Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Exploring Outside the Comfort Zone

I had the following exchange with Jessica Lahey on her blog, and it was so remarkable I thought it was worth re-posting here.

(Quick recap: Jessica Lahey describes assigning a personal reflection essay to her 8th grade English class. She gave one previously straight-A student a 0 on his first draft because she felt it wasn't revealing enough.)
Feb 7, 2012 08:12 AM

There's a basic contradiction here. You're telling the kids, "Dig deep! Express yourself! Find out who you really are!" ... and then you hand out a 0 if the kid doesn't express himself the way YOU wanted him to.

It's still all about pleasing you; the kids just have to pretend that it's all about finding themselves. It's a head game.

It reminds me of the many homework assignments we've received, that, after a long list of rules and requirements, say at the end: "Have fun! Be creative!" That's not how life works. The kids can't have fun and be creative while simultaneously carrying out all of the teacher's commands to the teacher's satisfaction.
Jessica Lahey
Feb 7, 2012 08:26 AM

He had a zero for about 24 hours, and he understood it to be a temporary "try again." I suppose there's a certain amount of "you had to be there" to understand the entire situation and experience of my students. I understand that you are very angry and frustrated with schools and teachers that do not take the feelings of students into account, and I absolutely agree. However, it is my JOB to challenge students to dig deeper, look further, ask more of themselves when they need to. Teachers do need to foster, support, and encourage children in order to help them achieve all they can be, but we must also challenge kids to be their best, and sometimes that can make students uncomfortable.

I am sorry for whatever experience you had with education that got you this upset, but really, I am, and always will be on the side of the kids and their emotional and academic needs. I promise, we - teachers who ask kids to explore outside of their comfort zones - are not the enemy.

Well, if she asked the kids to explore outside their comfort zones by presenting them with challenging intellectual problems, I might be okay with it. But I don't see any reason, or excuse, for pushing adolescents out of their emotional comfort zone, by making them write revealing personal essays. How is that education?


  1. It isn't education. Only think what would have happened if he wrote a long essay about how, exactly, he had deep thoughts about blowing up the school, or what a crazy jerk he thought his teacher to be, or whatever. Then they would say HE crossed the line.

    I would also be fine with it if it were an intellectual problem OR if he were allowed to "dig deeper" into a CHARACTER he invented and write from the character's perspective. Something like that.

  2. PS Love how Miss Jessica tries to pass off the criticism as your problem. As evidenced in the I don't know what deep hurt you have to say such a thing to me stuff. Good grief.

  3. Forgive me, but what planet do you come from? Or more to the point, on which planet do your kids attend school?

    You need to come to New York City where I teach and where Lucy Calkins idiotic, invasive and downright voyeuristic “Writer’s Workshop” has been all the rage for the last ten years. We try to get 10 year olds to become competent writers by unburdening themselves about “small moments.” Rather than write book reports or research papers—something of even vague academic value--we teach inner city kids to “live the writerly life” penning “personal essays” about visiting their fathers in jail. Or how frightening it is to lie in bed at night and hear gunfire in the streets. Or how sad they’ve been ever since Abuela died last year. I’d call it voyeuristic, except the kids are no dummies--they know we find this kind of thing “authentic” so they give us what we want in all its gritty, ungrammatical glory. And this brand of writing has caught fire, spreading to schools in every corner of the country. Except yours, apparently.

    What’s even worse is the “young adult” fiction we insist that kids read. Think your kid should read Dickens, Chaucer or Shakespeare? Sorry. Not “relevant.” Every possible teenage pathology has its own hero or heroine. Vampires? Kid stuff. YA novels are filled with victims of sexual abuse, incest, violence, drug addiction, violence, bulimics and cutters. Again the watchword is “authentic.” Nauseating.

    In this vacuous, voyeuristic and bleak educational landscape, you want to single out Lahey? Seriously? As we say in New York, “meh.” She seems conscientious and thoughtful and has the decency to respond to criticism, which is more that I've ever seen Calkins do.

    And at least she can write.

  4. Donald -- I'm not sure I understand that criticism. FedUpMom shouldn't complain about x because other things are worse? Or because x is widely used? Do you agree with her critique or not?

  5. FedUpMom described her exchange with Lahey as “so remarkable.” I find THAT remarkable. There’s nothing even remotely surprising about it. This kind of writing is simply what nearly all kids do in school. State standards require it, and parents demand it because when it comes time to write that personal essay to get Junior into Brown or Swarthmore, it’s the ticket in. FedUpMom seems to think she’s uncovered some kind of “gotcha” moment. What she’s discovered a teacher doing her job. Whether the criticism is valid or not, it’s misplaced.

  6. What do you mean by "misplaced"? If it's right, why should she place it somewhere else? Why post two comments about her post without ever actually agreeing or disagreeing with it?

  7. From what I have learned in our education classes, our curriculum outcomes do not assess on personal opinions but rather on the ELA specific outcomes. (Although maybe this is different from Canada to the United States)

    Is it possible that even though the topic of the essay was a personal reflection she was actually assessing ELA outcomes such as:
    - generating ideas (well developed, audience specific, consistent)
    - organizing ideas (essay organization, effective transitions)
    - enhanced artistry (language choice, precise diction)
    - appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation

    If this was the case, she wouldn't be giving the student a mark based on what his actual opinion was but on how he met the outcomes she was trying to meet.

