Teachers Struggle With Changing Place of Personal Narratives in Writing Instruction

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In the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers,” Hilary Swank stands in front of a classroom of troubled high schoolers. They need to write down their stories, she tells them. Otherwise, when they die, “no one is going to remember you. Because all you left behind in this world was something no one cares about.”

Her speech motivates the students to write about their lives, which in turn helps inspire them to graduate from high school.

The movie, which is based on a true story by teacher Erin Gruwell, embodies the idea that students’ personal stories are important—and that memoir writing can be one of the best ways to engage academically at-risk students.

But some educators and advocates have pushed back against that school of thought, and if Swank’s (or Gruwell’s) classroom used the Common Core State Standards, they might have written fewer personal-diary entries and more evidence-based analyses.

In comparison with past requirements, college- and career-ready standards have emphasized informative and argumentative writing over personal narratives. David Coleman, the lead architect of the English/language arts portion of the common core, famously justified the switch in 2011 by telling a group of educators that “as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

As teachers adjust to the writing-instruction expectations under the common standards, finding the appropriate balance of the different types of writing in the classroom can be a challenge—and it is creating considerable tension among educators.

“I, unfortunately, think we have seen the pendulum shift [too far] in some classrooms and some districts,” said Joan Dabrowski, a literacy consultant based in Massachusetts. “Prior to the common core, those in the field said kids were only writing about what they felt. We needed a more central place [for other types of writing].”

The common-core standards aimed to move to that middle ground by putting a greater emphasis on having students cite textual evidence for their thinking, versus making personal connections solely based on feelings or experiences, she said.

But now, Dabrowski said, she has heard from teachers who want to incorporate the creative and personal writing in classrooms but feel they have to forfeit that entirely in favor of evidence-based writing to meet the standards and prepare for assessments.

“It’s tricky to figure out what is the right balance,” she said.

Shifting Priorities

No concrete data exist on what types of writing are actually being taught in most schools today. The common-core anchor standards for writing do include writing narratives “to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.”

But argumentative writing or informative/explanatory writing are prioritized in the standards. By the time students are in 12th grade, literary writing to convey experiences is expected to take up 20 percent of the time allotted to composition, compared with 40 percent each for informative writing and argumentative writing.

And while common-core-aligned assessments might cover narrative writing, those sections typically require some analysis of other texts and ask students to incorporate facts or other story elements into their writing—not just to write about their own life.

The emphasis on argumentative and explanatory writing is intended to better prepare students for college and careers. As Coleman, who is now president of the College Board, quipped in 2011, “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ” He has since clarified that he was talking about the needs of older students.

Some critics agree with Coleman that it’s more important for students to learn analytical-writing skills. And some educators are reluctant to take a red pen to a student’s personal story.

Yet defenders of narrative writing argue that it’s possible to teach the fundamentals of writing while having students tell their own stories. But it's a balance: Too much of a focus on mechanics, structure, and analysis can detract from students’ pure love of writing, some educators say.

“You’ve got these high-stakes assessments going on, and teachers are too focused giving writing prompts [that] don’t really give students the time to explore the beauty of writing because they’re trying to link it so tightly to cite evidence from the text,” said Joel Zarrow, the chief executive officer of the Children’s Literacy Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works with teachers to improve reading and writing instruction for low-income students in P-3. “That doesn’t give kids the time to write freely and have the wonderful experience of being able to express themselves through words—that generates a love of writing and pays dividends down the road.”

Zarrow generally supports the common core and its more rigorous expectations for writing instruction. But, he said, teachers need more support to reach that higher bar while still fostering that love of writing.

Advocates of personal writing say the practice especially engages and empowers at-risk students. Showing that writing can give students a voice and be relevant to their daily lives can change the minds of students who hate—or fear—writing, they say.

“I think one of the things writing does for us is tell our stories,” said Tanya Baker, the director of national programs at the National Writing Project. “It’s important for us to tell our truth and share our stories.”

What's 'Authentic'?

Still, some educators argue that the common standards have done schools a service by stopping the pendulum from swinging too far in the direction of personal writing.

“I think there is this article of faith that if students are engaged by their writing, they will be better writers,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

While that argument is not without merit, he said, it’s an “altar that we worship at to excess.” Teaching grammar, vocabulary, and the mechanics of writing is more important, he said, and that can fall by the wayside when there is too heavy of a focus on personal expression.

In 2012, Pondiscio wrote an essay for The Atlantic, titled “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students.” In it, he wrote that his instinct as a 5th grade teacher in a low-performing school in the South Bronx of New York City was to encourage his students to share their stories instead of focusing on teaching “grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics.”

That impulse, he argued, “is profoundly idealistic, seductive, and wrong.” Low-income students in particular, he said, need to learn the basics of spelling and grammar to empower them as writers.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

And teachers shouldn’t assume that all students want to share their stories. If there’s too much of a focus on personal narratives, Baker said, “vulnerable young people can be made to feel even more vulnerable if they don’t want to share their story.”

Not an Either-Or Debate

So what is the right balance? “I think the answer is so complex,” Baker said. “Kids should always feel like writing is an opportunity to bring something of themselves to the paper.”

But that can happen even with argumentative and research writing, she said. Teachers can frame the prompts in a way that allows students to draw from their own experiences while using facts to back up their argument or while analyzing outside texts.

And it doesn’t need to be an either-or conversation, said Carol Jago, the associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Students should be writing “twice as much” to practice analysis and fact-based writing and to express themselves and tell their stories, she said.

“Let’s make sure that we’re having students do evidence-based writing, and analytical writing, opinion writing, argumentative writing—more than just [personal writing],” she said. “[But all of that] shouldn’t be at the expense of creative writing that students want to do.”

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