Why Kids Need to Joy Write


By Colleen Doogan

As someone who has loved writing since I was a little kid, I used to imagine my own children—now ages 12, 11, and 9—walking around with decorated notebooks in hand, ready to scribble down story ideas. Or bumping into walls because their heads were buried in books. But, no such luck.

I’d wonder, “What am I doing wrong? Why don’t they love reading and writing like I do?” After all, I am a literacy teacher and writing advocate, so why don’t my kids love writing?

Thankfully, I have a writing mentor who has shed some light on my frustration. In his latest book, Joy Write, acclaimed author and educational consultant Ralph Fletcher explains that “… today kids aren’t developing a love of writing. They’re just not. We can do better. We have to do better.” I agree. But how is the big question.

As an instructor at Project Write Now, I decided to enroll my nine-year-old in a class I was teaching called “The Notebook Project.” He didn’t jump up and down in excitement, but he accepted my request, as long as his friend could do it too.

Before I knew it, class started and I had two young ones in tow with me every Monday afternoon. I wasn’t sure how my son would respond, but I had signed my older two up for classes last year, and they both loved them. And I was optimistic and excited to have my little guy in my class.

Then one day this past month, I was looking for my son because it was time for bed and it was getting late. After calling his name a few times, I found him on his bottom bunk under the covers of his homemade fort, holding a flashlight in one hand and trying to write in his newly decorated writer’s notebook with the other.

“Buddy, it’s getting late,” I said to him.

“Mom,” he begged. “Please … let me finish writing this story.”

Smiling, I quietly slipped out of his room, careful not to interrupt his flow, and thought, “You can write all night if you want.”

I’ve waited a long time to “catch” one of my kids writing without any prompt or coercing from me. My son had found some joy in writing.

Although I am sad that as his mom I couldn’t get him to write more, I am ecstatic that as his joyful writing teacher, I could. But it wasn’t all about me. It was the environment—a room filled with notebooks, jars of colored pens and pencils, and a chalkboard that covered an entire wall—as well as the other students in the class who provided my son with immediate feedback and praise for his writing. Their eagerness to write became contagious, and the safe space allowed him to take creative risks that inspired him to continue on his writing journey long after class ended.

At Project Write Now, we are committed to making writing joyful for our students, as Fletcher suggests. Fletcher says we need to give kids time and choice when they write. He explains that without engagement, sense of ownership, audience, and a spirit of adventure, it is difficult to instill joy into the act of writing.

Fletcher calls this “greenbelt” writing, or informal writing, a wild territory where kids can rediscover the power of writing that is personal, passionate, whimsical, and playful—infused with choice, humor, and voice, and reflective of the quirkiness of childhood. Fletcher believes that greenbelt writing will spark young writers, engage their imaginations, and help them find their stride.

Although teaching writing in a structured environment that involves high-stakes writing—where teachers guide the writers, correct the writing, and grade the final piece—has an important place in the school curriculum, we at PWN have more flexibility. We are able to offer an approach similar to what Fletcher calls greenbelt writing, which provides the balance students need in order to become more confident and enthusiastic writers.

My nine-year-old son recently found this balance. He knew the stories he was writing weren’t being corrected or graded, but he was discovering for himself how much fun writing can be when you are given time and choice and a place to play around with your thoughts. I can only hope that a balance of informal and formal writing instruction will continue to guide my young writer and keep the joy of writing close to his heart throughout his school years. And I know it is classes like the ones provided at PWN that will continue to nurture this process.

Colleen Doogan is the education director and a writing instructor at Project Write Now.