EPISODE 24: THE STORY ABOUT

Writing and Photography

with Ralph Fletcher

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So one thing I like about moving away from words occasionally into the world of visual photography, whatever, is that, um, it almost like it gives me like another part of my brain to engage.

Jamie
When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. Ansel Adams. I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On this episode, we discuss writing, photography and a lot more with Ralph Fletcher, the author of best selling teacher professional books and over 20 children’s and young adult books. His newest book, Focus Lessons, helps teachers use the natural links between writing and photography to enhance their instruction. Welcome, Ralph. Thanks for joining us.

Ralph
Great to be here.

Jamie
So you effortlessly combine two of my favorite disciplines: photography and writing. Let’s rewind. What drew you to both?

Ralph
Well, I’ve always been interested in writing, um, you know, I was the kind of kid that loves to write, kept a notebook when I was a, I was younger. Although I like to tell other kids that I was never the best writer in the class, I think that’s important to know that sometimes you feel like you’d have to be the best at something to be successful at it. So you know, and then I took, I really loved English classes, and I took a lot of writing classes when I went to college. And so I’ve always scratched that itch, but at the same time, I think I’ve also been drawn to photography, I have some important early friendships that you know, connected to photography, you know, more and more, I see that when you look at a piece of writing and you talk about focus, so some of the elements of writing, they really apply both to photography and to writing. So I think it’s a language that we can take advantage of when we teach writing.

Jamie
Absolutely. I love how interconnected the two are. And as you know, writing is essential across the curriculum from language arts to science, math, social studies… How do we get kids excited and engaged with writing?

Ralph
Yeah, well, that’s a really good question. And I think I’m kind of the background to your question which you didn’t really allude to. But I just want to mention that I think that in recent years, the landscape for writing in school, maybe because of Common Core, maybe because of the standards movement, has become very academic. I think that more and more younger kids are being asked to and expected to do academic writing. And I’m not sure that’s the way you really inspire young writers. So to answer your question, I think a couple things. I mean, I’m really a big proponent of choice. I think that just like we want kids to go to the library, and choose a book on a subject they’re interested in by an author they love and genre that appeals to them. And we know that if they do that they’ve got a better chance of really reading that book. Well, the same thing is true with writing. I’m an advocate for giving kids a lot of choice in writing and letting the kids write about their passions, even their obsessions. And sometimes what that means is not judging what they want to write about, you know, like, we may think that reading about a video game is sort of below us or not that really worthy, but instead of judging them, letting the kids really write about what they want. So I think that choice and I think it’s also connected to pleasure. Pleasure’s a funny thing to talk about in this setting, but I think if kids enjoy reading, for example, they’ll read at home, if they enjoy writing, they’ll write at home. So I really want us to create classrooms where kids can experience the pleasure of writing.

Jamie
Well said and I love that you brought up the idea of student choice. So important core curriculum and arts curriculum, as you know, and particularly this idea of students being able to choose to write what they want, be it about a video game, writing a menu, etc. Do you see that as also important for teachers as they get into writing? Or as they expand their writing practice, because, I mean, let’s talk about teacher writing. So many only write when they’re modeling for their students in classrooms, or when they have to for continuing education. So can you talk a little bit about choice and, and teacher writing?

