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Self-writing in French primary education: a brief history of a school genre1

Marie-France Bishop

Résumé

Self-writing in primary education is rarely regarded as a specific school genre. However, it has recurring traits and is part of a history linked to thee changes in the conceptions of school writing. This article is aimed to outline this historical record during which the experience of pupils was mobilised to varying degrees according to the challenges of education. Two main objectives alternated: writing to learn to write or writing to express oneself. Self-writing occupied a more or less recognised place according to the options taken and the priorities given to composition.

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Introduction

  • 1 Originally published in Repères, 34, 2006, 21-40

1Is it possible to trace the history of self-writing in primary education, at least in France? The question itself cannot be taken for granted and the idea is under debate. What is meant by self-writing at school? When leafing through a few textbooks and student copybooks, one realises that schoolchildren’s personal experiences have often been used by the school system. Even if the environment has changed, schoolchildren are still expected to tell memories or events of their lives. However, self-writing at school has rarely been considered a coherent and stable whole. It involves identifying the limits of this type of writing: should any sign of subjectivity be regarded as self-writing or can stable elements be taken into account? Thus the question of its definition is raised: is there a common denominator to the different situations in which students were asked to write something autobiographic, whether it be classic, reflexive or unguided writing? Another set of questions is about the historicity of these pieces of writing: how long have they been practiced? What were the objectives sought and what learning outcomes were expected? What changes have been made? One might finally object that relating the history of self-writing is highly ambiguous: is it truly self-writing? These questions will help identify this school genre through a historical and chronological outline.

  • 2 The guidelines from 1882 to 1995 are found in tomes ii and iii of André Chervel’s book L’enseigneme (...)
  • 3 Marie-Hélène Vourzay, Cinq discours sur la rédaction (1970-1989), PhD dissertation, University Lumi (...)

2The period under study is based on the texts and official guidelines from 1882 to 20022. Drawing on Marie-Hélène Vourzay3’s time division, one can consider that writing practices in primary education followed three models: the first – traditional – model was established in 1882 and abandoned in 1972 when the second model was officially introduced. The third model corresponded to the didactisation of school writing officially acknowledged by the curricula of 1985. The curricula published in 2002 introduced literature in primary education and emphasised the importance of reflexive writing. Self-writing fitted into these various models as each promoted specific conceptions of students and writing practice in class. The analysis of these four periods will be based on the official guidelines that determine the main orientations. Two types of documents –students’ works and subjects – will also be mentioned. However, before looking back on these periods, it seems necessary to wonder what may be designated as self-writing within the school system.

1. Self-writing and school pact

  • 4 Philippe Lejeune, Le pacte autobiographique, Paris, Le Seuil, 1996, p. 15.
  • 5 Philippe Lejeune, « Enseigner l’autobiographie », in L’autobiographie en classe, Paris, Delagrave, (...)

3It is difficult to name the pieces of writing in which students speak of themselves (whatever the context). Can they be referred to as an autobiography? This term, which Philippe Lejeune defined as a “retrospective account in prose that a person gives of her/his own existence when s/he focuses on her/his individual life, especially on the history of her/his personality4, ill applies to schoolchildren who do not seek to unveil their personality. As acknowledged by Philippe Lejeune about the pieces of writing of lower secondary school students, “the word [autobiography] must be taken in a broad sense and not in a more restrictive sense (retrospective account) as teenage is not the age of autobiography5 and childhood even less!

  • 6 Philippe Lejeune, Les brouillons de soi, Paris, Le Seuil, 1998, p. 125.

4The notion of autobiography is based on an identity shared by the three literary authorities: the author, the narrator, and the character. This is the reason why it cannot be dissociated from the autobiographic pact, a literary concept coined by Philippe Lejeune, referring to any declaration of intent by the writer who more or less explicitly promises to write a true account of her/his life. In any case, this true or illusory pact rests on its author’s free will and on the reader’s acceptance of this contract: “an autobiography does not mean someone who tells the truth on her/himself but someone who claims s/he tells the truth6. However, this pact is void in the school system. Students do not commit themselves to tell the truth but simply seek to comply with instructions and accordingly hope to be as close as possible to the benchmark evaluation model. Admittedly, the character, the narrator and the author are the same as students sign their names at the top of their assignment sheets but this is the only similarity between the literary autobiographic pact and the school pact. Indeed, writing at school is first and foremost an academic task before being autobiographic, i.e. what is intended is something different from a true account of oneself and from a claim of one’s own identity. The resulting confusion is that students are explicitly requested to write a true account of their own lives but implicitly expectations are mainly about linguistic learning outcomes. Autobiographic writing at school cannot be taken for granted. It occurs in a specific situation that impacts on the positioning of the self in her/his writing and on the final text.

  • 7 Jean-François Halté, « Travailler en projet », Pratiques n°36, 1996.

5Jean-François Halté’s analysis7 of the paradoxes of school communication can be adapted to academic autobiographic writings. He emphasised the contradictions arising from the transposition from a literary-based to a school-based model by showing that the use of external literary models in schools deeply altered them. Schoolchildren cannot abide by literary constraints as they are first and foremost expected to meet institutional expectations, i.e. show they can write proficiently. The relation between the writer and the reader is thus very different from the literary genre because the purpose is not to entertain, inform or create. There is no voluntary pact because roles are determined by the school institution. Readers in schools are evaluators whose opinion prevails over any other criterion. The second paradox is that schoolchildren seek to anticipate and meet the expectations of the evaluator. Like any piece of school writing, self-writing is subjected to this dual paradox but the autobiographical material makes it even more acute: while writing something about their lives, schoolchildren must first show their language skills and then seek to meet what they believe to be the evaluator’s expectations. This is the reason why the school pact cannot be considered autobiographic, expect in writing workshops for example.

