The writing, the talking, the drawing

“I prefer drawing to talking.  Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.”

I came across this quotation this morning from the architect Le Corbusier.  My sense is that this sentiment was issued somewhat cantankerously, and I know from firsthand experience that drawing is frequently not faster than talking, but it got me thinking about drawing, and writing, and people who are new to both. How common it is for a young person to crave time for drawing, and how attached we are to getting kids to write, and soon.

Several years ago I met with a mom and her seven year-old.  The seven year-old was fiercely committed to drawing at the time (two years later he took up painting and landed a local gallery showing).  Meanwhile, his mom was worried about his sloppy handwriting.  I watched him do a little of each, the drawing and the writing.  I suspected that he was indeed struggling a bit with the formation of letters, but he was also resistant to the act and it seemed that resistance was playing its own part.  When he was drawing, he had enormous patience with himself for getting a line or a mark just the way he wanted it.  If it didn’t come out right at first, he’d try again until he got it.

This child’s mom and I decided that it might be worth holding off on forced handwriting practice, because it seemed as though the motor function required to neaten up the writing and get it flowing more easily and less stressfully might well come as a side effect of her son’s drawing practice.

I saw these two again a year later. The now eight year-old still preferred drawing to writing (his temperament is such that I suspect he’d have agreed with old Le Corbusier about the talking) but the difficulty with the handwriting had settled itself out.  “I stopped bothering him about it,” the mom told me.  “It made sense that the drawing would help his hand get stronger and more used to forming the lines he intended.”  She smiled.  “I had to be patient, and trust him, and it worked.  Maybe I’ll learn my lesson from that.”

Analogy crosswords, for struggling spellers and others…

I remembered the other day that Mindware makes a book of analogy crosswords (several books, actually, at different levels of complexity).

Like anything else, these crosswords are no good when forced on unwilling doers, but for kids who have asked for help with spelling or those who enjoy tasks that bend the mind, inviting the formation of new neural connections, they’re quite effective and even enjoyable. (What makes them a relatively fun way to work on spelling is that they offer the hint of how many letters the word has, and occasional letters from other words.  For struggling spellers with agile minds (which is most of them, I find), the job of figuring out which letters are involved is rendered less arduous by that of figuring out which word it is in the first place.  Then the hint offered by the number of spaces and intersecting words acts as a bit of scaffolding.  It’s a little interim boost  – makes the task more manageable in the short term so it isn’t abandoned all together for being too much to handle.)

Here they are on amazon.  Sample pages at

Because they’re crosswords, you’ll have to forgive the makers for (what I would consider) an occasional… stretch… in the name of fitting an answer into both an analogy and a particular configuration of letters. It’s worth it, though.  Even the ones that seem slightly off invite useful mental gymnastics, in my opinion…


I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.

I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day.  The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice.  For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.

Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom.  Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important.  The writers.

I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once.  The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting.  It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me.  I could do better.

Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell.  I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind.  I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.

We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not.  The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters.  But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us.  The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.

But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.

Here’s the thing.  The word is penmanship.  As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word.  Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that.  We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen.  What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing?  What might it lead to?  Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up?  Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?

If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration.  And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.


I was once asked to tutor a ten year-old who didn’t want any help.  (This has happened lots of times; I say “once” because this story is about one particular child.)  He was a relatively good sport about it, because he’s a relatively compliant kid.  He was not about to refuse to meet with me, and he was not about to be rude to me.  But it’s hard for anyone in a situation like his to go without an outlet for resistance.  So this is what he’d do.  When it came time to write anything down on a homework assignment he’d write with one hand but not steady the paper with the other.  The result was nearly illegible numbers and symbols.  Just generally a big mess.

I’ve seen enough children doing this to discern with some accuracy when it’s the result of a lack of understanding of the physics involved in the act of writing (which it really sometimes is) and when it’s a communication.  This was a communication.

