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It's more important to write a "personal response" to literature than engage with the content. There is nothing inherently inauthentic about research papers and English essays. 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.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. 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.
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. But sometimes the problem lies specifically in what we train teachers to do.
It was the lowest-performing school in New York City's lowest-performing school district.
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 "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 "modeled" the habits of good readers and "coached" my students.
Caring about clothes can sometimes be seen as frivolous and superficial.
And yet, when it comes to other forms of self-expression, such as painting, writing or dancing, it’s readily accepted that the more you care, the more likely you are to fall into a path of personal exploration. It is the intoxicating power of words and our own stories, writing for an audience and making things happen in the world. I taught 5th grade at PS 277 in the South Bronx from several years. 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 used to damage children for a living with that idealism.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. They wanted to make the planes come back, so the natives formed "cargo cults" to build runways and signal fires. They're missing something essential, because we model and coach and they still can't write. They have big vocabularies and solid command of the conventions of language and grammar.They fashioned crude control towers and decoy planes from bamboo. They were imitating perfectly the behaviors of the soldiers that made the planes land. 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. This leaves exactly two options: The first is to de-emphasize 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. 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. 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. Kids are more likely to become engaged, thoughtful writers if they feel comfortable and competent with language.As Virginia Woolf wrote in ‘Orlando’: If you feel comfortable in the look you’ve created for yourself, you can free your mind and focus on other things – art, work, the world.There’s often one thing – a coat, sweater, pair of jeans or ring – that can make you feel at ease.Featured image credit: Juergen Teller – Stuart Franklin / Magnum PHotos / Agentur Focus. The Romantic Movement originating in Europe had reached America.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. 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.Of course children will be become better writers if they write personal narratives instead of book reports. We have become accustomed to thinking of educational failure as a function of a teacher's lack of effort, talent, or training.