  • 8 Georges Gusdorf, Ligne de vie. Les écritures du moi, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1991, p. 122.

6We eventually opted for a broader definition of autobiography that takes account of the specificities of school writers in terms of age and position. Indeed, Georges Gusdorf argues that autobiography is not a literary genre defined according to rhetoric categories. It cannot be disassociated from the other “types of self-writing” to which it belongs. This broad field “includes all the cases in which the individual is the very subject of the text s/he is writing. The literature of the self, in its broadest sense, is the writing of ‘I’ intended for others or for one’s pleasure. Even then, the use of the first person should not be a grammatical fiction or a rhetorical figure8. The perspective adopted in this definition is that of the writer rather than that of the reader: it is the writing intention that is taken into account, i.e. the particular posture of the person who speaks in her/his name. This more philosophical approach to self-writing sets it in a broader framework. All the schoolchildren’s pieces of writing in which the “I” coincided with their family name – grammatical fictions or rhetorical effects excluded – are part of this approach. The use of the first person is the explicit grammatical mark of the narrator who claims this status. It may be assumed that these pieces of writing are a school genre that fits into the history of school composition from which they borrow its main patterns for each period considered. In turn, each of these periods redefines the school pact around self-writing.

2. Self-writing during the third republic: advent of an ambiguous exercise

7Requesting schoolchildren to relate their experience in school compositions is almost as ancient as composition itself. It was first introduced in the late 1870s in primary education and was seen as an alternative to traditional instruction based on memorising grammatical and spelling rules (Boutan, 1996; Chervel, 1995). The proposals of Octave Gréard, director of primary instruction in Paris during Victor Duruy’s ministry, resulted in the introduction of this new activity in schools. But it was not until the Third Republic when composition was officially made part of curricula in primary schools.

8However, two main trends in this teaching activity were in competition. On the one hand, educationalists aspired to promote instruction specific to primary education based on observation and an intuitive approach: the object lesson is a case in point (Kahn, 2002). This teaching method that promotes the active participation of schoolchildren was inspired by Swiss educationalists – Pestalozzi and Father Girard – in the 18th and 19th centuries. This approach ensured continuity between Victor Duruy and Jules Ferry who intended to provide the people’s children with solid intellectual foundations and pass on the knowledge necessary to the education of mankind and citizens. Composition is aimed to offer language learning through the active participation of schoolchildren and their knowledge of language. In this perspective, its introduction in primary classes was an undisputable educational achievement.

  • 9 In their book La République n’éduquera plus. La fin du mythe Ferry, Paris, Plon, 1993, Christian Ni (...)

9On the other hand, the trend of social conservatism prevailed when the Falloux Act was passed in March 1850 in reaction to the French Revolution of 1848. This social conservatism was still active among the Républicains who were eager to preserve social order after the Paris Commune of 18719. The principle behind this conservatism was the disassociation between primary and secondary education and different curricula and targets separating the “school for the people from the school for notables” according to Antoine Prost’s expression. The purpose was to maintain a stable social organisation based on a distribution of social roles. In this perspective, it was deemed unnecessary to clutter up the minds of working-class children with useless things: what they were taught should be simple and practical. These principles were found in the curricula of July 1882 which emphasised the limited but truly educational nature of the knowledge gained in primary education.

  • 10 “March 23, 1938 – decree modifying the rules of the certificate of primary education”, in André Che (...)

10Compositions bear the signs of this dual aspiration: the purpose was both to avoid a mechanical teaching of language and to further a practical vision of primary education. Writing was recommended. However, secondary education methods were ruled out and classical literature was left aside because schoolchildren did not know it. In this regard, homework covered “the most basic topics and those schoolchildren were most familiar with” as mentioned by the curricula of 1882. The fact is that what they are most familiar with and what demands the least literary references is undisputedly what they have seen or lived. This is the reason why official curricula promoted writing on “a simple topic in relation to the personal (school or family) life of the child10 during the first half of the twentieth century. This continual incitement to use memories and personal experience was in force until the late 1960s.

  • 11 P. Gay and O. Mortreux, Programmes officiels des écoles primaires élémentaires, Paris, Hachette, 19 (...)

11What were the topics suggested? Hachette added lists of recitations and essays to its publication of official curricula in 192311. Their suggestions met the guidelines of 1923 which lamented the poor teaching outcomes of French composition. Apparently, schoolchildren still had difficulties in this subject. While preserving the traditional model of 1882, these guidelines advised teachers to change their teaching methods and take action gradually: in the second and third years of primary school, schoolchildren were expected to write short sentences while in the fourth and fifth years they had to write a paragraph. In this new distribution of writing practices, the objective of the topics suggested for the second and third years of primary school was to write paragraphs.

12The first of the forty topics targeting the fifth year of primary education read as follows: “The lost key – your mother lost her key while going shopping and found the door shut when she returned home. Relate the incident and how it ended”. Here is the second topic: “Describe your garden in the summer when you get up: the sun still low on the horizon; vegetable leaves more shiny than the day before; dew drops in hollow leaves; more fragrant flowers.” These two examples can be defined as “self-referential topics” (Bishop, 2004). They are self-referential because they request schoolchildren to tell their daily lives in the first person singular. However, the autobiographic injunction does not require the same answer in these two examples. In the first, schoolchildren are both narrators and actors while in the second they are involved as observers: even if the topic implies the use of the first person, the expected narrative does not feature the narrator as a character. The pronoun “I” used by the pupil in the first example will be autobiographical because s/he is a narrator, a character and the writer. In the second example, the “I” is that of the observer as an outsider and is not the purpose of writing.

