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Dismantling the "Personal" vs. Analytical Writing Dichotomy

By Paul Morsink
 | Aug 25, 2017

Writing DichotomyWhat is the appropriate role and scope of personal response in our students’ reading and writing?

Six years ago, David Coleman, lead architect of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, famously stated to an audience of K–12 educators that, contrary to what they may have been led to believe, it’s important for students to learn that people don’t truly care about what they feel or think.

Coleman was responding to the view that, in many classrooms, students were doing far more “personal” expressive writing than analytical, text-focused writing. Regarding reading, he felt students were spending far too much time exploring “connections to self” rather than making meaning “within the four corners of the text.”

Pushback against Coleman’s denigration of students’ personal experience was swift and has continued since 2011. At the same time, it seems to me that reactions to Coleman’s and the Common Core’s interpretation of the role of “personal response” in literacy development have too often focused on simply defending the value of personal experience—rather than questioning the validity of the personal vs. analytical writing dichotomy itself.

Defending the value of personal response

Over the summer I was reminded of Coleman’s assertion and this widely accepted dichotomy in online conversations I had with a group of ELA teachers planning for the coming school year. How much time should they devote to personal, expressive writing, they wondered, and how much to more analytical, text-focused writing? When should they start steering class discussion away from “text-to-self connections” and insist that students make meaning within the four corners of the text?

These teachers objected to Coleman’s statement, but they agreed about the importance of strengthening their students’ strategies and dispositions for text-focused analysis. At the same time, we all agreed that, for us as much as for our students, having a personal connection to a topic, or having an initial personal response to it, tends to be highly motivating. As one teacher wrote, “When that personal connection and response is there, I’m excited to keep reading and thinking.”

Further conversation yielded another insight; in addition to providing motivation, the realm of the personal is also the realm of belief systems, preferences, biases, values, desires, and agendas. This realm of the personal is ripe for scrutiny and analysis.

In other words, we need to refute the idea that personal responses are somehow separate from, and unfit for, the activity of analysis. (Recent studies on interpretive response as conducive to growth in interpretive sophistication support this view.) As well, we should perhaps see all belief or values-based responses—including Coleman’s statement—as personal.

Putting these insights to work in our classrooms

In the context of the web and its vast trove of personal responses to everything from books (e.g., Amazon.com) to movies (e.g., rottentomatoes.com) to fan fiction (e.g., fanfiction.com) to restaurants (e.g., yelp.com), it did not take us long to envision concrete next steps. “Maybe what we need,” one of us wrote, “is actually more personal responses, and more juxtaposition of contrasting responses—because seeing different personal responses side-by-side ignites curiosity and gets everyone’s analytical engines started.”

In a web-minute, we had created a simple graphic organizer we could populate with different personal responses to a target text. The organizer is designed to invite students to read and reread juxtaposed responses (ideally including their own), identify specific differences, and look for clues to figure out why the responses agree or disagree. The guiding questions for this activity can be easily modified to better connect to particular texts or grade-levels. But we liked the following as a starting point:

  • Where and about what exactly do these responses agree and/or disagree?
  • What clues do you see that could help explain why these responses agree and/or disagree?

Here are three examples of organizers we prepared to use with our students:

In our classrooms, we discussed following a gradual-release-of-responsibility model, with the teacher first modeling with an example (using responses to a text that all students have recently read), followed by guided practice and opportunities for students themselves to choose a target text and collect responses on their own—from classmates or from the web.

As we wrapped up our summer conversations, we agreed that we’d taken a small step toward dismantling the personal vs. analytical writing dichotomy. We agreed that growing our students’ analytical abilities should not require moving beyond the realm of personal response, exploration, and expression. Rather, growing these abilities could entail learning how to closely examine and analyze personal responses—our own, as well as those of other readers and writers.

In this way we might expand not just our students’ analytical skillsets, but also their disposition to scrutinize and analyze texts of all kinds, from statements of opinion to political slogans to polished policy statements. And all that without obscuring the reality that what fundamentally animates literacy, in all its many forms—and contrary to David Coleman’s assertion—is what people think and feel.

Paul Morsink is an assistant professor in the Department of Reading and Language Arts at Oakland University in Michigan.

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