How self-expression hurt my students

Liberating students to discover the power of their voice? Sharing personal narratives? Every child an “author” writing for an audience? “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,” writes Robert Pondiscio in The Atlantic.

As a fifth-grade teacher at a South Bronx school, “I used to damage children for a living with that idealism,” he writes.

P.S. 277 didn’t teach its low-income students to use correct grammar and sentence structure, or to correct their mistakes.  That sort of literacy instruction rediscovered by New Dorp High School in Peg Tyre’s The Writing Revolution, was considered stifling.

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.

Reading and writing instruction had become a  Cargo Cult, Pondiscio writes. Go through the motions of being a writer to be a writer.

But good writers use their knowledge of the world, their big vocabularies and their command of language conventions to write vividly and persuasively, he points out.  Children growing up in language-rich families may pick up these things by osmosis; everyone else needs to be taught in school.

“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.

“The unlived life is not worth examining,” Pondiscio writes.  Furthermore, “teaching disadvantaged children the mechanics of writing, and emphasizing evidence over anecdote, is liberating not constraining.”

Young people who’ve mastered grammar are more likely to become writers capable of self-expression, he argues.

Also: Great writing comes out of great ideas.


About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    The paranoid Marxian in me says that progressive education is a plot to keep poor people down. It is a way for the college educated to ensure that they (and their children) stay on top–by privileging academic success and ensuring that the poor don’t succeed academically.

    But of course that’s wrong.

  2. On Kitchen Table Math, which has excellent discussions of curriculum issues, one commentator expressed the theory that the closer a school’s proximity to Teacher’s College, the worse its curriculum. I think the discussion related specifically to the grammar/composition issue and Lucy Calkins. Apparently, public school teachers in Manhattan are very closely monitored by their admins for any deviations from the Readers’/Writers’ Worskhop model.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    Both of my sons despise the personal essay. They both know to fill it with half-true feel good, politically correct pabulum that their teachers want. “Religious Differences bring us together” “Learning to Accept our Weaknesses Makes us Strong” Blah, Blah, Blah…..

    Smarmy moralism like an ABC After School Special is what’s expected. It definitely teaches them a skill, though. How to be an effective BS artist.

    It’s more difficult to BS a teacher on a research or persuasive essay topic when the teacher has ample background.

    A teacher may or may not know whether you fell off your bike and skinned your knee when you were 7 and how the experience affected you emotionally, but they can probably tell if you’ve read and Iliad and have a sense of the power dynamic between Agamemnon and Achilles.

    • All of my kids took after me; hated the personal essay, journals and creative writing. All of us have always preferred academic types of writing, for school use. Feelings and personal stories were not something they enjoyed sharing with teachers and/or the class – except for the annual first-day-of-ES What I Did on my Summer Vacation essay, my teachers didn’t go there. We saved sharing personal lives and emotions for our close friends and families; the kids were great about writing to their grandparents, who re-read their letters many times and saved them all. When they died, we found cartons of all the old letters.

      You’re spot-on about the BS though. When my older kids were in a highly competitive HS, journals were never corrected in any way but marked check-minus, check, or check-plus. One of their classmates, who was hoping to be valedictorian, needed more check-pluses – he wasn’t sharing enough interesting emotions with a very touchy-feely English teacher who was obsessed by dreams (her own and her students’). He sat down with my son and other friends and they created a really dark journal entry, complete with dreams and fantasies – BS Piled high and Deep – which the teacher loved BUT sent him to guidance for consultation about his psychological state of mind! It took lots of effort from the kid involved, his parents, the friends who had helped him create the entry and several of their parents to convince the guidance counselor that he didn’t need a shrink! Fortunately, we had all heard about the endeavor and we all had kids who routinely BS’d their journals because they felt their personal lives and emotions were none of the teacher’s business. Please, teacher, can we talk about Achilles? King Lear? Machiavelli?

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        I had a high school English class that required personal journaling. We were supposed to be doing a stream of consciousness thingy. My strategy – and, I think many of my classmates – was the two pens and a pencil strategy. Two different colored pens, a pencil, and alternating entries the night before the journal was due. I could do a month’s worth of entries in a half-hour.

        I think this was a fad in the ’80’s and ’90’s, though. I really hope they still don’t make kids do this. When did English become a talk therapy session?

        I agree with Pondisco about the Cargo Cult thing. Having grown-up as a trailer-park living, free-lunch qualifying, Food Stamp receiving member of the “disadvantaged” class, the last thing I wanted to talk or write about in high school with my peers present was my “personal narrative”.

  4. I often donate to Donors Choose and that means I get little packets of thank you notes from students now and then. It’s incredibly sad to see a whole packet of simple, three-sentance letters from an EIGHTH grade class without a single one being even remotely correct as to grammar and spelling. In fact, not even correct as to capitalization, which is a good deal easier than grammar or spelling. You would think that simple pride would cause the teacher to get the students to rewrite them, but no.

    • nailsagainsttheboard says:

      A sad statement about the students, but more infuriating about the teacher who, as you said, didn’t even have the pride or caring to demand that all Thank Yous be written–at a minimum– with correct conventions. I receive bus scholarships for field trips, and my students know that I expect an excellent, carefully written thank you letter or card –written each time we thank someone or an organization for their generosity. The problem is that many teachers and administrators have become the lowest common denominator–how can we expect students to improve, when little is expected of them?

  5. This is all driven by the college application essay.

    One of the colleges writing to my college senior offered an expedited application. They’d waive the fee, kid’s eligible for scholarships,etc. What really got my attention, though, was the offer to allow the applicant to submit a graded paper instead of the personal essay.

    If more colleges would implement this change, the K-12 system might see the value in teaching academic skills. At present, the personal essay is beloved by college admissions officials, but no one else. When you’ve reached the point that affluent teens are paying good money to attend college essay writing camps–they exist! It’s time to declare “game over” on the personal essay being of any value in distinguishing between applicants.

    • Which in turn is driven by the diversity factor… that somehow these personal essays provide some valuable insight into the student’s consciousness and allow admissions personnel to carefully craft the incoming class.
      Actually, the same diversity factor drives the self-expressive secondary writing absent the college admissions process.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        The Supreme Court cases Grutterand Gratz (2003) said that it is illegal for a school to have an explicit admissions formula that gives extra points for, say, being black. However, it is perfectly legal for an admissions officer to read an applicant’s essay on growing up black and say, “Looking at the whole person, I feel that this applicant will make a greater contribution to the class than these similar, albeit differently pigmented, people.”

        • I’m not sure if it was one of the cases you mentioned, or another SC case, that explicitly prohibited AA race-norming (comparing applicants only to those of their own race), and yet I’ve read that this is still being pretty widely done. Certainly, the SAT score gap between AA admits and white/Asian admits is very large (I’ve read as much as 400 points), at least at elite institutions. The personal essay no doubt provides a suitable fig leaf.

          • Could someone write a fake personal essay about growing up in some underprivileged environment ?  They’re not written under penalty of perjury or anything, are they?  A legal name change to “Shiquavious” for one’s senior year might be another tactic to get admission and even scholarship money.