    I realize that she does say she gave him a zero because she felt he was "bluffing" about his disappointment but I feel that if he didn't give it his all in regards to the topic, he probably didn't give it his all in regards to the organization or format either (which she could assess and rightfully hand back to do over).

    It seems like she is a committed and aware teacher and I get the feeling that her blog post maybe does not do the situation justice since she does not address the curriculum outcomes that she meant to meet through that assignment.

  8. Donald Graves says:

    FedUpMom seems to think she’s uncovered some kind of “gotcha” moment.

    I think I've uncovered a mass of jumbled contradictions which I'm still trying to sort out.

    There's the thinly veiled hostility of a teacher who likes to watch her students squirm, and finds it entertaining to give a 0 to a previously straight-A student.

    There's the issue of whether you can promote "creativity" while giving assignments and wielding a grade book, and whether this assignment is somehow getting kids out of their habit of saying whatever the teacher wants to hear (I think not.)

    There's the question of whether it's appropriate for an English teacher to try to push kids out of their emotional comfort zone (again, I say no.)

    There’s nothing even remotely surprising about it.

    Well, it's surprising to me, if not to you. Where I live, this is not the standard way to teach English.

    parents demand it because when it comes time to write that personal essay to get Junior into Brown or Swarthmore, it’s the ticket in.

    Yes, schools are so sensitive to parents' demands. HA HA bloody HA.

  9. Actually, I think the kind of deep navel-gazing that this teacher promotes is NOT what colleges want to see in a personal essay.

  10. I've been really shaken up by your posts about this issue. I got both a BA and an MA in creative writing and always loved those sorts of assignments growing up, loved those sorts of teachers. Had I read Jessica's blog without having read yours, I would have been impressed at what a great teacher she is. We live in a culture (at least the upper middle class does, and apparently, according to Donald, inner city kids do, too) saturated with a therapeutic approach to creative work with no sense that children have a right to privacy. Foucault predicted it all. It raises the question of whether creative writing or other arts can be taught in school at all, and yet for many children those classes are the only thing they enjoy... I wonder what E. D. Hirsch would say to your critique? Have you written to him?

  11. Does creative writing have to be about memoir? Why couldn't the kids write fiction, instead of being pushed outside their comfort zone and forced to write revealing essays about themselves?

    Here's what I think on the issue of teaching creativity. I've thought a lot about this issue over years of taking art classes. There's a creative spark, a passion, which cannot be taught. People have to find it for themselves. The part you can teach is technique; in writing, how to put a grammatical sentence together, how to get your ideas across, how to write clearly, or subtly, or in a consistent voice; how to keep the reader's attention.

    I also think that for any creative endeavor it's useful to have an audience, which is another function that a good class can fill. I'm reminded of a still life I painted where many people told me they liked the way "the briefcase just floats." Well, I had actually painted in the cigar boxes the briefcase was balanced on, but on reflection, I decided I liked to have it apparently floating, and in subsequent paintings, I've made things float on purpose.

    If you enjoyed this kind of writing in school, that's fine, but from J. Lahey's account of watching kids squirm, it's pretty clear that her students don't enjoy it. She should at least give the option of writing fiction to kids who don't want to reveal their secrets.

  12. On the topic of navel-gazing memoir ...

    After I had Older Daughter, I went through a phase of reading mom-bloggers and mom-forums on the internet. I finally overdosed. I got so sick and tired of reading stuff that went "I expected to feel like this, but instead I felt like that, and my mom friends felt like the other ..." I wound up yelling at the screen, "I don't care how you feel! Go away!"

    Then I got into the Flashman series. What a relief — all action, no introspection, no $#%&% feelings.

  13. @Rosemary, at the BA and MA level, you get to choose your classes, so if you really hate memoir writing, you wouldn't take the course. What makes the 8th grade assignment problematic is that the kids didn't have a choice.

  14. I was actually agreeing with you. One of the things I've been thinking about is how different I was as a kid from the way my own are. This teacher pushed her students (at least the very successful, grateful ones she's telling us about) to learn the trick of revealing difficult feelings in a powerful way, which is a talent that can really help you throughout your education. As someone said above, you write better applications. You get more confident about yourself, too. But there are children who aren't ready to do this because of anxiety, immaturity, neurological differences, etc. And of course as you say many children just don't want to. Why should they have to? And then when they offer up something private that's important to them, but maybe not all that juicy to the teacher and she's not impressed, what effect does that have? I have friends who loved writing poetry once but stopped after they were treated by teachers as if their feelings were merely cliches. (Whether they were expressed that way is really beside the point.) Teaching creative writing, especially to kids, is an incredibly delicate art, it seems to me.

  15. ***
    Teaching creative writing, especially to kids, is an incredibly delicate art, it seems to me.

    I think teaching creative anything is delicate, and I wish teachers would follow the creed "First, do no harm." Most creative people start out by producing derivative, uninteresting work. They need support and encouragement while they find their voice.

  16. ***
    I was actually agreeing with you.

    No worries. I was agreeing with you too!