Greenbelt Writing

How Low-Stakes, Student-Centered Writing Supports Bold Learning

Photo credit: Ralph Fletcher

In recent years the writing workshop has become more restrictive. It is less freeflowing, less student-centered, with less value placed on the creative part of creative writing. Academic genres, fueled by the standards movement, now proliferate. The workshop has become more content-rich and rigorous. From a kid’s point of view, writing is much harder. This may not sound like such a bad thing, at least at first blush, though many teachers have observed an alarming trend — diminished energy, excitement, and investment from their young writers.

The purist in me wants to offer this advice: forget all those academic genres. Or, at the very least, cut them way back. Close your classroom door and design a writing curriculum that makes sense for your students. Some teachers have done exactly that (#subterraneanteaching), but if you’re an untenured teacher, just trying to hang on to your job, this option may not seem feasible. Many teachers find themselves trapped between a rock (rigid curriculum) and a hard place (students who no longer love writing).

What to do?

The problem seems intractable, but I believe there is a solution. To find it, let’s turn to a completely different realm, the world of community planning and land management. Stay with me, reader. You have already watched me insert grit into bivalves, and accompanied me on a hot-air balloon ride, but I think we’ll find that the metaphor in this chapter is the one that offers the most hope.

The U.S. population has grown steadily since the first census in 1790. Although the rate of increase has slowed, the total population continues to increase. In 1940 there were roughly 142 million Americans living in this country. By 2000 that number had more than doubled to 291 million. Today there are about 320 million people living in this country. A growing population creates a demand for roads, power lines, and affordable housing, and puts tremendous pressure on our natural resources. This is an undeniable impact of population growth: wooded land gets subdivided, cleared, and developed to build houses. This creates a host of new problems including pollution and erosion, not to mention the loss of habitat for wildlife.

Recognizing the dangers of unchecked growth and urban sprawl, many community planners have embraced the idea of a greenbelt. This is not a new concept (the idea actually got mentioned in the Old Testament), though it has been refined in modern times. A greenbelt — sometimes called a green way or green wedge — is an invisible line designating a border around a certain area, preventing development of that area, and allowing wildlife to return and be established. The objectives of greenbelt policy include:

  • protecting natural environments
  • improving air quality within urban areas
  • ensuring that urban dwellers have access to countryside
  • protecting the unique character of rural communities.

“It’s all about connectivity,” says John Carroll, professor of Natural Resources at the University of New Hampshire. “Greenbelts create a passageway allowing species to move from one habitat to another. That’s critically important for the survival of those species.”

Carroll explained to me the ecological value of a greenbelt, but emphasized the value to communities as well: cleaner air and water, plus enhanced outdoor recreation opportunities (camping, biking, boating) close to cities and towns.

“And there’s a psychological value, too,” he points out. “There’s a comfort just knowing that wildland is there, whether or not you actually use it.”

It is a fundamental axiom of ecology that diversity leads to stability. When you start limiting diversity — a manicured lawn, for example, that contains a single kind of grass — the ecosystem quickly gets unstable and vulnerable. With its wider diversity, a greenbelt brings a measure of ecological stability into a developed area.

Some wildlife can thrive without a greenbelt. Robins, sparrows, crows, rabbits, voles, and skunks can survive perfectly well within the confines of a neighborhood development. But many other species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, plants, and trees need the conditions provided by raw, wild forest. Otherwise they will struggle and eventually disappear.

All well and good. But what does all this have to do with teaching writing? In recent years the writing workshop has come under intense pressure: state writing tests, Common Core State Standards, various commercial programs. Writing workshop as we once knew it has been “developed.” Many old-growth trees have been cut down. A great deal of curricular land has been cleared, parceled off, and subdivided. It’s harder and harder to find the essential wildness — the unique intelligence found whenever children freely express themselves — that once infused the workshop.

In this book I’m proposing a new concept: greenbelt writing.

Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated.

I’m talking about informal writing. Writing that is wild, like the pungent skunk cabbage that sprouts haphazardly along the edge of a swamp.

I’m talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over their shoulder.

Some educators would insist that writing workshop must continue in its more developed, academic form. “The reality of schools . . .” I don’t agree — but that’s a battle for another day. If, for argument sake, I do concede this, I would add that it’s essential to supplement it with a greenbelt, a wild territory where kids can rediscover the power of writing that is:

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood.

It’s true that some kids, like some species, may be able to survive and even thrive in this more developed workshop atmosphere. But I submit that many students find today’s writing workshop too narrow and constricting for them to generate any enthusiasm for writing. Those writers would benefit from being allowed to do more writing that is free and unguided — writing that they generate themselves.

Would those kids still participate in the writing workshop? Certainly. But I believe we’ll find that their greenbelt writing will spark them, engage their imaginations, and help them find their stride as writers.

Simply put: let’s make sure that kids have spaces and opportunities to experience the pleasure of writing.

What do kids remember about their teachers? Passion, a sense of humor, making things fun, and genuine caring — a sense that each student matters.

What will kids remember about writing in school? I want them to remember similar things — writing that is fun, passionate, and joyful, and reflects what matters to each student. This is the best way I know to create writing classrooms where the student can develop the concept: I am a writer.

In the next few chapters we’ll look at various examples of greenbelt writing. This concept raises questions, among them being: how should we as teachers respond to this kind of writing? Or should we respond at all? Is this a teacher-free zone?

No.

The operative phrase for a natural greenbelt is not keep out but hands off. We might decide to walk through an area like this to savor the quiet, maybe to sample a few wild blackberries growing there. But nobody ever visits a greenbelt hoping to improve it by pruning, weeding, clearing brush, and so on. These areas are, by design, unmanicured. Officials might opt to protect its borders by posting a sign, or erect a small fence to keep litter from blowing in, but that’s about it. Once a corridor of land has been designated as a greenbelt, we leave it alone.

A greenbelt doesn’t have to be managed. Indeed, its very wildness is its virtue. The same principal holds true for greenbelt writing. We need to recognize its value, establish its sovereignty, and then get out of the way — leave it alone.


Adapted from Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing by Ralph Fletcher (Heinemann, 2017).


Ralph Fletcher

Ralph Fletcher has been a mentor to teachers and young writers everywhere. Ralph’s latest Heinemann books continue this tradition. What a Writer Needs, Second Edition mentors teachers and writers in the elements and craft of writing. Mentor Author, Mentor Texts brings inspiration to teachers and students by sharing Ralph’s own writing across numerous genres plus writer’s notes that reveal his thinking.

Ralph frequently works with young writers in schools, and speaks at education conferences in the U.S. and abroad, helping teachers find wiser ways of teaching writing. Ralph is the beloved author of many bestselling teacher professional books including Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide; Craft Lessons; and Breathing In, Breathing Out as well as the author of firsthand classroom materials such as Teaching the Qualities of Writingand Lessons for the Writer’s Notebook. Students know Ralph as the award-winning author of more than 20 books for children and young adults, including Fig Pudding, Twilight Comes Twice, The Writer’s Notebook,and Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid.