Ralph Fletcher has given teachers playful and provocative ideas for years when it comes to word study. His writer’s view of vocabulary learning challenges many teaching assumptions. Ralph is the author of many books for teachers and children. In this podcast, he chats with Franki Sibberson about the value of word play for students of all ages.
You can visit Ralph’s website at http://www.ralphfletcher.com/ to learn more about his writing.
A full transcript is available below the video player.
Franki Sibberson: Ralph, you believe strongly in language play for kids. Can you talk about what you mean by language play?
Ralph Fletcher: Well, I mean using language in all the ways that people use it and have always used it, in the sense of language not always meaning directly what you have to say but in a more playful way. For example, I think Jane Yolen once said that often times a sentence is the most direct route between two ideas, but sometimes when you’re being playful with language, you’re using not the most direct way, but it may be the most interesting way to get there. It may be taking a word and using it an unusual form.
For example, my son did this thing with the Senior Follies where the high school kids get together and they do these spoofs and jokes and stuff, and some of the stuff is a little bit risque. But we were noticing that a lot of the skits that were done onstage were done by this group of boys. These boys hang out together a lot. Later on we were talking about it with some of the parents and I said, “There seems to be this ongoing bromance,” and then one of the moms says, “Yeah, now that I think of it that was pretty bromantic.”
So taking a word like “romance” and then bromance – when has become a new word in the last couple of years – but even finding a way to be playful with that, and always trying to push the limits and see what new innovations you can come up with. And it’s something that kids do naturally, I think, all the time, and I think that unfortunately we may push that out of the way they use language in the school. Or we may do things that discourages it – let me just say it that way.
Franki Sibberson: Why do you think language play is important for writers?
Ralph Fletcher: I guess I think that – this may seem kind of a funny way to say it, but – I really think as a writer you almost have the responsibility to reinvent the language each time you sit down. You want to say something that’s never quite been said in that way before, just because everybody’s different, everybody’s got their own unique voices, and you want to find your own way of saying it. I think that one of the qualities in writing that we don’t really talk enough about is that good writing has the quality of surprise. It’s not something that’s predictable. It’s something that makes us sit up and take notice and say, “Oh,” or we don’t say it but we think it.
I think that being playful with language is one of the simplest and one of the best ways to be playful and to create that element of surprise in your writing. So I think it makes writing interesting, it makes it so that it doesn’t get dull and routine. When writing is very formulaic, readers are going to nod off and not pay attention to it.
Franki Sibberson: How do you see language play working in the classroom? What’s your vision for that?
Ralph Fletcher: The first thing I’d say is that I think we really have to try to get out of this right-wrong paradigm, where there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way and never the twain shall meet. I think that, in fact, anything works as long as you can make it work. That’s true in art, too. You’ll see artists using colors in outlandish and outrageous ways, but somehow you stand back and you say, “You know, Van Gogh made that work. It seems to be a color that shouldn’t work, but it does work.”
I would like to see a more open-ended vision of what language looks like in the classroom and more interest, and I guess more leeway for kids to try stuff, sort of a sense of experimentation. Like, “I wonder what would happen if we did it this way? I wonder what would happen if we wrote a whole essay that just had sentence fragments?” You know, that sort of sense of not always following every rule that’s in the grammar book. That’s one thing. I think that it would be great to see an ongoing curiosity for language play in all areas, not just school but on television, in advertisements, in songs. I mean, there are a million different ways that people are playing with language all the time and classrooms could be a place to get kids to attune to that and look at it.
And then the third thing is, going back to the whole roots of writing process, process writing that said, “Gee, let’s look at what real writers do and let’s let that inform our practice.” I mean, that seems to be one of the basic tenets of writing, going back to Murray, Graves, Calkins and Atwell and all that good stuff. And it seems to me that I’d like to see lots models and examples brought in so kids could look at all the different ways that writers are playing with language all the time, and then kind of an open-ended invitation to kids to try some of that stuff in their own writing.
Franki Sibberson: Ralph, you always have great stories of kids and students in schools playing with words unintentionally, and kind of catching those – you pay good attention to those. I know you shared one story about your son. Any new stories about something a child has said that’s been just a great play on words?
Ralph Fletcher: One that happened to me awhile back – actually, it happened when my sister got married. She had all these little girls that wanted to be part of the wedding, and she just didn’t want to pick one flower girl so she picked like ten. At one point they’re all coming down the aisle, and it was really funny because some of them were going really fast and some of them were going really slow and putting flowers like every two inches. At one point a bunch of them collided with each other and they all fell in a big tangled heap, and one my cousins, a boy, I heard him say to the person he was sitting next to, he said, “What a cutetastrophe,” so merging the words “cute” and “catastrophe.” That’s one that came up because it made us all laugh.
Franki Sibberson: That’s a great one.
