Welcome to A Few Crooked Words, an almost-weekly source of ideas and camaraderie for parents (and anyone) who wants to spark children’s love of writing. Is your child struggling with school and needs a boost? Are you homeschooling? Just want some fun ways to enrich your child’s experience with the written word? That’s what I’m here for! I’ll share insights and stellar prompts from a decade of running Frog Hollow School, as well as from my own lifelong writing practice. I look forward to sharing what I’ve gleaned and learning from your experiences as well.
We have the power not only to help our kids be literate, but to help them become clear and confident in their own thoughts and words. And we have the power to honor their hard work along the way, because after all, even a few crooked words can be a poem.
Subscribe to receive the next writing prompt next week. In the meantime, tell your friends. Tell every overwhelmed parent you know! Learning to write is hard work, but we can help it be an exciting and enjoyable thing for our kids too.
One of my child’s first A’s.
Lonely as Dust: a beginning
This newsletter’s roots go back to 2005, when I had the chance to be a visiting poet in a third-grade classroom in Missoula, Montana. At that point, I was a twenty-four-year-old grad student. I rode my bike through the slushy streets all winter, feet out of my toe clips so I could put my foot down if I hit a patch of ice. I ate baguettes on Le Petit’s dollar baguette Wednesdays. I wrote angry poems about drunk men in bars and sad poems about horses. On all sides, yellow-brown mountains held the town and I fell asleep at night as if cupped in a giant hand.
Inspired by Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, Kenneth Koch’s classic book about teaching poetry to children, I decided the children I was visiting would write their own poems. I read the class “The Jabborwock,” showing them how it was written in mirror writing, and how Lewis Carroll had invented words in it like “galumphing” and “chortled.” Then I set them loose to write their own adventure poems, possibly in mirror writing, possibly with made-up words. And a sudden magic happened. The room buzzed with focused excitement. A boy who struggled to get two words down on paper wrote several lines in fluent mirror writing. Another boy, rocking the best third-grade Mohawk I’ve ever seen, wrote a line that still lingers in my mind about little animals who were together but “lonely as dust.”
Helping third-graders write poetry felt respectful of their capacity as humans and artists in a way that no sentence structure worksheet ever could. And their poems served as perfect documents to practice their spelling and punctuation. The process felt powerful and satisfying, akin to the satisfaction I felt in my own writing. But I didn’t know what to do with the magic I’d felt in that third-grade class. I wanted to be a novelist, not an elementary school teacher. So I put it away. I left Montana and moved home to Seattle to write my novel and run Summer Winds, the arts and nature-based day camp I’d founded as a teenager, which by then was a thriving local institution, colloquially known as Dirt Camp. I daydreamed about how I might combine my skills with children and dedication to writing into exciting year-round work, but for a long time it eluded me.
Yet in retrospect, teaching writing to children was an obvious path. My entire education had primed me to engage with alternative education. I homeschooled for seven years growing up and in the intervening six years attended four small alternative schools. (My parents were educational perfectionists.) This meant my entire vision of learning was formed outside a traditional classroom. Learning, as I understood it, was interest-led, self-directed, natural, and fun. I learned for learning’s sake, learned because it was a pleasure to be curious, a pleasure to understand. Although the open-endedness of my education horrified my grandfather, who asked me every week of my childhood how my math was going, it seems to have served me well. Directly after learning autonomously at home for high school, I attended Stanford University, where I graduated with Honors in English. It was then that I went to the University of Montana to get my Master’s, combining environmental studies and graduate level creative writing workshops to examine humanity’s internal relationship with the wild. I came out of my schooling with an embodied knowledge of what good education felt like. I knew how exciting intellectually stimulating environments could be, and also how it felt when schooling respected me as a whole person. And I wanted to create those things for others. I just had to figure out how.
Finally, five years after writing with those children in Montana, I was visiting a friend in Massachusetts when I was hit with an electrifying idea: I could start a full-day, year-long writing class for homeschoolers. I remember lying awake in my friend’s spare room, which was crowded with boxes and dog-hair dust bunnies, curriculum planning with the kind of exhilaration I usually feel daydreaming about vacation. Frog Hollow School was born.
