Writing Is More Than Just Self-Expression
Educator and writer Robert Pondiscio has some sharp words for the the way writing is often presented to children—as an opportunity to “express themselves,” as something they can just do, not something they have to learn:
“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.
. . . 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 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.” Read more here.
Robert is right—creativity springs from a mastery of the fundamentals, and we cheat students when we don’t teach them the fundamentals in a rigorous way.