Ralph Fletcher: I’m going back to Don Graves, who I really never worked closely with, but I always felt that he and I would have good conversations, even if they were quick conversations at NCTE, or when I saw him in downtown Durham. But at one point I was talking to him about looking for something in classrooms, and I said, “I’m just having trouble getting any of these kinds of stories.” And Graves looked at me and he said to me, “What we say in the research class is that no data is data.”
And I think that, going back to your question, it’s kind of striking to me how hard it has been for me to find good examples. In fact, I’ve asked lots of teachers to send me samples of language play in kids’ writing. Usually when I ask teachers to send me stuff I get tons of stuff, lots of writing, pieces of poetry. I really didn’t get much stuff at all, and I suspect that a lot of the examples that you find would be oral examples rather than written down stuff.
You know, kids are always interested in talk and I think talk is that very – how can I say it? – it’s a milieu where they can try stuff out really quickly, you know, a quick-erase sketch board, and let’s try it again. And even if it doesn’t quite work, it’s no big deal because it’s gone and the conversation has moved on to the next thing. Whereas with writing down, as a kid, you may feel that you’re going to incur the wrath of the teacher a little bit more.
Franki Sibberson: Have you seen an impact on student writing because of language play?
Ralph Fletcher: Well, I feel like I maybe have this funny place in the field, in a sense, because I haven’t been following trends; I’ve been going exactly opposite the trends. Really, I think some teachers seem to like some of the things that I’m saying, even though it blows against the prevailing winds. And so I guess the thing is that teachers, by and large, I’d say 99 percent of teachers that we work with are language people, because teachers love language. They love rich language; they love playful language, puns, precise words and powerful passages. Teachers just love that stuff. When I’ve been giving my talk on language play, teachers have been very receptive to it, but I think that sometimes it is sort of the question of how do we bring it in, given sort of the tenor of the times.
Franki Sibberson: I think one of the challenges as teachers is how do we move beyond that isolated language play or that natural thing that happens in language, to really get kids to think about words and word choice in the context of their own writing, and I know you looked at it also in kind of the context of embedded in your writing. How do we, as teachers, move that isolated thinking about it, to really getting it be part of writing, do you think? And I think what you bring that’s been huge for me in the field is just you bring your life as a writer every day to what we’re trying to do with kids. How do we do that with them as writers?
Ralph Fletcher: That’s a good question. I guess there is always that kind of dividing line – not a dividing line but there are a couple of things. First of all, you can do all the specific strategies and setting them in motion in the classroom, but I think it has to be driven by a real spirit of inquiry. You can sort of set it up, it’s true to workshop in general, but there has to be this sense of ongoingness, and we’re writing and it’s being generated from the kids rather than being posed from above.
So I guess that’s the first thing, is that on a macro level I think the kids get excited about what the teachers get excited about. I mean, not only teachers each have their own interests and their own passions and their own things they want to follow. But I’ve seen it time and time again that a passionate teacher can get kids excited about whatever it is that they’re interested in, so I think teachers can really spark that and share their own passions and interests.
And then in terms of the classroom itself, I think that we could show kids that the Writer’s Notebook could be a place to collect stuff, collect words. This is a little bit off from what you were asking, Franki, but I was going to say that I have been looking at the Writer’s Notebook in terms of a little bit in gender terms – boy writers and girl writers – and I think that the idea of a notebook to sort of share your deep feelings can sometimes be a little hard sell for boys, but I’m having pretty good luck selling the notebook to boys as a place to collect stuff, because boys are collectors.
Franki Sibberson: Smart.
Ralph Fletcher: And I’m not saying that girls aren’t collectors, too – a lot of girls collect stuff – but boys really sort of like that idea, that the notebook could be a place to collect interesting words, oddities, words used in unusual ways. Even in my notebook I collect phrases that have an importance to me. For example, a friend of mine was saying that she had this moment with her grandfather, and they were just outside and it was a beautiful moment, the stars were twinkling, and she said to me it was a “snowball moment.” And so I said to her, “What do you mean by that?” and she said, “You know, it was perfect. Like you’d have those snowballs in the glass, and it’s just this perfect contained moment.” I love that idea, like a snowball moment, and I started saying to myself, “I wonder if I’ve had snowball moments,” or how I could play with that idea in another context. So I think the notebook could be a place for that.
And the other thing I was going to say is, it seems to me that if we try to get kids to raise a sense of awareness of how they’re using their own language, then maybe they could reread for that, too. They could be going back through their pieces and finding that one word that they’d never used before, or one word they used in an unusual way, or one word they invented – something that was playful that they’d never tried before in their writing. I mean, I think you can overdo that metacognition level, but I also am persuaded that once the kids can identify it, if they’ve used it themselves, then they have a better chance of really owning it.
Franki Sibberson: I love that idea of the notebook and boys being collectors and using the notebook like that. It’s a really good way to get them to attend to what they’re already doing. You’re so smart at connecting for us the life of real writers, and you understand the classroom so well, how this could work and what it could be like.