Ralph
Yeah, I think it’s really, it’s a really good point. I’ll digress a tiny bit and say that when I used to coach soccer, I’m the oldest of a big family. And I’ve got – there are six brothers. And my youngest brother, Joe, we coached together and he played soccer and I kind of talked about it. And you know, kids knew the difference, because Joe didn’t just like talk about it, you know, he could really walk the walk. So I think that this is true, not just for teachers, but also for parents. I think that kids have to see adults who are using writing and reading in their lives in real ways. And so they’re not just talking about it, but they’re, they’re doing it and I kind of agree with the premise of your question. So I really think that I think students are smart enough to know the difference between teachers who are really writing for themselves, or they’re writing just to be kind of modeling something for that particular lesson. One of my mentors, Don Graves talked about how teachers need to be writing for themselves. And that’s an easy thing to say. But it’s a big step for a lot of teachers, I understand that. You know, you’ve probably heard this before, but if you get a group of adults in a room or an auditorium, and you ask them to raise their hands if you’re a reader, a lot of hands go up, then as raised the hand, if you’re a writer, a lot of hands go down, I don’t know what it is, I think that we kind of have a higher threshold for what it means to be a writer. Um, you know, we don’t want to sort of embrace that role. So again, it’s easy to say this, and it’s not always easy to do it. But one of the things that teachers could do and parents is to take take five minutes at the beginning of the lesson and actually write with the students and then you know, if it gets noisy, or chaotic as it is wont to do, you can say to the students, excuse me, folks, I’m having trouble hearing myself think over here. And somebody will say, hey, shut up. He’s trying to write. So the kids will respect that you’re taking the same risk that they are taking. And then of course, if there’s a share time, then you’ve got something to share with the students. And you know, I just want to say one other thing about this. The truth is that when you work with young writers, it’s not too old before you realize that you’re not the best writer in the class. You know, if you’re teaching first grade, you probably are the best, writer in the class. You’re teaching fourth grade, fifth grade, some of those kids are amazing. And certainly by middle school and high school, you know, you’re modeling, you’re writingm you’re sharing with the kids and the kids are thinking, yeah, that was okay. But you know, Ramona could have done better. What I’m really trying to acknowledge is that it’s, it takes a risk to not be there to not be the best one in class and it’s, it’s okay, but it’s just, it’s humbling too.

Jamie
It is okay and humbling, but those authentic experiences of writing alongside and with and for your students are definitely very powerful and I love that you brought up Donald Graves, of course, his seminal work so important for all teachers in their personal and professional writing practice as well. So for you personally, Ralph, how do you find time and space to write amongst all of your other obligations? And I, I ask this from a teacher perspective, where do you find the time?

Ralph
Yeah, well, that’s a good question. Um, you know, I wake up in my energy is precious my energy, you know, my attention, my intelligence. So, you know, write early and write and write fast so that you can outrun the sensor. I do speak at conferences, you know, in the pre COVID days, you know, you’d fly off and go to a big seminar and stuff. And I find that those kind of things are really intrusive to your writing regimen. You know, this is interesting idea that I think that creative work is done in really creative ways. And maybe that’s true for some people, but many writers and many artists will say that having a routine is really helpful. Giving yourself that regular time is important, you know, and and it’s, it’s, it’s something that I do and I really enjoy doing it. And you know, when I’m when I’m writing and I don’t find that I’m enjoying it anymore, then I try to ask myself, can I change the conditions? I mean, sometimes we do have to do writing that we don’t enjoy. That’s the real world, I understand. But in general, I try to do the writing that I really want to do.

Jamie
And when you when you do find these big swaths of time in the morning, are you a proponent of this idea of the Pomodoro effect with the timer, 25 minutes on, five minutes off, and then back to it for 25? What is your process?

Ralph
The ideal thing is that you you want to have enough time so that even when you get interrupted and you lose some time, you still have enough time. So like for example, like if I have 9 to 12, yes, I’m going to be checking email here and there and yes, I’m going to follow up on some little thing that I have to deal with but hopefully I still have enough time. My little anal thing to do is I caught words. And I this is probably something that I inherited from another Don, Don Murray, who was another friend of Don Graves that you know, and that was a good friend of mine. But anyway, Don used to say, um, you know, you write 300 words a day is good. 500 words is great. 750 is heroic.

Jamie
You know, I’m gonna ask you what your word count was the last time you wrote…

Ralph
This morning, I was able to knock off about 600 words.

Jamie
That’s fantastic.

Ralph
That’s a good morning, you know. And I felt like, of course, I’m going to go back and I’m gonna tweak that and maybe flesh it out, but it felt like an accomplishment.

