Accepting Self-Expression

Accepting Self-Expression is the first goal in Pongo's approach to teaching writing. We try to respect what young people have to say, and it helps us to break down the obstacles raised by their understandable low self-esteem and lack of trust. In our approach, Accepting Self-Expression has the following three aspects:

  • Listen to Students and Welcome Writing
  • Save, Share, and Publish Writing
  • Use Encouragement Rather Than Critique

Listen to students and welcome writing

At Pongo we learned about listening when we started taking dictation from the youth and paying attention to their voices. Before that, like most adults, we didn't listen very well. Now we feel that, like loving, listening is limited by personal traits. Most people believe we know what listening means, but in fact we often behave unconsciously and in a way that's defined by our own needs.

Sometimes we don't realize our limitations as listeners, especially if our goal is an unselfish one - to help someone else. But even a desire to help can be a reflection of our own anxiety and not a direct response to another person. As adults, it can be particularly difficult for us to listen to tragedy, helplessness, rage, shame, and the deep insecurity of youth. At Pongo, through learning to listen, we've learned that a young person's words are a powerful source of healing and a useful end in themselves, as is an adult's compassion.

When we introduce the Pongo project to young people, we explain "We want you to write from heart about who you are as a person." And we explain our publishing goals by saying that "We want the people who read our books to understand young people better." In other words, our goals invite people to be themselves in their writing. And when people bring us their writing, we make every effort to be consciously present as we read it and respond.

Save, share, and publish writing

When we began working in juvenile detention, one of the teachers there complained that he didn't know how to teach writing. But he did an interesting thing. Whenever a student brought him a piece of writing, he saved it in a three-ring binder. And whenever a student had time on his hands, the teacher showed him the binder and invited him to write. That teacher soon became a locus of writing in the school, with teens from different classes bringing him their work. A flow of creativity resulted because the teacher read and valued self-expression.

Many of the youth who work with Pongo have not had a parent who saved their work, treasured it, and posted it on the family refrigerator. Fulfilling that role is one paradigm for what we do when we save, share, and publish youth writing. When we work with youth and help them write something, we take their writing (with their permission), type it up, and give them clean, word-processed copies as soon as possible, often before we leave that day. We know that the act of typing teens' work ourselves might be seen by some adults as infantilizing adolescents, but we believe that valuing, protecting, and rewarding their writing is an important aspect of our work with distressed youth. The teens will often take their work and show it therapists, family, detention staff, and friends - resulting in more understanding, dialog, and self-respect.

Addressing the issue of publication is difficult because publication is a very complicated process. We advise people to involve a lawyer in this endeavor. Publishing is relatively easy if it stays inside an institution. After that, publishing is most easily done if it is thought through in advance, before youth move on from an agency or institution. Publishing requires good communication with both the administration and the youth. Some institutions are conservative and afraid of risk. On the other hand, the youth are almost universally enthusiastic about publication.

Among the critical issues of publication are ownership, permissions, confidentiality, and cost. The youth own their individual work, and permission is necessary before publication. The involvement of parents and guardians is something to consider, though in many cases with distressed youth, the involvement of parents can pose impossible barriers to self-expression and publication. The results of involving parents and families can also be very positive, as it was for our project at a state psychiatric hospital.

Within a publication there are often legal issues of confidentiality and privacy for minors and their families. Beyond the legal issues, there are also good reasons to maintain the youths' anonymity, in consideration of their changing lives, feelings about their past experiences, and future relationships. Using first names or pseudonyms can give the youth a measure of control.

In publishing there are a variety of methods and a range of cost, but nothing insurmountable. The publishing process is very detail oriented and requires good communication with vendors. We have had a lot of success finding funding to publish teen books.

Use encouragement rather than critique

For young people who have led difficult lives and consequently feel low self-esteem, we've think it's counterproductive to respond to their writing with a critique. We think the most important goal is to encourage further self-expression by valuing the writing, and consequently, valuing the individual. Learning to hear and use critique is an important part of maturity as a writer and as an individual, but it's a goal that's best left until a person has a base level of strength and resilience.

In our work we often correct spelling and make grammar consistent in the youth writing ourselves, so that these problems are not a distraction from a young person's voice and issues. On the positive side, when we make these changes, if we have a chance to also explain them to the youth and state our reasons, we are making a case for the importance of such conventions in good communication.

Also, unless it's against an institution's rules, we do accept some obscenity in youth writing. Youth often ask about our rules in this area before they begin writing. We think that implicit in this question is an inquiry into our willingness to really listen to them and to their strong feelings. What we say is that it's OK to use obscenity as long as it's an honest expression of feeling. Youth understand what we mean, and rarely use obscenity after. It would certainly also be possible to reassure young people that it's fine and acceptable to express their feelings of anger and frustration, but that they should look for an alternative to obscenity in expressing how they feel.

A larger issue is when and how to set limits on appropriate content. There are models in the world of violent and misogynistic poetry. We discourage this kind of writing in several ways. We say that this kind of writing is not our "thing," it's not interesting to us as publishers, that we want writing that reveals something about "you," the young writer, so that our readers can understand you better. It's also possible, based on the rules and ethos of an institution, to say that such writing is inappropriate or not helpful. But always, our discouragement of certain types of writing is offered with an expressed desire to hear more writing from an individual - writing that's more personal and truer to who they are - and to offer our help.