Friday, May 14, 2010

Pyrotechnics on the Page

Ralph Fletcher's latest book, Pyrotechnics on the Page: Playful Craft That Sparks Writing is now available through Stenhouse (  You can also visit Ralph's website for other great resources. 

I picked up my copy at IRA in Chicago and this book is an extraordinary read (I read much of it during my flight home and even the turbulence of a bumpy eastern Colorado thunderstorm couldn't tear me away from its pages).  In the foreword Katie Wood Ray writes, "...with this new book, Ralph is poised to teach so many of us once again in a whole new way, and we're going to have a grand ol' time learning what he wants to teach us about playing with language."  It's true.  Like an old friend, Ralph once again invites into his writing and teaching life to explore writing and to bring "play" back into our writing workshops.   

I interviewed Ralph about his book.  It was a pleasure to chat with him about his thinking.  It was just the spark I needed. Enjoy!

Patrick:  I love how you describe pyrotechnics as “deliberate playfulness with language used by writers.”  Tell us a bit more about the title of your book and how you came to develop the term “pyrotechnics.” 

Ralph:  Well, pyrotechnics has at least two meanings. It relates to fire, of course, but it can also mean “a brilliant or dazzling display, as of eloquence, wit, or virtuosity.” To me, pyrotechnics refers to any language that makes us sit up and take notice.    

Patrick:  It’s clear that a sense of play is critical for young writers.  What are some of the practices you see being implemented in classrooms in the name of “writer’s workshop” that send shivers down your spine? 

Ralph:  Nowadays the workshops I see tend to be more scripted. Real choice in writing seems to be disappearing. I see a lot of paint-by-numbers writing. As an author, I receive letters from a class that has read one of my novels. Sometimes those letters all have the same format, and it’s clear that the kids are following a “recipe” given to them by the teacher. 

Patrick:  Throughout the book, you clearly describe your love affair with words.  What are the best ways for teachers to train their ears, eyes, and hearts to notice language at play so that they can, in turn, nudge their students to do the same? 

Ralph:  There are many ways. I think it begins with what Don Graves has said—good writing teachers must be readers and writers themselves. That’s such a powerful idea! So, read a novel and post sticky notes at places where the language makes you ooh and ahh. Share a few appropriate sections with students. Kids need to see us delighting in language that is skillfully—and playfully—used.

Patrick:  One of my favorite chapters in the book is chapter five.  In it, you talk wisely about the developmental perspective of language play.  You challenge us to “romp through the lush and forbidden grass” and to acknowledge that children often know more about language than we do.  Would you speak briefly about the developmental aspect of young writers?  What are your recommendations for teachers who have lost sight of the developmental nature of writing?

Ralph:  Skilled writing teachers steer by several stars: what you know about individual kids, what is appropriate for writers at the grade level you teach, and, yes, the writing curriculum. But there are rough developmental levels for young writers, and we forget this at our own peril. Second grade teachers may feel pressured to teach paragraphing in order to get kids ready for the state writing test but, in my opinion, paragraphing is a skill better left to be taught in 4th grade.

Patrick:  You write about play and the essential elements that define play (chapter 12).  When you walk into a classroom, how do you know it is "play-full"?  What do you hope to see and hear when you visit a classroom (both primary and intermediate)?

Ralph:  I want to hear laughter. Humor is essential! I want to see writing displayed on the walls that reflects what kids do at that age. Instead of typing up correct (standard) first grade stories, put stories on the walls written in their own handwriting, in their own zany spellings. I want to see diverse writing: different kinds of topics. Most important: when I read those stories I want to hear kids’ authentic voices.

Patrick:  In chapter twelve, you talk about igniting pyrotechnics in the classroom and you share some common principles for promoting language play in the classroom.  How might you further encourage teachers to notice when it is time to introduce a specific strategy or skill and to take the pyrotechnic concept “deep”? 

     Speaking of deep, I often hear teacher’s say, “I want to know how to take students deeper.”  Would you take a few moments to give us your definition of “depth” when it comes to pyrotechnics?

Ralph:  I am the (co)author of Craft Lessons, and Pyrotechnics on the Page has 24 new craft lessons showing kids how they can play with words when they write. I am all about craft, but at the same time I think we have to be careful not to focus too much on craft. Yes, we teach our students various strategies, craft elements, techniques. But at some point the writer should put that stuff aside and just write.
    It’s a slow-growth model. In math we introduce a concept, demonstrate it, give kids homework (to see if the are picking it up), then give a pre-test, then a final test to see if they have mastered the concept. Writing is completely different. We may introduce a craft element in the fall, but the young writer may not really use it until the spring—or even next year!
       So “depth” requires requires kids to have sustained time to write with all the conditions we know are so important for writers: choice, ownership, and supportive response.

Patrick:  In chapter sixteen, you provide teachers with rich and varied craft lessons and you mention that they should “not be taught randomly or as part of some arbitrary preset sequence.”  Don Graves always referred to these one time shots as “cha-cha-cha” curriculum.  What would you say to a teacher who introduces a pyrotechnic craft and then checks it off his/her list and moves on to the next lesson?

Ralph:  I would say: good, you have introduced it. But pay attention to their choice writing (including jottings in their writer’s notebook) for hard evidence that they are actively using the strategy, that it has truly become part of their repertoires as writers.

Patrick:  What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading Pyrotechnics on the Page? 

Ralph:  Paul Overstreet has a country song, “Take Another Run At Our Love,” that has these lines:

    Let’s have a little fun with it, darling,
    Love don’t have to be so serious…

    Grammatical errors aside, I think we all get the point. Instead of “working” on our relationships, we might do better to play at them.  Let’s enjoy each other! And writing is the same way. Writing in school doesn’t have to be so drearily serious, so sanitized, so stripped clean of all the qualities that we enjoy when we read for pleasure: irony, humor, whimsy, musicality, double meanings, etc. 

    Strong writing contains language used in a way that is playful and fun. Kids do this naturally—they really are interested in language—so in this regard writing teachers are already halfway home. Facilitating language play in the writing classroom begins with paying attention to the playfulness with language that is already there in our students’ speech as well as in the world around them.

Patrick:  What project is next for you? 

Ralph:  I have four different kinds of books under contract (yikes!) including a young adult novel, a picture book, and a professional book about using mentor texts with in the writing classroom. It will be a busy year! 

Patrick:  Thanks Ralph.  I can't wait until the next one!