  • 12 This copybook is kept at the museum of Saint-Ouen l’Aumône in Val d’Oise

13However, can we really speak of autobiographical pieces of writing? Some of these topics are based on recollection. For instance, these are the ordinary stories of children’s memories: account of the first day at school or of a day off like this example taken from the same book published in 1923: “Tell the first day at school and analyse your impressions and feelings: the refurbished school; the darker blackboards; some friends left; the pleasure of getting together.” In most cases, these instructions are so detailed that pupils have no alternative but to invent a story in line with instructions. This is the case of evening narrations. These are stereotyped accounts that are found throughout this period. Here is one example dated 1924 and written by a pupil in the fourth or fifth year of primary education12:

“One of your evenings with your family. Outline: the moment; activities; what you hear; whom you think of; what you feel.

After dinner, dad, mum, my sister and I meet by the fireplace. I am always sitting next to our purring pussy. Our dog comes to sit on my lap. Dad is reading the paper, Mum is darning stockings, my sister is knitting and I am learning my lessons. Sometimes we are playing cards or other games for fun.

The wind is howling outside and the rain is hitting the small windows hard. Inside, the fire is crackling and the tick-tock of the clock is swinging.

I see the logs piled up on the andirons and the high flames licking at the old, sharp iron teeth. Sparks are shooting up.

I have a sense of well-being. When nine o’clock strikes on the clock, some family members are closing their eyes. Then we are putting out the fire and going to bed.”

14The various elements of the situation are the object of intensive learning through readings, dictations and compositions. These self-referential topics are based on prescribed experience that does not always reflect lived experience. The autobiographic “I” has become fictional. The enunciative pact is paradoxical because it is presented as being autobiographic through the instruction to use a real “I” but there is also an implicit fictional pact.

  • 13 “July 27, 1882 – Decree on the organisation and study plan of public sector primary schools”, in A. (...)
  • 14 This discovery of conventional feelings is told by different authors. For example, Nathalie Sarraut (...)

15These ambiguous requests reflected the educational approach of that period. The purpose was not to encourage the personal and authentic expression of schoolchildren but to further the knowledge and moral values necessary to the education of citizens. Writing was meant to contribute to learning the French language and to developing “clear thinking, judgement, order and soundness in thought and language13 as set down in the 1882 curricula. There are several benefits to first-person writing: it furthers language learning through lived experience, an ever available material. In addition, moral values can be gained through the rewriting of lived experience. Indeed, the instructions lead schoolchildren to rearrange their own story according to scenarios expected and developed by literature (Bishop, 2004) in which they express conventional feelings14.

16The traditional writing model was undeniably popular because it was in force from 1882 until the 1972 guidelines. It was however challenged as of the early twentieth century by the New Education Movement and more particularly by Freinet.

3. Unguided compositions in the service of an educational and political project

  • 15 Élise Freinet, Naissance d’une pédagogie populaire, Paris, Maspero, 1969, p. 33. This snail race be (...)

17Freinet, who resolutely opposed these educational methods, developed the use of unguided composition. It was between 1920 and 1925 in Bar-sur-Loup where Célestin Freinet had his first teacher post that he realised the potential of this method. Élise Freinet15 reported that the young teacher, who did not know how to arouse the desire to learn among his schoolchildren, small farmers who had little interest in school matters, related an event – a snail race – experienced by his class. Two major elements – free texts and the printing press – arose from this initial (and mythical) event. The link between these two techniques is the question of the conservation and socialisation of a piece of writing about the life of individuals. The interest raised by reading the story of this collective event disappears when the blackboard is erased. As a result, the young teacher became aware that classroom writings had to be given social substance materialised by texts whose main quality was their being part of children’s daily lives. The printing press, which he set up little time after, was the opportunity for him to connect these two aspects – the dissemination and circulation of texts on the one hand and the real lives of schoolchildren on the other hand. Freinet did not invent unguided texts but he gave them a particular meaning that outlived him. It is necessary to draw on Freinet’s writings to present their main features.

  • 16 Célestin Freinet, Le texte libre, Cannes, éd. de l’École moderne française, 1960, p. 13.
  • 17 C. Freinet, Le texte libre, op. cit., p. 12.

18What is unguided or free composition according to Freinet? First of all, it is a true moment of freedom during which nothing is imposed: neither the place, nor the time, nor content: “Free composition should be really free, i.e. writing occurs when someone has something to say, when the need to express – through writing or drawing – what bubbles up is felt. Children will write a spontaneous text on a corner of the table in the evening, on their laps, when they listen to their grandmothers’ telling them about the amazing stories of the past, on their school bags, before going into the class and also during the free time we spared in our timetable16. Free composition has a variety of functions in Freinet’s class. This is not only a moment of free expression but also a truly educational tool. Indeed, schoolchildren’s writings are at the heart of cooperative learning because when teachers invite their pupils to self-expression, they become familiar with their hobbies and develop their lesson plans out of these hobbies. Research, activities, and work topics are organised according to the needs expressed in writing. It means that children will write about themselves, their lives, desires and motives. According to Freinet, “free texts intimately and permanently echo children’s backgrounds and personal expressions17. Writing is viewed as a transparent expression of thought and feelings.

  • 18 C. Freinet, Le texte libre, ibid., p. 19

19In addition, these texts are often the opportunity for children to restore their unity. Freinet, who refused traditional educational practice which set the various environments apart, argued for free expression in the class. Thanks to free texts, life-like events come into the class and pupils can learn and develop harmoniously: “the unity of children’s lives is restored. They will not leave the most intimate part of their lives aside and wear garments which, albeit embellished and modernised, will still be garments for schoolchildren18. Thus it is the whole life of a child which finds its place at school and this restored integrity makes learning no longer a constraint but a natural development which drives each to make progress harmoniously.