I could have told him to hold the paper still, and he probably would have obliged (being relatively compliant). But then he would have found some other way to let me know he wasn’t happy with the circumstances.  Instead I asked him if sometimes he holds the paper still when he’s writing on it.  He didn’t respond right away.  “What d’you mean?” he said (with what sounded to me like caution).  I said, “I mean, I’m pretty sure you know that when you’re writing, and you hang on to the paper with your other hand or steady it with your wrist, what you write will be easier to read.  So it seems like maybe you don’t feel like it right now, or something.”

He didn’t say much then, and we moved on. But the next time it happened, when he realized he was doing it, he looked up at me and I raised a dramatic eyebrow.  He covered his eyes for a moment, scrunching up his face, and laughed. It became a bit of a running joke between us.

My approach didn’t change the fact that this child didn’t really want to be there with me working on math, but it set a tone that allowed us to talk about it, person-to-person.  And that meant we could also talk about the various challenges and resistances that led his teachers and parents to send him to me in the first place.

This is one of those things that can seem simple but not actually be easy.  It’s often not easy to figure out how to acknowledge out loud that a child’s will is involved in a behavior, with curiosity about the behavior and without immediately attributing the expression of that will to laziness or obstinacy. But it’s possible.  And it’s worth it.  When we find ways to access and express genuine curiosity about why kids are doing what they’re doing, we make room for a human connection that transcends the common adult/child dynamic – the one in which an adult gives a directive of one kind or another and the child is limited to a choice between compliance and defiance. Breaking the cycle of that dynamic tends to allow for much more productive and peaceful conversations.

And it’s also just plain more fun and less exhausting for everyone.

Writing, naturally occurring

I spent part of a recent Sunday at a large family gathering.  There were 11 children under the age of 10 in attendance.  Some of the kids’ time was spent on a repeating rendition of the chicken dance, some was spent making vehicular use of a rolling chair found in a corner.  The last several minutes were spent using up leftover adhesive name tags.  Signs appeared on various family members’ clothing reading, among other things, “Free.” This was hilarious to them.

One of the younger and more active members of this under-10 crowd, a four year-old who is also the youngest of the three children in his immediate family, has only recently begun to learn to write.  As the name tag fun gathered momentum, I spotted him at a table apart from the others, bent over a pair of stickers. He’d pen one letter at a time, then run over to his mother to ask what came next in whatever he was trying to spell.  This was the only time I saw him stand still that day, and while he was at it, none of the many many potentially distracting components of his surroundings made even the smallest impression.

I was reminded that the skills we are most concerned about, the ones that we wring our hands over and, without meaning to often drive children away from, are naturally occurring in the course of what kids already want to do and care about in their days.  They show up differently for different kids, but if they’re useful, they show up.  This little guy saw his older siblings and cousins making delighted use of their capacity for writing, and that was enough to move him to interrupt his hum of activity and chatter in order to work on his own.  And he wasn’t trying to write signs.  He was just practicing the words.  He had the foresight to connect the task before him – of getting proficient with forming letters – with the fun the others were having.

Sometimes, when we’re worried about whether or not kids will be motivated to learn the handful of skills we are most concerned about “in time,” we forget that they have this capacity.  They have the capacity to see, all on their own, when something is worth toiling at even if it’s not possible to catch up to siblings or whomever else is providing the appealing example in time to participate in what has inspired them.

Where’s *my* washing machine?

One of the commitments of modern education is equality.  We strive to provide the same high-quality education for every child. We do it by trying to give every child the same things.

My mom likes to tell the story of the year her parents bought washing machines for their two other grown daughters but not for her. My aunts had seven young children between them at the time.  My mom was single and moving around a lot.  On Christmas morning when the gifts were revealed, my mom said, hoping to get a laugh, “Where’s mine?”

