First of all, I wanted to mark that A Few Crooked Words hit an exciting milestone this week: we passed 300 subscribers. There are 303 of you to be exact. I feel super excited and grateful to all of you, because (with the exception of my journal) I like writing things people read. And since most of my writing so far has been writing unpublished novels that — outside a cult following among former teenage girls in Missoula, Montana — have yet to find their audience, knowing you all are out there feels really good. Also, I love helping kids love to write, and knowing that you all want to help too makes me really happy. So thank you.
Now, I value quality over quantity, and you all are quality, but I also know there are lots more people out there who’d like encouragement as they work with young writers. As well as people who just want to read about writing with kids — that’s cool too. So in the spirit of connecting writing and readers, I’m going to nudge you all to share A Few Crooked Words. Maybe you send it to your child’s teacher, your class email list, your local parents’ group, your homeschooling co-op, your favorite nanny, an enterprising grandma, an exasperated friend. Whoever it is, thank you.
And now, let’s get to the meat of it all.
The problem with good
I’m lucky to be parenting alongside my sisters, who both have kids around my daughter’s age, which means lots of juicy conversations about vomit and imaginary rabbits, our kids’ behavior and our responses to it, our own memories of being children, and all that good stuff.
Recently, we were talking about discipline and behavior with our children and in our childhood, and one of my sisters reflected, “I always felt like to be a good person I had to do XYZ. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel this way.”
I can’t stop thinking about this passing comment. It feels like the more I can approach my child outside the framework of good and bad, the healthier it feels. There’s less shame and judgment, more curiosity and problem-solving. And the boundaries feel both clearer and more alive. There are still standards of behavior we aspire to, like no hitting, but they’re more like ideal practices we stretch towards than something that reflects who we are on the inside. I’d say more, but I’m still muddling through this one.
But I do know that this is what I’m doing when I work with kids and their writing.
Why is good bad?
For a couple of reasons:
It’s an outside measurement of an internal experience that creates shame and a sense of internal deficit.
It’s subjective, but pretends it’s not. Good and bad are just opinions.
It’s vague and lazy. What does good mean? Nice? Obedient? Thorough? Brave? Delicious? Those words are all still opinions, but at least they are precise and give more information about what their pronouncer values. Even more useful are observations of facts: Correctly multiplied, sturdy, house-broken.
It’s operating from a sense of lack. You can’t be good unless you do XYZ. Not everyone can be good. There also has to be bad or the word would be meaningless. Suddenly, it’s a competition and there are going to be losers. You’re not a loser, are you? Good.
Did I mention the shame?
The key to the magic
Whatever the magic of Frog Hollow is, I mean whatever is working there, is very much connected to releasing the idea of good and bad.
I tell my students all the time that there is no such thing as good writing or bad writing. Those words are just opinions, judgments. There is writing that gives me shivers and writing that makes me cringe, but those are my own responses, not something essential about the writing. My favorite books would bore many people and seem inane to others. Different things that people do in their writing have different effects, and some of them I personally have a strong preference for, but the words good and bad are worse than unhelpful.
I approach my students’ writing with this worldview. I’m not there to say if it is good or bad. I’m there to notice, to celebrate, to stretch, and to enjoy. I tell them things that strike me, phrases that please me, ideas that spark in my mind. I appreciate their effort, and nudge them towards greater challenges. I help them with the mechanics of writing, knowing that mastering the practical workings of English is a long but worthwhile process and that’s OK (anyway, who would I be to judge, given my own inaccurate spelling).
In other words, I take their writing as it is, appreciate it, and help them continue to build their skills. I hold a vision of them having confident and skilled written expression. I notice motion and change as they learn. I problem-solve challenges. But I don’t sit there and say “You’re a good writer. You’re a bad speller. You’re so smart. You’re so dumb.” I don’t even say, “This is badly written.” I might say, “Keep going. Tell us more here. I’m confused about this part. Can you be more specific/vivid/weird here?” and other things like that.
When I do this, the kids flourish.
My challenge for you:
Next time you engage with a kid’s writing, don’t measure it against the colossal edifice of good. Appreciate it and nudge it forward. Instead of saying, “Wow, it’s good!” try:
Wow, this part here feels so convincing!
I’m noticing all these “s” sounds in this line.
I can really see it in my mind.
Whoa, what’s going to happen next?
It really flows from one idea to the next.
I can tell you worked hard on your spelling.
Your handwriting is so neat — I can see you really focused and worked hard.
A guy named Bob who has some bacon bananas? I almost peed my pants.
And if, well, it doesn’t strike you as being anything to write home about, instead of saying, “this is crap,” or (god forbid) “you’re a terrible writer,” try curiosity and problem-solving:
What could happen next?
I’m confused right here. What were you trying to say?
Awesome. You have a rough draft. Now let’s work on getting your organization stronger.
Cool, so you have “I heart cats LOL.” What could you add to that? What else do you heart? Do you pet cats? Feed cats? What else?
Nice draft! Let’s do some work on spelling.
Look at all that you’ve got down. Keep going!
I’m interested in this idea. Can you say more?
This part feels vague. How could you make it so I can see it in my mind?
Hmm, what would be a fresher way to phrase that?
I’m not sure this is accurate. Would you like help with some research?
And whatever they wrote, remember, it’s just their writing, not them.