Rob Pondiscio on Writing

Rob Pondiscio has a great piece about how we teach writing in The Atlantic.  It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are some tasty bites:

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….

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….

“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.


One Response to Rob Pondiscio on Writing

  1. Teacher Joe in LA says:

    At first I though you were saying that tripe was where charter schools should go! When I taught writing in my history classes I taught against that tripe. Now I can’t even attempt it. I have more raw fact history standands that can be taught to honors 8th graders in the 39 weeks of school, but have to teach them in 33 weeks because that’s when they give us the test!

    Yes I quit teaching writing. I do what I can to support capitalization and spelling but frankly that is dependent upon the number and quality of student TAs I have. I can’t do it with an average of 37 students in a class and no way to stop the 4-6 in each class that want to screw around.

    PLEASE conservatives. If you quit beating up all teachers for the problems in education and support the half who want and need conservative changes – not charter schools, but changes in the public schools – you will add a ton of votes and destroy the unions you hate. But your actions now only make the kool-aid drinking teachers fight you and drive them to the Liberal union leaders. Sometimes I think both sides are stupid beyond belief!

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