I was thinking about how it would be perfectly reasonable for kids who are fascinated with and committed to things that don’t make it into the school curriculum to ask a similar question, though not in jest.  “How come the kids who love math get to spend 45 minutes of the day doing a thing they love, but the kids who love climbing trees don’t?”  “How come the kids who love to write get to spend 45 minutes of the day doing the thing they love while the kids who love fixing machines don’t?”

Of course our adult answer is that we’ve concluded that writing and math are the things that everyone’s going to need.  We’ve also decided that everyone has to get them at the same time.  But to kids, it’s just as uncomfortable and awkward to try to learn a thing it isn’t time for (even if it might be helpful later on) as it would have been for my mom to have a washing machine to contend with that year it was a tremendous help for her sisters.

I’m reminded, as I write, of the distinction between equality and and equitability.  Equal means the same; everyone gets the same.  It’s mathematical.  Equitable means “dealing fairly and equally with all concerned.” In those words, there’s maybe more room for each actual person to get what he or she actually needs.

Their own devices

It’s tough to use this phrase without getting derailed by the obvious pun or irony available given the various portable game consoles, MP3 players, and smartphones that populate many a modern child’s existence.  But I still often find it asking for my attention when I see young people at work on whatever is truly their own; when they’re left to what are actually their own devices –the mechanisms that operate in their minds and internal worlds, made visible in what they create and share with their speaking, drawing, singing, building, imagining, and other art and craft.

Yesterday I saw a series of drawings penned by a nine year-old I know.  One of what I would call this child’s own devices is a knack for telling terrifically dramatic and often ironic stories on paper, with spare line drawings and few words.  At first my eye was tempted to wince at the size and shape of her lettering.  And it would be easy to mistake what she’d drawn and written for an unsophisticated product for someone her age.  It would be easy to worry that she’s behind.

But the plots of these stories, the behavior of the characters, and the choice of words in the dialogue betray their author and illustrator’s wisdom and knowledge.  More than once as I was looking over the body of work I heard myself saying “I’ve never seen that done before.”

Kids’ own devices are often of this nature – a surprising and subtle confluence of the distinct neurological wiring they arrive with and the things they’ve seen and heard along the way that shape and inspire them.  When we’re distracted by how well they are or aren’t forming their letters or whether or not they can remember, quickly, the difference between 17 and nine, we can miss their best stuff.

Which is a shame, because it’s much easier to practice your letters once you find reason to do so, or devise a strategy for managing calculation, than it is to reclaim an authentically original and unique way of responding to the world after it’s been pushed aside or snuffed out all together.


The other day I was drafting a piece of writing on paper and I spelled the word probably with two p’s instead of two b’s, so it became “propably.”  (I mention the paper only because the error couldn’t be blamed on typography.  I just plain spelled it wrong; some sort of temporary glitch in letter retrieval.)  This was an ironic error because I’d been working on the spelling of this very word, several days earlier, with a 10 year-old I know.

I sent her an email right away to tell her.  And I’d be willing to wager that after learning of my mistake (and after the good-natured teasing that I’m likely to endure from her in the coming weeks), she’s unlikely to misspell it again herself.

In my own time as a young student, I learned (by watching) that the job of an adult is to appear as error-free as possible.  But later when I became one of those adults, I discovered that there’s something surprisingly powerful about an adult’s willingness to be fallible, imperfect. There’s something about it that renders a child available for the acquisition and retention of information and skill that few other factors do.

Or maybe, actually, it’s not surprising at all.  Maybe it makes perfect sense.  The opportunity to see the possibility of error, in someone a child is expected to look up to and model after, erases the chasm between child and adult – the one that can make children feel as though they’re less, to feel as though it’s a great wide sea they have to cross to get to where the adults are.

For the child I informed of my spelling error, the notification will be connective.  My mistake will give the two of us something to talk and laugh about.  “Propably?” she’ll likely exclaim the next time I see her.  And at least for that moment, we won’t be teacher and student – one charged with appearing perfect and the other charged with trying to get there as soon as possible, no matter the cost and stress.  We’ll just be two people making our way in the world of writing stuff down, sometimes getting the words the way we mean to, other times messing them up.