Jamie
So thinking about translating that writing process into the classroom and integrating it with photography, I have to ask you a contentious question here. Photograph first, write second, or write first photograph second?

Ralph
I guess, you know, and this is one of the things I’m going to talk about in my session that I’m going to be doing this summer in the at the conference at the STEAM conference. But first of all, I want to say that not always should a photograph lead to writing. You know, I make that point in the book that sometimes you know, we can easily force the issue. So I try to encourage teachers sometimes just let the kids take the picture. That’s good enough. I guess for me though, to answer your question it most normally goes starting with a photo. And then it kind of goes into writing and speculating and wondering about it. But there’s kind of a recursive process. Also, you know, for example, I’m, without going to details I’m working on some curriculum materials right now. And I start with some photos, and then it generates some text, which makes me go back and look at different kinds of photos. So it’s kind of like a bouncing back and forth between the word the world of the word and the world of the image. And, you know, I’m not a brain research kind of person. You know, I’m sure there are many people who know that world more than I do. But I do have the sense that the part of our brain that deals with language, and the part that deals with image, there are different parts of our brain. So one of things I like about moving away from words occasionally into the world of the visual photography, whatever is that it’s almost like it gives me like another part of my brain to engage. It’s kind of refreshing. I mean, basically, I write and I speak that you know, I’m a language guy, that’s kind of what I’m known for. And when I enter into the world of photography, I, you know, I get to shut up for a while. And, you know, let the image speak for itself. So I kind of like that I find it really refreshing.

Jamie
And I think that’s a huge aha moment that some of our listeners might be having, as they listen to you unpack this idea of photography first and letting the image then speak. I know so many teachers that might think let’s write first. And if you get done early enough, I need a photograph that goes with the writing that I can hang on the wall in the classroom for an upcoming parent night or to show some student work. So this process that you’re talking about of letting the image speak and maybe doing the arts part, the visual art, the photography part first. I feel like it really truly would lead to richer writing for the students. Absolutely. So to that end, I wanted to ask you when I hear photography, and when a lot of specifically elementary teachers, middle school teachers in Title One schools hear photography in the classroom. They immediately think, Oh, goodness, every student needs a camera, or they’ve got to all have a phone with with technology. And we don’t know if we want to put phones in kids’ hands. How do you navigate this funding idea around cameras and photography?

Ralph
Yeah, that’s a really that’s a really good question. And I think that the pandemic that we’re all living through right now has clearly exposed issues of a discrepancy in access in various communities. There are communities where kids have the access, they have great high speed Wi Fi, they’ve got all kinds of technology at home, and then other families in United States, many communities where that’s not the norm. So I think it’s a really good question you bring up. I think that first of all, I just want to say that the cell phone has become ubiquitous in our culture, especially I’d say for kids in middle school and high school, and as you know know, you know, smartphones come with a really powerful camera. So I think that’s kind of democratized photography. You know, I think, you know, again, there’s still many kids that probably don’t have smartphones. So I think that one of the fun things about this whole conversation is that we’re not really adding a layer, the kids are not doing already, like a lot of kids are taking pictures all the time. So what is your tapping into something that they’re doing? But yeah, I think that districts that are going to try to embrace visual literacy in this way are going to have to deal with issues of making sure that kids have access having a certain amount of iPads in the classroom for the kids who don’t have them at home. And so I think that that’s a good point. You definitely don’t want to get into a situation where you have some kids who have access and some kids don’t. I mean, that’s, that’s problematic. I’m a big believer in public education. And one of the things that public education means to me is that we should even up the playing field even though I realized that that’s somewhat unrealistic. But I think that there should be a baseline that every kid has access to a certain base level of technology, whether it’s classroom cameras, you know, you can buy simple cameras now pretty inexpensively. So I could imagine a scenario where a teacher in fourth grade has x amount of cameras that the kids could have access to. I think you’re raising a really important question. And frankly, I haven’t figured it all out yet. You know, it’s but it’s a good question.