  • 19 C. Freinet, La méthode naturelle de lecture, Verviers, Marabout, 1968, p. 353.
  • 20 C. Freinet, ibid., p. 353.
  • 21 Henri Poulaille, Nouvel âge littéraire, Paris, Librairie Valois, 1930, p. 101.

20Finally, these writings have a political function. Thanks to free texts, Freinet intended to let people’s children speak freely. He believed that the traditional school system perpetuated the division between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat which had no access to writing as a means of expression. The school for the people that he intended to establish was meant to help children of the proletariat to appropriate authentic language, i.e. being able to express oneself. What Freinet means by being able to write is being able to speak for oneself: “the traditional school system, despite all its efforts, prepared a majority of illiterate children because even if they can read and write, they cannot express in writing the difficulties of their lives, their joys, their sorrows, or their dreams. They need people who are outsiders to their background to convey their feelings and to some extent betray them in doing so19. Proletarians do not have access to literary creation either. Freinet noticed that “while the people has its own orators – a field in which no rules have been imposed yet – it does not have its writers and hence has not come of age20. Autobiographic writing is referred to as the true means of expression of the working classes. This is not introspective writing but a writing that is closer to the account. It shows the cohesion of a social class and gives it the opportunity to develop its own identity. In this sense, Freinet comes closer to the arguments of the group of proletarian writers under the leadership of Henri Poulaille who believed that the proletarian writer found its inspiration in lived experience: “his inspiration is not reading, or school but life, his and that of others, the life he sees, observes or lives21. The use of the person is never self-centred. In contrast, attention is focused on others, the group and when he writes “I”, the writer refers to a “We” as a social collective. In this movement, writing testifies to the belonging to a social class that develops its identity thanks to self-writing.

  • 22 The compositions written in Célestin Freinet’s classes were collected in Michel Barré’s book, Avec (...)

21What do Freinet’s pupils write22? Many free texts are written in the first person and tell events linked to the daily life of pupils. For example, they are requested to tell the farming activities in which they participate. These texts are printed in the class newspaper that is exchanged with those from other schools. The children would compose their own works on the press and would discuss and edit them as a group before presenting them as a team effort. As their raison d’être is the socialisation of children, there is little intimacy in these autobiographic writings. In contrast, following the example of proletarian writings, they tell the life of a social group or the life of the group of classmates. Work, like games are collective activities. Here are two texts written in 1928 in Freinet’s class in Bar-sur-Loup:

  • 23 M. Barré, op. cit., p. 36.

“We’ve made cakes. It was ash kneaded with water. Henry prepared cakes with kitchen implements. I put them in the oven. When they were baked, I gave them to my brother (Pelegrini Lucien 8 ans)”23

  • 24 M. Barré, ibid., p. 41.

“It’s hot. We’re running during the break. We’re sweating. We’d like to keep playing in the water basin of the fountain. In the evening, Francis goes to swim in the river Loup. Other children swim in basins. Pierrot sawed a barrel that he put in the basin. That’s his boat. In the evening we play in a cool place.”24

22There are a number of recurring traits in these texts. Their sentences are short and there are few modal words, few adverbs or adjectives as if no evaluation of action was expected. Facts are told successively and the young narrator expresses no feelings unlike pupils in traditional classes who were asked to express their feelings. But the most striking element is certainly the repeated use of the pronoun “We”. It is the sign of the collective the narrator is part of. This merging of individuality into the group shows most in the repeated shifts from “I” to “We” in which the narrator is but one element of the community.

23Other and more personal texts were signed by a group of pupils, which keeps the private dimension aside. Here is the example of a dream told by three pupils of Freinet in Bar-sur-Loup on March 25 1931:

“A DREAM – I dreamt that I was on an aeroplane. I started it and flew away. When I arrived above the house of M. Mazucco, I saw another aeroplane carrying André Mathieu, Garcin and Mattéo. They asked me:

Will you let us get on to of your aeroplane?

I won’t!

Matteo had a gun and shot. He thought he would hit me. He hit the propeller which broke in two. I fell over M. Mazucco’s house which caught fire. I jumped in straw.

  • 25 M. Barré, ibid., p. 70.

(Cordara; Maccagno; Bracco)”25

24The triple signature of such a private event as a dream is paradoxical. It points to the merging of the singular into the collective in the writing of free texts. But these free texts reach the limits of self-writing and reveal a tension between collectiveness and individuality.

4. The transformation of free texis at the turn of the 1970s

  • 26 The Rouchette commission was set up in 1963 by Jean Capelle and René Haby. It was chaired by M. Rou (...)
  • 27 “4 décembre 1972 – Instructions officielles”, in A. Chervel, L’enseignement du français à l’école p (...)
  • 28 Guidelines of 1972, in A. Chervel, op. cit., p. 226.
  • 29 The 1972 guidelines gave more prominence to unguided compositions than the 1971 renovation plan did (...)
  • 30 Guidelines of 1972, in A. Chervel, op. cit., p. 227.
  • 31 Guidelines of 1972, in A. Chervel, ibid., p. 229.

