GPAs, SATs, and TMI?

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is thrilled to welcome Robert Pondiscio as our senior fellow and vice president for external affairs, effective today. Here's his first of many posts he will pen as a member of the Fordham Institute team. Look for his posts on topics besides Common Core on Flypaper.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times worries that the pressure of selective college admissions is forcing kids to do “stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out.” He tells the story of a would-be Yalie with good grades and test scores but whose personal essay described a conversation with a teacher she admired—a conversation too important and stimulating to interrupt. “During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself,” he writes. 

In Bruni’s telling, today’s college applicants have grown up in the era of oversharing, “a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome.”

Certainly this trend of uncensored oversharing is disconcerting. But the fault, dear Bruni, is not in our scars but in our schools. To a significant degree, this awkward, uninhibited narcissism is aided, abetted, and even encouraged by what passes for writing instruction as far back as elementary school.

New York City’s schools, for example, have long been have long been in the thrall of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP), which encourages even the youngest children to plumb the depths of their six- and seven-year-old souls for material for personal essays. Forget book reports, two-page biographies, and social-studies assignments about foreign countries. In Writer’s Workshop, children gather “seed ideas“ in their writer's notebooks. The teacher calls her young charges “authors,” not students or children. She “conferences,” helping each child painstakingly massage their ideas, observations, and experiences into “small-moment“ pieces, personal narratives, and even memoirs.

“When my colleagues and I work with youngsters,” writes TCRWP founder and director Lucy Calkins in her book The Art of Teaching Writing, “often our first goal is to fill these youngsters with a sense of ‘I’ve got so much so say,’ and ‘My life is full of possible stories.’” Here’s Calkins instructing teachers on the proper way to conference with a young author:

Something happens when we skim over Diana’s entries. We become her first reader. At this moment we need to set aside our teaching agenda and hear what Diana the writer has said, whether it’s about her guinea pig or her trip to America. And so we look Diana in the eye and say, “It sounds like it was hard.” We need to tell her we can’t imagine doing such a brave, scary thing. We are looking beyond her entries and seeing the writer…Our job for that moment is to enjoy, to care, to be reminded of our own lives, and to respond. We cry, laugh, nod, and sigh. We let the writer know she has been heard.

Here you go, Yale admissions office. Can you hear me now?

Kids are not dummies. They quickly realize that the more confessional a piece of writing they produce—the brave, scary things—the more their teachers oooh and aaah over their “authentic,” powerful, and important pieces. To an unhealthy degree, we teach them to conflate the confessional and narcissistic with “great writing.” One is hard-pressed to find much about grammar, structure, and word choice in more than five hundred pages of The Art of Teaching Writing. What matters is “inviting children to live like writers”—but hopefully without the booze, chain-smoking, failed marriages, crippling self-doubt, and suicide. At least before middle school.

Let me not criticize too harshly. The impulses underlying the Writer’s Workshop model are deeply humane and undoubtedly, for some subset of children, liberating. The open question is whether or not the techniques espoused by its legions of devotees and gurus, including Calkins, Nancie Atwell, and Ralph Fletcher, are helping to produce writers who can escape the gravitational pull of their navels long enough to crank out a decent essay or research paper when they get to college. A promising counter-movement focusing on writing structure and mechanics seems to be gaining momentum, driven in equal measure by the Common Core and a 2012 article in the Atlantic highlighting the success some schools have had with a back-to-basics approach, especially with low-income students and English language learners. 

Our elite universities, should they wish, could end epic oversharing, help student writing, and improve college readiness in one fell swoop. If institutions like Yale stopped asking for personal essays as an admissions requirement and instead asked for graded academic writing—a research report, an English or history paper—the market for confessional writing would likely dry up overnight. Parents would almost immediately demand their children’s teachers offer an ELA curriculum focusing on academic writing, rather than self-indulgent oversharing. 

It might make the admissions officers’ job of reading applications a little less interesting. But graded academic writing would surely offer a better barometer of a student’s ability to handle college-level work.

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