If You Can’t Say Nothing Nice…

As my Mom would complete the sentence–it was one of her favorites–with then don’t say nothing at all, there would be an explosion of rolling eyes, the trip wire of poked out lips begging to be tripped into a pscht of sucked teeth, and series of just audible enough to reasonably believe the guilty party’s declaration but I ain’t even say nothing dough as my Mom threatened to pop the lips of anyone’s who were found flapping.

It is advice that is hard to negotiate as a teacher sometimes.

At midterm, I was so disappointed in my composition students’ essays. I felt like the previous nine weeks had been filled with me speaking like the Charlie Brown teacher and them hearing it likewise. Now I knew they could do better because I had seen their other essays.  I also knew they were probably being a little lazy which was likely because they were a lot tired.  It was midterms after all—test after test after presentation after presentation in the course of a single week.  Heck I was tired.  Like them, school was not my only responsibility nor interest.  Yep I was tired and frustrated too.

So Tired and Frustrated told them how bad the essays were.  More than once.  Each time I intended to grade and return them, I gave myself a headache in the reading of them.  The second time I said how terrible the essays had been and what a headache they gave me in attempting to grade them, I wanted to swallow my words.  Their silence let me know it was too late.  I felt so guilty.  And like a novice to a game I’ve been playing since 1999.  I should’ve known better.

As a composition teacher one of the first things I learnd in praticum meetings is that when we’re commenting on student writing we should first highlight the positive aspects of the material even if most of it sucks.  The truth is that rule applies to any kind of teaching, I think.

It applies to any time you feel the need to open your mouth according to my Mom’s (and probably your Mom’s too) exasperated advice when my sisters and I would get to picking on each other.  And let me tell you, we were quite cruel–each of us had a derogatory nickname or two given by none other than the other sisters.  The names were harsher than anything we could’ve been called by enemies in the street.

I was “Awk-Awk”–as in awkward–“Tumbelina” because I was a clumsy galloping, flipping across the living room kind of kid.  And “Bucky Beaver” because I had lots of gaps beteween my teeth–don’t ask me how that made the teeth buck but, hey, we were between, like, 8 and 13; reason doesn’t apply during those years.

As a teacher, I find that saying nothing when there seems to be nothing nice to say is rarely an option.  Besides, as I tell my students, there is always something nice to say.  I’ve never had a student who has not done anything right or even well.  Even if that’s just attractive penmanship.  Or a creative title and complete heading.

By starting with that nice stuff when I comment on their work, I find that it provides them with the confidence that is necessary for any kind of success; including in the compostion classroom.  Confidence, I’m convinced, is nothing more than feeling capable.

So knowing that they are capable of doing at least one thing nicely lets them know that even if everything isn’t quite so nice, they are capable of making it otherwise.  And I think that is more important than telling them how to do it nicely.

I start teaching again in about two weeks–high school students this time who have been told again and again that they are not capable both through the words and actions of their communities and test scores.  And I don’t plan to want to swallow any of my words to them.  Instead, I wanna make a new recipe of the old mantra my Mom instilled in us: If you can’t say nothing nice, then shut up–until you can think of something nice–and say that.  

That way whatever else you say that isn’t so complimentary doesn’t come across as an attack or insult but as the loving advice it was, hopefully, intended to be.

Now, if “loving” and “advice” are not two words you would use to describe your comments, take my mom’s advice: SHUT UP.

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