25The French reform plan published in 1971 following the works of the Rouchette commission26 and a large-scale experimentation in schools started in 1966 is the sign of considerable changes in the conceptions of curricular writing. Some of its elements are found in the 1972 National Curriculum guidelines but its spirit and theoretical foundations are left aside. These guidelines promoted two skills in the teaching of French in primary education: first communication is encouraged because “French is taught to help children communicate and think27, then expression is also valued as it is the purpose of any language learning: “All writing activities at school – from the most modest to the most ambitious – are intended to make pupils proficient in written expression and skilled enough to use it in all the circumstances in which they will have to do so for pleasure or by obligation28. It was to emphasise this dual objective that composition officially became “written expression”. Personal writing activities occupied a particular place in this new environment. Free texts were part of the activities recommended by the 197229 guidelines which differentiated free writing from free texts. The latter was to be written in a spontaneous and unconstrained manner according to Freinet’s legacy: “Free texts are quite distinct from free writing topics. Their main function is to ease communication through writing and also to give the written language the same natural and spontaneous impetus as the spoken language. Not only does the child choose the topic but s/he also chooses the right timing: s/he writes a text whenever s/he wants and is not compelled to hand it in to her/his teacher30. As a result, text writing could remain a private activity and their reception was quite different from what they were in Freinet’s classes. Unlike Freinet who argued that the ultimate purpose of writings was their socialisation, the communication of self-writing was not a prerequisite in the 1972 guidelines. Primary school teachers were advised to handle these texts discreetly and carefully because schoolchildren may have “made painful revelations about family members” (1972 guidelines)31. These are no longer communication tools but aids in self-expression.

  • 32 The corpus of the compositions of the initial period is significant. Another corpus based on INRP r (...)
  • 33 These compositions are reproduced with their original spelling.

26For lack of a significant corpus32, it is difficult to know exactly what schoolchildren wrote between 1972 and 1985 – dates of the national curriculum guidelines. There are few compositions written in the notebooks held by education museums. A possible change in aids (binders and their loose sheets instead of notebooks) or the significant transformations of curricular writings may account for this phenomenon. The change in writing procedures has left writing activities invisible in notebooks. Indeed, free texts, poems, surveys or cross-class correspondence were increasingly published on posters, in individual school newspapers, etc. The material below is thus only assumptions made following the reading of a dozen autobiographic free texts33 written between 1972 and 1985.

  • 34 This assignment can be found in a copybook kept at the national museum of education in Rouen (INRP)

27The first of these elements is the focus of the text on the writer her/himself as s/he positions her/himself as the organising element of the whole both from a grammatical and semantic perspective. This text written by a pupil in CM2 (fifth and final year of primary education in France) in 1974-1975 is a case in point34:

“My first horse riding lesson:

One day when I wanted to do horseriding, my daddy put me down for the horse riding club of Pomméréval. On D day, I went to the riding school. The manege is located in a large farm yard. Around it, there was a barn, stables, an open building to iron horses and a house with an office in it. The yard opened onto a large prairie where horses were roaming free.

The instructor pointed to my horse. His name was “Où vas-tu” and that of my sister was “Napoléon”. I took my horse by the bridle and led him to the big building with the manege in it.

The instructor taught me how to mount, to walk the horse and to trot. I enjoyed this first lesson and Sophie too.”

28The occurrences of the first person are constant, either as subject or complement pronoun or as possessive determiner. The experience told is strictly personal. The narrative is organised around this private experience. Events are told in chronological order along the temporal axis.

  • 35 This assignment can be found in a copybook kept at the museum of education in Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône.

29Chronology holds a significant place in these free texts. Here is an example dated 197135 written by a pupil in CM2:

“Saturday, January 9

A nice day

One night my mother asked me if I wanted to go shopping in Paris because we had to buy toys. I agreed. We woke up at 8am and took the train at noon for Paris. At about 1pm we were in a department store. There were toys because it was Christmas soon, my mother took me to the clothes department but it was hot so we went out for a breath of fresh air. We looked at the windows, I saw a beehive producing honey but it passed too quickly. Because I was hungry, we took a few cakes then we went to the station but the train was too late so we took the train to Goussainville and we waited for half an hour at least then the train arrived and we got back home.”

30The focus on the event side of the story seems to be done to the detriment of other aspects, especially that of textual structuring. The overuse of spatio-temporal references transforms this narrative into a summary. There are no scenes or dialogues in this chronological text written according to a sort of immediate recollection. The writing is focused on telling an event as it was lived by the narrator.

31This focus of the text on the writing individual seems to have an impact on curricular self-writing. While the 1972 national curriculum guidelines clearly refer to Freinet’s free texts, there are major variations in these two forms of the same object: Freinet argued that expression was a means to find one’s place in a group whereas the objective of the French reform plan was to free writing and speech. But the notion of free text is different in both cases. For Freinet, texts are free in their writing environment and have their own existence beyond the curricular framework but they are constrained by their social destination. On the other hand, the texts written as part of the French reform plan free writers but remain within the curricular framework. The ultimate objective is communication for the former while it is individual freedom for the latter. Freinet considered that self-writing was intended to be socialised and was not focused on individuals. In the curricular approach, the motive and ultimate aim of self-writing was to talk about oneself.

  • 36 Guidelines of 1972, in A. Chervel, op. cit., p. 226.
  • 37 As presented by Francine Best in her book Vers la liberté de parole, Paris, Nathan, 1978.

32But curricular self-writing was far from reaching a consensus during this period. While it was considered spontaneous writing in the 1972 guidelines, as primary school teachers were advised to “use the resources of children’s spontaneity towards the development and enrichment of their language36, this conception was unanimously shared. Some researchers and teachers believed that the principle of liberation was denatured. Indeed, while liberation is based on the free expression of the child’s personality, it can only arise through the discovery of the different functions of communication. Free speech is not only tantamount to spontaneous expression but is also the result of learning as it cannot exist unless children are becoming proficient in their own language37.

5. The French didactics and the decline of self-writing from 1985

  • 38 The emergence of French didactics is presented in Françoise Ropé’s book, Enseigner le français, Par (...)
  • 39 The commission to think about the teaching of French was chaired by Jean-Claude Chevalier, professo (...)

