Struggling Writers: Is Personal Expression the Answer?

Glancing around the room, fiddling with his smart phone, and tapping his pencil, Michael will do anything but write. He’ll scribble a few sentences on the paper, and the chicken scratch handwriting belies his age–he’s a high school sophomore. He can’t tell you what a compound sentence is or how to use serial commas, but he can provide a look of disgust every time you pass out a grammar worksheet or explain why writing is important.

Should we emphasize personal narratives and expression over other types of writing in schools?

But then you ask Michael to write about a time when he was ignored or neglected. He knows about this. This won’t be tough for me to write, he thinks, remembering the time his mother forgot his birthday, instead opting to spend the night at the local bar with a new boyfriend. There is suddenly a rhythm to his pencil on the college-ruled paper.  Two pages get filled up like a tall glass underneath a flowing faucet. He needs a bigger cup.

Most teachers would celebrate this breakthrough with Michael, realizing that if he’s allowed to write about his experience and feelings, he’ll actually put pencil to paper. 

Count me as a teacher who would celebrate Michael’s effort, attempting to use it as a catalyst to greater writing proficiency. 

Could it be somewhat true that as you grow up, people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think? (This is a sentiment once expressed by Common Core architect David Coleman).

Should we only be mildly excited that Michael actually wrote? After all, the punctuation was still a mess. He failed to use specific details or imagery to help his story come alive.

Blogger and Writer Annie Murphy Paul alerted me to an essay in The Atlantic titled “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students.” Former 5th grade teacher Robert Pondiscio reflects on his time in the classroom, coming to the conclusion that he didn’t do enough teaching of writing fundamentals to his needy students, spending most of his time modeling the behaviors and dispositions of authors and readers.  According to the author, he fell into a trap:

…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 article has made me pause. Pondiscio is correct in stating that high-needs students are not empowered by simply writing about their feelings.  To be a competent, functional adult writer, one needs to be able to analyze, critique, and write logical arguments.

Annie Murphy Paul also agrees with Pondiscio’s assessment, writing, “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.”

I’m scheduled to teach Creative Writing during our winter trimester, and I know I’ll have a handful of students who like to write but lack command of the written word. A few Michaels will likely sit in room 137, ready to spill personal narratives onto the page. If I were only teaching self-healing and writing therapy, that’d be great.

Pondiscio acknowledges that it’s not an either/or proposition–we don’t have to skill and drill students to death without allowing for personal expression. I agree once again. I know I’ll have to find a healthy balance between teaching writing fundamentals and allowing the students to just write what’s on their minds. I believe in the power of storytelling, in addition to the crucial role it plays in society, so I look forward to teaching the course for the first time.

Today, my sophomores slaved away during fourth period on their first official writing assessment, attempting to write literary analysis. I was about to paraphrase Coleman’s words in a pre-test pep talk, but I decided against it. 

It’s true–their feelings don’t matter on this exam, but their command of formal writing conventions does. As does their ability to think critically. We’ll eventually write some personal essays  Hopefully, when we do, they’ll be able to incorporate some new skills to enhance their self-expression.

What do you think about the role of creative writing and grammar instruction in schools? Is it a good thing to swing the writing curriculum pendulum more towards analysis and argumentative writing? What do you remember as your most effective, lasting writing instruction?


  1. I tell my students that proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling are basically just good manners. Yes, we should encourage children to write about what they know and love but to pretend that they won’t be judged by their ability to write conventionally is irresponsible.

  2. This IS a great post (followed your link here from The Challenge of Blog Promotion post). As a college teacher of psychology, I struggle with this very question frequently. I do include “mechanics” as a portion of my paper grades and I often get flack from students about this, as if I should completely overlook my ability to understand what they’re saying in favor of WHAT they’re saying. I believe both are important. And I do think self-expression is valuable in that it can help students become more engaged with the material. Here, too, I require that they USE material (e.g., theories and research) to support or refute their personal experiences, another element of my grading that I often get pushback on. It’s not easy…

  3. I’m neither a teacher nor a parent, but old-school enough, as professional writer, to loathe this conflation of therapy with “writing.” What you scribble in your diary may well be written down but it’s not “writing” in the sense you need to teach it and have it understood. i.e. it is not written for an audience, and a critical one, but for oneself, and tends to be (naturally enough) self-indulgent and narcissistic.

    The best writing lesson I had began, at a private school, in 4th grade (!) when everyone in our school competed against one another in an annual essay contest. You got the possible topics a day or two ahead so you had some time to think about what you might want to say but the only aid in the room that day (we were given two hours, I think, maybe three) was a dictionary. The rest was imagination, speed, discipline, style. Grades 4, 5 and 6 competed against one another; 7 & 8, 9, 10 & 11, etc…I won it in Grade 7.

    I work as a self-employed journalist. I have to work fast, efficiently and well in order to make a decent living. There’s no doubt that these early experiences helped shape me as a writer.

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