It may seem like setting such a tone would make for shoddy work, but in my experience it doesn’t.  It makes the work feel real, and safe, and when things feel real and safe, the mind is freed up to do its best most adventurous work.

Invitations to read, write, spell

In much the same way a set of tiles on the fridge can quietly alleviate fraction woes, a set of Bananagrams* tiles can introduce a lightness to the realm of spelling, writing, and reading for kids who are timid about any or all.  There are many ways to use these and other letter tiles beyond the rules that come with the game.  (Bananagrams is like Scrabble, but without the turn-taking and the points.  It can be played competitively or not.  According to the rules of the competitive game, players work on their own crossword array while others work on theirs so it’s easy to level the playing field when players have highly divergent skill levels.)

Here are a few ways to use the tiles (all of which I’ve seen enjoyed by kids at one point or another):

• Arrange groups of letters in funny sayings or family in-jokes on a shelf or ledge somewhere.

• Leave notes written in tiles.

• Spell nonsense words or extremely long or short sentences.

When we use something like letter tiles as an instrument of connection between people, we offer kids an appealing invitation into the realm of words.  There’s no pressure to GET anything, just an example of what’s available in participating.  It’s the kind of invitation that’s possible for kids to accept on its own merit, independent of shame or fear of failure or, probably most salient of all, disappointing us.

*The tiles from an old Scrabble game can do the same trick, or any other game with letter tiles.  I will say, however, that the combination of the tactilely pleasant Bananagrams tiles and the zippered cloth banana that houses them has a certain allure.

Tools for writing

Let’s say I decide to build a house.  I go to my father (who built the one I grew up in) and tell him my intentions.  And he says “Good for you.  Here are the tools you’ll need,” handing me, say, a screwdriver, a hammer, and a handsaw. My face falls a bit, because I know that when he’s building things, he usually uses a power saw, and the cordless drill and driver.  “Later,” he says when I ask about those. (He wouldn’t, really; this is rhetorical.)

So I get to work, and soon I have carpal tunnel from turning the screwdriver and I’ve thrown out my shoulder with the back and forth of the saw.  The work is going very very slowly.  “Plenty of houses got built this way,” people tell me.  “And it’s important to know the basics.”  Eventually, because I was more interested in the house than basic tool use, I stop.  The house is not realized.

And so it goes, too often, with young people and writing.  So intent are we on basic primitive tool usage that we forget to pay attention to what it actually takes to realize the proverbial house, and in so doing we run the risk of destroying the drive to do so.  If a child has an idea, a story, a thought of any kind to communicate, why wouldn’t we just get out of the way?  If she wants to use the computer, the spell check, the voice-to-text, why not?  These are tools of realization.

Generally the ‘why not,’ is in the worry that if we teach her to type too soon, or allow her to dictate before she can transcribe, she’ll never learn to use a pen, to write by hand. She’ll be hindered by skipping a critical first step.

But pens and pencils are to writing what screwdrivers are to building and fixing.  There was a time when they were the only tools available, and we needed them for big and small jobs alike.  We had no choice but to build houses with hand tools, and so learning to use them first was the only option. And there was a time when we had no choice but to do all our text-based communication by hand.  Now it’s not the only option, but we keep insisting kids wait to use the more efficient tools until they’ve learned to use the ones that are really only necessary for small jobs now.

We’re often insisting on it out of habit or nostalgia, which is too bad because it not only creates frustrated resistance in young people who don’t understand why we won’t let them use all the tools available but because it thwarts the realization of the house.  Or the poem or the novel, the thank-you note or the Valentine. It sends the message that kids are only welcome in the world of text once they’ve mastered a process that is now only peripherally necessary, which of course in turn makes them less enthusiastic about joining us in that world at all.