33The reform period coincided with a major research and reflection trend in the teaching of French which gave birth to the French didactics. This movement38 appeared in the early 1970s with the contribution of linguistics and developed in the 1980s. It was marked by a theorisation of the teaching of writing that is largely based on the contribution of cognitive psychology, textual linguistics and education sciences. These reflections on writing ran counter to spontaneist approaches. That is the reason why free texts disappeared from national curriculum guidelines. Indeed, they were not mentioned in the decree laying down the curricula for CM1 and CM2 published in July 1980. It is the result of fierce criticism against free texts as that addressed by the Chevalier commission39 which in 1985 blamed them for their lack of a theoretical framework and for not contributing to the teaching of writing. Free texts, which cannot be evaluated, are based on pupils’ spontaneity rather than on an analysis of the different factors involved in writing exercises.

  • 40 These different movements are detailed in Yves Reuter’s book, Enseigner et apprendre à écrire, Pari (...)
  • 41 Michel Fayol, « L’approche cognitive de la rédaction : une perspective nouvelle », Repères, n° 63, (...)

34Various movements40 converged and contributed to the rise of new conceptions of learning to write. From the perspective of the didactics of writing, these are the project-based approaches (Halté, 1982; Jolibert, 1984) which helped analyse accurately the different stages to write a text. On the side of textual linguistics, analysis of text organisation together with writing projects contributed to developing tools to evaluate pupils’ works (ÉVA, 1991). Finally, from the perspective of cognitive psychology, the analysis of the composing process resulted in mapping the actual mental behaviours of writers. The Flower and Hayes model became popular in France in 1984 after Michel Fayol41 introduced their composing process. The weight of social requirements also contributed to increasing the monitoring of language learning outcomes after the association ATD Quart-Monde denounced the high level of illiteracy in France in 1984.

  • 42 MEN, La maîtrise de la langue à l’école, Paris, Savoir Livre, CNDP, 1992.
  • 43 MEN, La maîtrise de la langue à l’école, op. cit., p. 91.

35In this context, the main objective was to develop the autonomy of young writers and provide them with the tools necessary to text composition. That is the reason why self-expression became of secondary importance and was no longer mentioned in official guidelines. The name was changed in 1995: “written expression” was replaced by “text composition”. Learning to write was then defined as a plannable activity that required writers to develop their knowledge both in terms of writing processes and text composition. Curricular self-writing could no longer be considered the result of spontaneous expression and it became a type of text among others. Only the book “La maîtrise de la langue à l’école”42 mentioned self-writing briefly among the different types of texts to be composed during cycle 3 (the third, fourth and fifth years of primary education in France): “Schoolchildren have a passion for portraiture present in most narrative texts. Portraiture is a means to shift easily from correspondence to autobiographic writing […]”43. This quotation taken from the ministerial guidelines published in 1992 illustrates the fact that autobiographic writing is no longer regarded as personal expression but – through portraiture – as a literary genre.

6. The modernity of self-writing: towards the development of the learning subject at the turn of the 21st century

  • 44 See on this point the article by Claude Le Manchec in this issue.

36The 2002 national curriculum guidelines advocated a literary approach to youth books with a view to bringing curricular writing closer to literature. Writing is based on these readings. More particularly, these are imitation pieces of writing such as pastiches. While autobiographic genres are not mentioned by name, they are yet part of the corpus of suggested books44 and offer a wide array of texts to be imitated.

  • 45 MEN, Enseigner les sciences à l’école. Documents d’accompagnement des programmes, cycle 3, Paris, C (...)
  • 46 Dominique Bucheton and Jean-Charles Chabanne, Parler et écrire pour penser, apprendre et se constru (...)

37But writing is not reserved to French in the 2002 guidelines. Text composition is expected in all disciplines and primary school teachers are advised to ask their pupils to practice note-taking. What already existed in practice became an official injunction. Science guidelines provided for the use of a field book in cycle 3: “Pupils fill in a field book. Text composition contributes to sustaining reflection and developing rigor and precision. Pupils write their observations and experiments for themselves45. This provision went beyond traditional feedbacks because writing was viewed differently from the 1995 guidelines. What was targeted was no longer standardised text composition useful to communicate but the wording of learning in progress. The initial assumption is that language activity contributes to developing thought and individuals: writing is a reflexive activity (Bautier, 2002). These principles are also supported by Dominique Bucheton and Jean-Charles Chabanne who defined reflexive writing as follows: “Reflexivity is primarily defined as distancing oneself from immediate language experience. This natural quality of semiotics is what instruction will seek to amplify and generalise: distancing oneself from one’s experience, making room for other people’s views in one’s views46. Reflexive writing is a self-distancing process and an activity to develop an image of oneself and of the world. On the one hand, it contributes to going beyond the immediate expression of experience and on the other hand it favours the expression of learning individuals.

  • 47 In their analysis, Dominique Bucheton and Jean-Charles Chabanne broadly covered this notion of refl (...)
  • 48 MEN, Qu’apprend-on à l’école élémentaire ? Les nouveaux programmes, Paris, CNDP, 2002, p. 188.
  • 49 MEN, Mathématiques. Documents d’accompagnement des programmes, cycle 3, Paris, CNDP, 2002, p. 9.
  • 50 MEN, Enseigner les sciences à l’école. Documents d’accompagnement des programmes, cycle 3, Paris, C (...)

