How Self-Expression Damaged My Students

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A former South Bronx teacher recalls how his own idealism kept his class from learning how to write.

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Every decent human impulse we have as teachers shouts in favor of not imposing rules and discipline on students, but liberating them to discover the power of their voice by sharing their stories. Of course children will be become better writers if they write personal narratives instead of book reports. Obviously children will be more engaged and motivated if they can write from the heart about what they know best, rather that trudge through turgid English essays and research papers.

Grammar? Mechanics? Correcting errors? Please. Great writing is discovery. It is the intoxicating power of words and our own stories, writing for an audience and making things happen in the world. We know this works. We all saw the movie Freedom Writers, didn't we?

Like so many of our earnest and most deeply humane ideas about educating children in general, and poor, urban children in particular, this impulse toward authenticity is profoundly idealistic, seductive, and wrong. I should know. I used to damage children for a living with that idealism.

I taught 5th grade at PS 277 in the South Bronx from several years. It was the lowest-performing school in New York City's lowest-performing school district. We didn't believe in the kind of literacy instruction practiced by New Dorp High School, as described by Peg Tyre in her piece, "The Writing Revolution." It is not an overstatement to say that our failure to help students become good readers and writers is why I became a curriculum reform advocate.

We have become accustomed to thinking of educational failure as a function of a teacher's lack of effort, talent, or training. But sometimes the problem lies specifically in what we train teachers to do. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way we teach reading and writing to some of our most vulnerable students.

Every day, for two hours a day, I led my young students through Reader's and Writer's Workshop. I was trained not to address my kids as "students" or "class" but as "authors" and "readers." We gathered "seed ideas" in our Writer's Notebooks. We crafted "small moment" stories, personal narratives, and memoirs. We peer edited. We "shared out." Gathered with them on the rug, I explained to my 10-year-olds that "good writers find ideas from things that happened in their lives." That stories have "big ideas." That good writers "add detail," "stretch their words," and "spell the best they can."

Teach grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I barely even taught. I "modeled" the habits of good readers and "coached" my students. What I called "teaching," my staff developer from Teacher's College dismissed as merely "giving directions." My job was to demonstrate what good readers and writers do and encourage my students to imitate and adopt those behaviors.

In short, I presided over the reading and writing equivalent of a Cargo Cult.

During World War Two, primitive peoples in the South Pacific, unfamiliar with industrialized societies and technologies, watched airplanes land and disgorge enormous amounts of matériel. The war ended; the planes went away. They wanted to make the planes come back, so the natives formed "cargo cults" to build runways and signal fires. They fashioned crude control towers and decoy planes from bamboo. And why wouldn't they? They were imitating perfectly the behaviors of the soldiers that made the planes land. It had been modeled to them beautifully for years.

"The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land," the great physicist Richard Feynman once wrote of cargo cults. "They're missing something essential."

And so it is, all too often, for struggling writers in low-performing schools. They're missing something essential, because we model and coach and they still can't write. But good writers don't just do stuff. They know stuff. They have knowledge of the world that enlivens their prose and provides the ability to create examples and analogies. They have big vocabularies and solid command of the conventions of language and grammar. And if this is not explicitly taught, it will rarely develop by osmosis among children who do not grow up in language-rich homes.

"When our students resist writing, it is usually because writing has been treated as little more than a place to expose all they do not know about spelling, penmanship and grammar," observes Lucy Calkins, probably the workshop model's premier guru. She is almost certainly correct.

This leaves exactly two options: The first is to de-emphasize spelling and grammar. The other is to teach spelling and grammar. But at too many schools, it's more important for a child to unburden her 10-year-old soul writing personal essays about the day she went to the hospital, dropped an ice cream cone on a sidewalk, or shopped for new sneakers. It's more important to write a "personal response" to literature than engage with the content. This is supposed to be "authentic" writing. There is nothing inherently inauthentic about research papers and English essays.

Earlier this year, David Coleman, the principal architect of the widely adopted Common Core Standards, infamously told a group of educators, "As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think." His bluntness made me wince, but his impulse is correct. We have overvalued personal expression. The unlived life is not worth examining. The pendulum has swung too far.

Far from imposing a cultural norm or orthodoxy--silencing their stories and compromising their authentic voice--teaching disadvantaged children the mechanics of writing, and emphasizing evidence over anecdote, is liberating not constraining. Teaching grammar, vocabulary. and mechanics to low-income black and Hispanic students is giving them access to what Lisa Delpit, an African-American educator and a critic of progressive education methods, famously called the "culture of power."

Let me hasten to add that there should be no war between expressive writing and explicit teaching of grammar and mechanics. It's not an either/or proposition. Kids are more likely to become engaged, thoughtful writers if they feel comfortable and competent with language. But at present, we expend too much effort trying to get children to "live the writerly life" and "develop a lifelong love of reading."

You're not going to get to any of those laudable goals without knowledge, skills, and competence. For every kid who has had his creative spark dimmed by "paint-by-numbers" writing instruction, there are almost certainly 10 more who never developed that creative spark because they grew up believing they can't write and never learned to adequately express themselves.

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Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Harlem's Democracy Prep Public Schools. He is also a former fifth-grade teacher. 

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