Jamie
I, well, me neither and I hope district leaders and policymakers are listening and really thinking about improving access and equity when it comes to visual literacy specifically, so important. Earlier, you brought up the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM summer online connectivity conference, and I know I’m putting you on the spot, but we’d love a little gem from what that session is going to be like to get us excited about July.

Ralph
I’m really looking forward to being part of it. It’s interesting, by the way. I think you, folks contacted me before the COVID thing really hit. So what I’m going to be talking a lot about is a lot of the work that I’ve done in terms of teaching writing is to help kids to look at the craft of writing, realizing it’s not all magic, there are certain moves that writers do to make their words effective and communicate to what they want to say. And as it turns out, there’s a corollary in the world of photography. So and I’m going to explore that in terms of we’re going to be looking at things like for example, we talked about focus and writing will certainly focus is a big issue and not just like making the image sharp but zeroing in or giving a wide angle, look at a particular image. There’s so many things like that, the use of telling detail, you know, I’ve noticed, you know, I take a lot of major pictures, and what I’ve really learned is that the pictures that really stand out for people, it’s not just like the bird, but it’s often as a plus one. Like if there’s a bird with a big red sea worm. There’s a bird who’s got a caterpillar in its mouth, you know what I mean? And it’s often that plus one, and I think that’s true and writing too, you know, there’s, oftentimes, it’s not just writing about a person or a relative, but oftentimes, there’s some other detail that really makes the writing come alive. So I’m going to explore the commonalities. And we’re going to also address the issue of how photography can be a springboard for young writers to come up with something to write about, because, you know, it’s funny going back to what I said earlier about the issue of choice. And I’m a huge proponent of choice. That’s kind of my signature in a way, but I will acknowledge that for some kids, choice feels like they’re in a vacuum, they’re floating in space, and they just have no idea. So I think that we have to help kids read the world and show them ways that they can find things to write about. And I think that sometimes looking at photographs can do that. And I also want to make the play for teachers, not just to be giving kids images, I mean, there’s value in that and using a photo as a mentor text, how much we can learn from it. But I also think it’s important that we, we really invite and encourage kids to be taking their own pictures, because I really think that those are the pictures that are going to be most meaningful to them. This is an exciting idea. One of the things that I’ve kind of written a lot about, and I’m kind of known for professionally, although I certainly didn’t invent the concept is the writer’s notebook. I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, a lot of kids as well as adults are using their cell phones as writers notebooks. We’re using them to like react to the world. You know, we go to a restaurant, we find some funny misspelling, we take a picture of that. You know what I mean? We’re reacting. We’re there to capture important moments, which is really the way we encourage kids to use the writers notebook. So I’m going to be looking at the interplay between the writers notebook, and the and the camera and seeing if we can extend that idea for kids.

Jamie
Oh, this session sounds fabulous. We cannot wait. And in the meantime because I know we have to wait until July for this. In the meantime, how can our listeners find out more about the work that you do? Your your books, your writing? Everything?

Ralph
Well, I’ll just say a couple things. See, so I have a website, ralphfletcher.com, and certainly welcome to go to that. Also, um, you know, and I’ve got quite a few professional books, as you mentioned at the beginning of the session about teaching writing. I’ve got a series of books for young writers that is actually good for parents who’ve got kids at home right now. And then the other thing I just want to mention is that I decided to make a contribution kind of on my own, you know, to this kind of crazy pandemic world. So I did 10 sessions that are called, I call them Writing with Ralph, and they’re 20 minutes long. And basically, I just talk to kids about writing. I invite them to write, and I uploaded them all to YouTube. So they’re there for free. And the whole tone is very friendly and low key, very low key, but I invite kids to send me some of their writing and I’ll try to respond to it.

Jamie
Oh, that’s so exciting. Thank you for sharing. Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.