notorious collectors. This notebook could include weird facts, quotes, rock lyrics, lists, and so forth.
- Show interest in what he writes. If he lets you read it, be there as a reader. If it’s funny, laugh. React as a human being. If he doesn’t want you to share, that’s okay.
- Build on strengths. Boys may seem tough but they want praise—find something specific to celebrate. Don’t play teacher. Don’t correct his spelling or make any negative comments on his handwriting.
- Write something personal and share it with your son. Let him see you writing.
5. What are a few important things a teacher can do for boys in the classroom?
It’s hard to boil down what I wrote a whole book about. A few thoughts:
- Just let them write.
- Choice. The boys I surveyed were crying out for more opportunities to write about what they really want to.
- Take the long view. Everything we do should be geared to creating life long writers.
- Look for the humor. If you don’t get, or don’t accept boys’ quirky humor, they will feel shut off.
- Be more accepting of violent writing (within commonsense limits, of course). I know this is a hot issue that makes people nervous, and everyone has to do what feels comfortable in this regard. Note that I said “more accepting.” There should be limits. I personally would allow as much violence in their writing as you would allow in their reading.
6. Any advice for librarians?
There have been a bunch of good books published about encouraging boys to read. There are lots of exceptions to all this, but in general boys will appreciate well-stocked sections in:
- Humor (esp. any kind of spoofs and satire)
- Graphica (manga, graphic novels)
- War—weapons, army tanks, etc.
- Action (survival, for instance)
7) Other thoughts:
The classroom is one place we encounter “the other.” By that I mean other cultures, other ages, other ethnicities, other socio-economic classes, and yes, other genders. Most elementary school teachers are women—maybe we need to a better job of reaching across the gender lines so we “get” (understand) where boys are coming from. Let’s try not to judge boy writers by what they write and how they write about it, but accept them.
Also I think we need to develop a taste for boy writing in all its zany humor and edginess. Check out Stenhouse blog where I comment on a variety of authentic boy writing samples. Go to:
I also want to mention my new instructional videotape about nurturing boy writers. It’s called DUDE, LISTEN TO THIS! and is available from Stenhouse Publishers.