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