38The compositions that are of most interest to us here47 are those in which the writer expresses thinking in progress in the first person and for that reason can be regarded as self-writing. Indeed, reflexive writing can be appreciated at different levels: it is both a thinking tool and also a budding reflection of the writing person. But unlike autobiographic writing, reflexive writing includes a necessary distantiation from personal experience or feelings for the purpose of analysis. This is a sort of metadiscourse which official guidelines focus on and advise teachers to practice in all disciplines. This is also knowledge-based writing which enables writers to think about the world and brings different disciplinary knowledge into play. For example, in literature the use of a reading notebook is recommended to “have a more intimate relationship with books”48. In mathematics, “‘research writings’ correspond to the private work of pupils. This type of writing, which is not intended to be communicated, may include drawings, schemes, illustrations, calculations. It is an aid to test, become aware of a mistake, correct it, and organise one’s research”49. In sciences, it is recommended to use a science notebook of a hybrid nature as it is “the right place for self-writing over which teachers have no authority; it is also a personal tool to develop learning50. The function of writing is clearly the elaboration of thought, the development of knowledge and of learning individuals. The compositions of pupils are focused on their intellectual and personal environments.

39What are the characteristics of reflexive compositions written in class? These writings concern all disciplines. The examples below written by pupils in cycle 3 testify to the variety of disciplines. The first one was written during a scientific experiment and the second after the reading of a novel for children:

“I looked at lungs. There was plenty of interesting things to see. I didn’t imagine the inside of lungs like that. I saw Marc blowing air into rabbits’ lungs. It was awful but very interesting for experiments. I drew a scheme with marbles representing blood, carbon dioxide and clean air. It was fascinating but difficult to understand.”

(Science notebook, 2002, pupil in CM2, about breathing)

“I loved it but at the beginning I was not too fond of it but after when I read the summary of the book written by my female cousin, she is in seconde (first year of upper secondary education), well I got into Ba so I read it and I found it very exciting.”

(Reading notebook, 2003, pupil in CM2, about the novel Ba by Jean-Claude Chabas)

40These texts are little formalised and were written just as the ideas came to their minds. Scarce punctuation illustrates idea sequencing through writing. Writing gives a hint of the cognitive development of knowledge. Unlike feedbacks, these writings belong to none of the standardised categories in the curricular tradition. They may come under various forms ranging from narratives to diaries. Jacques Crinon (2002) analysed learning diaries of pupils in CM1 and CM2. Here is an example:

“October 20th: Today we did six exercises of the math workbook for those who each had a workbook because not all pupils had a workbook I made a mistake on célèbre for a question of accent I didn’t learn anything but I revised how decimal numbers were added and subtracted.”

41However, these compositions are not necessarily ephemeral and can be kept to remember developing knowledge and the intellectual paths of pupils as mentioned in the support documents for mathematics in cycle 3. The place of these writings in class is ambiguous: these fragmentary, often allusive compositions belong to none of the existing curricular genres and receive no specific teaching. Their main objective is the development of cognitive subjects and their autonomy towards the knowledge they have to elaborate individually. They are often intended for the sole purpose of their writers, which gives them a semi-private character as they are neither corrected nor evaluated. They belong to the category of self-writing that science supporting documents differentiate from “writings to communicate” and “reference writings” – the memory of the group. Their private aspect brings them closer to intimate writings (Albert, 1993) intended for oneself or for a restricted circle. They are meant to further reflexivity and self-knowledge, i.e. self-inscription through writing.

42Therefore, some of the reflexive pieces of writing – those in which writers are the subjects of the texts they write when they relate their intellectual progression – form a new type of curricular self-writing. But despite their semi-private character, they are still curricular compositions written in an institutional context which predetermines them. Curricular requests are once again ambiguous: unlike ordinary or extracurricular compositions (Penloup, 1999) reflexive writing is performed in class and is intended to play a role in learning outcomes. Its semi-private character seems problematic as it is set in a curricular environment but the conditions for its reception are not clearly determined.

Conclusion

43The history of self-writing in primary education is linked to the conceptions of writing. Students are subjected to the principles and targets set to writing activities. The features of these pieces of writing are constant and generic: the use of the first person singular, the supposed reference to autobiographic elements and the context of these writings – the classroom. There are differences in how these last two points are taken into account in the models presented. The republican model has emphasised the academic aspect instead of a more personal dimension. In contrast, the non-guided pieces of writing of the seventies are set in an individual perspective and focus less on learning outcomes. In any case, the connection between these two – academic and autobiographic – dimensions gives these writings their fundamentally ambiguous, even paradoxical nature. Finally, if these writings were recognised as a school genre, it might be possible to consider the learning outcomes they can generate.

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Bibliographie

ALBERT, J.-P. (1993) : « Écritures domestiques », in Daniel Fabre (éd.), Écritures ordinaires, Paris, POL.

BARRÉ, M. (1996) : Avec les élèves de Célestin Freinet, Paris, INRP.

BAUTIER, É. (2002) : « Lire et écrire pour penser et apprendre », Actes des séminaires interacadémiques, 2001-2002, MEN.

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BISHOP, M.-F. (2005) : « Place, rôle et enjeux des écritures de soi dans la pédagogie Freinet », Les cahiers Théodile, n° 5.

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Notes

1 Originally published in Repères, 34, 2006, 21-40

2 The guidelines from 1882 to 1995 are found in tomes ii and iii of André Chervel’s book L’enseignement du français à l’école primaire, Paris, INRP, 1995.

3 Marie-Hélène Vourzay, Cinq discours sur la rédaction (1970-1989), PhD dissertation, University Lumière-Lyon 2.

4 Philippe Lejeune, Le pacte autobiographique, Paris, Le Seuil, 1996, p. 15.

5 Philippe Lejeune, « Enseigner l’autobiographie », in L’autobiographie en classe, Paris, Delagrave, 2001, p.16.

6 Philippe Lejeune, Les brouillons de soi, Paris, Le Seuil, 1998, p. 125.

7 Jean-François Halté, « Travailler en projet », Pratiques n°36, 1996.

8 Georges Gusdorf, Ligne de vie. Les écritures du moi, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1991, p. 122.

9 In their book La République n’éduquera plus. La fin du mythe Ferry, Paris, Plon, 1993, Christian Nique and Claude Lelièvre argued that Jules Ferry developed a more conservative than educational vision in his education-related works.