A Few Crooked Words Can Be a Poem: my teaching philosophy
I decided early on to separate writing mechanics from the children’s creative expression. I encourage inventive spelling in first drafts, releasing children to say what they want to say, not what they know how to spell. They follow up their first draft with a spelling and punctuation revision. They need to see that writing can be fun but is also hard work, and that effort is fine. To make the work of drafts feel worthwhile, I decided we needed to make something beautiful, so my students don’t write assignments on lined paper. They write poems on thick, soft Bristol board that they bind and illustrate, creating their own poem books. Some of those poems are a few crooked words long. But they are a child’s real thoughts in their own words, which is something worthy of respect and encouragement. They hold the potential for something wonderful to happen – for a child to say something they needed to say, for some surprise or beauty to occur. So why not call them poems?
I also decided that since children need to practice writing so much it had better be enjoyable. To this end, we play writing games, where humor keeps reluctant pencils zipping. My class is as nerdy as it is fun. I share things I’m excited about — like did you know that the word lox hasn’t changed sound or meaning in 8000 years? — and enthusiasm is infectious.
Something Joyful, Something Necessary: the results
And something good happens. Through the alchemy of excitement, encouragement, joy, and acceptance of hard work, the kids fill pages with their words. Their spelling improves. Their thoughts find an order. They begin writing more at home. They stop dreading writing, stop fighting with their parents about it. They begin to view it with confidence.
Students leave my class sneak-writing under the covers at night, writing novels, publishing poems, and just plain expressing themselves easily in written words. The ten-year-old who hated writing is now a seventeen-year-old headed to Iowa Young Writer’s Workshop. The extremely dyslexic nine-year-old who couldn’t spell “the” became a teen jewelry artist with her own Etsy shop who, with the help of spellcheck, writes eerie and beautiful fantasy stories on her own time.
I’m a deep believer in the power, joy, and necessity of language. But I think what is happening for my students is even deeper than that. They are allowed to be children and also artists. In other words, they’re taken seriously but allowed to just be themselves. Their view of the world is respected, their hard work validated, their playfulness and sadness and sense of justice all allowed. Children’s writing is their thought, their creation. Taking it seriously matters. Through engaging with children’s writing with both gravity and pleasure, I’ve made a space for them to be at home in themselves. This is something every child needs.
Beyond Survival Schooling: Taking it all home
And so I would like to share what I’ve learned about sparking a love of writing in children. I would particularly like to support parents who are looking for more joyful and less stressful ways to help their children become strong writers. I know there are many overwhelmed parents trying to orchestrate a meaningful education for their children right now. I’d like to offer something that isn’t just survival schooling, something that might even be better than what can happen in a traditional classroom.
As a former homeschooler, homeschool educator, and parent of a young child, I have an in-depth understanding of the diverse needs of teaching parents. I also bring my experience as a writer, poet, educator, and academic achiever to this project.
Writing is often an academic trouble spot. It encompasses so many skills and takes so much work and time to learn and it matters so much for future success that it can become fraught. This newsletter will give you strategies and writing ideas to help your young writers approach writing from many angles, with creativity, excitement, and humor, transforming writing from a struggle into a form of expression and encouraging the volume of writing practice children need to become proficient writers, without tedium or worksheets. It will help you go beyond just the basics of writing to fostering a family culture of literacy.
I work from the philosophy that humans are natural learners and artists, and that the job of a teacher is to excite, encourage, and witness the intellectual and artistic exploration of the child, to both celebrate children as they are and to challenge them to grow. It stems from the premises that writing is exciting and expansive, that crazy wild thoughts are beautiful, that children can use their own thoughts and writing as material to learn spelling and other mechanics and that this process can be done through writing interesting and creative things. And also that writing is hard work for children and children’s written work deserves respect.
After a decade of discarding the duds and refining the keepers, I have a collection of stellar writing projects that span poetry, fiction, playwriting, persuasive writing, descriptive writing, research writing, and memoir, all geared towards children in the early years of literacy – roughly seven through twelve. Most of the writing ideas would also be great for older writers — I enjoy doing many of the prompts myself. I’m excited to share them with you, and to do what I can to foster the next generation of enthusiastic, skillful writers, and help you keep your sanity in the meantime.