10 “March 23, 1938 – decree modifying the rules of the certificate of primary education”, in André Chervel, op. cit., t. ii, p. 362.

11 P. Gay and O. Mortreux, Programmes officiels des écoles primaires élémentaires, Paris, Hachette, 1923.

12 This copybook is kept at the museum of Saint-Ouen l’Aumône in Val d’Oise

13 “July 27, 1882 – Decree on the organisation and study plan of public sector primary schools”, in A. Chervel, op. cit., t. ii, p. 100.

14 This discovery of conventional feelings is told by different authors. For example, Nathalie Sarraute in Enfance told how she invented a sad memory – the death of a small dog – to be in line with what adults expect of the sorrow of a young girl.

15 Élise Freinet, Naissance d’une pédagogie populaire, Paris, Maspero, 1969, p. 33. This snail race became popular as the first « unguided » composition of Freinet’s pupils in October 1920.

16 Célestin Freinet, Le texte libre, Cannes, éd. de l’École moderne française, 1960, p. 13.

17 C. Freinet, Le texte libre, op. cit., p. 12.

18 C. Freinet, Le texte libre, ibid., p. 19

19 C. Freinet, La méthode naturelle de lecture, Verviers, Marabout, 1968, p. 353.

20 C. Freinet, ibid., p. 353.

21 Henri Poulaille, Nouvel âge littéraire, Paris, Librairie Valois, 1930, p. 101.

22 The compositions written in Célestin Freinet’s classes were collected in Michel Barré’s book, Avec les élèves de Célestin Freinet, Paris, INRP, 1996.

23 M. Barré, op. cit., p. 36.

24 M. Barré, ibid., p. 41.

25 M. Barré, ibid., p. 70.

26 The Rouchette commission was set up in 1963 by Jean Capelle and René Haby. It was chaired by M. Rouchette, a chief inspector.

27 “4 décembre 1972 – Instructions officielles”, in A. Chervel, L’enseignement du français à l’école primaire, t. iii – 1940-1955, op. cit., p. 211.

28 Guidelines of 1972, in A. Chervel, op. cit., p. 226.

29 The 1972 guidelines gave more prominence to unguided compositions than the 1971 renovation plan did. They were mentioned after imagination texts and drama games under the heading “Individual or collective creative activities”, in “L’enseignement du français à l’école élémentaire. Principes de l’expérience en cours”, Recherches pédagogiques, n° 47, January 1971, p. 27.

30 Guidelines of 1972, in A. Chervel, op. cit., p. 227.

31 Guidelines of 1972, in A. Chervel, ibid., p. 229.

32 The corpus of the compositions of the initial period is significant. Another corpus based on INRP research concerned the years 1989-1993.

33 These compositions are reproduced with their original spelling.

34 This assignment can be found in a copybook kept at the national museum of education in Rouen (INRP).

35 This assignment can be found in a copybook kept at the museum of education in Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône.

36 Guidelines of 1972, in A. Chervel, op. cit., p. 226.

37 As presented by Francine Best in her book Vers la liberté de parole, Paris, Nathan, 1978.

38 The emergence of French didactics is presented in Françoise Ropé’s book, Enseigner le français, Paris, éd. Universitaires, 1990.

39 The commission to think about the teaching of French was chaired by Jean-Claude Chevalier, professor of linguistics and met from 1983 to 1985. It devoted its last chapter to primary education: « Lire, écrire à l’école primaire », p. 154-180 and made a number of criticisms to the practice of unguided composition.

40 These different movements are detailed in Yves Reuter’s book, Enseigner et apprendre à écrire, Paris, ESF, 1996, p. 23-38.

41 Michel Fayol, « L’approche cognitive de la rédaction : une perspective nouvelle », Repères, n° 63, 1983, p. 67-78 and Claudine Garcia-Debanc, « Processus rédactionnels et pédagogie de l’écriture », Pratiques, n° 49, p. 68-69, 1986.

42 MEN, La maîtrise de la langue à l’école, Paris, Savoir Livre, CNDP, 1992.

43 MEN, La maîtrise de la langue à l’école, op. cit., p. 91.

44 See on this point the article by Claude Le Manchec in this issue.

45 MEN, Enseigner les sciences à l’école. Documents d’accompagnement des programmes, cycle 3, Paris, CNDP, 2002, p. 12.

46 Dominique Bucheton and Jean-Charles Chabanne, Parler et écrire pour penser, apprendre et se construire, Paris, PUF, 2002, p. 5.

47 In their analysis, Dominique Bucheton and Jean-Charles Chabanne broadly covered this notion of reflexive writings that also includes middle writings. In this article, only those concerning knowledge development written in the first person are mentioned.

48 MEN, Qu’apprend-on à l’école élémentaire ? Les nouveaux programmes, Paris, CNDP, 2002, p. 188.

49 MEN, Mathématiques. Documents d’accompagnement des programmes, cycle 3, Paris, CNDP, 2002, p. 9.

50 MEN, Enseigner les sciences à l’école. Documents d’accompagnement des programmes, cycle 3, Paris, CNDP, 2002, p. 12.

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Référence électronique

Marie-France Bishop, « Self-writing in French primary education: a brief history of a school genre », Repères [En ligne], Hors-série | 2013, mis en ligne le 12 septembre 2013, consulté le 30 mai 2017. URL : http://reperes.revues.org/512 ; DOI : 10.4000/reperes.512

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