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Monday, December 19, 2011

Saying Yes: A Classroom of Expert Detectives

I had no idea, when Chasing Vermeer was first published in 2004, that it would take on a life of its own.  That’s the funny thing about getting your thoughts out into the world; they do begin to breathe and walk.  They travel, evolve, take up residence inside the minds of people you’ll never meet.

That is a source of great surprise and interest to me, and I feel lucky whenever I catch a glimpse of the lives my four mysteries have led.  I love the thought of being a catalyst, as a writer.  Of being used as a tool or divingboard or stepladder!  Of being useful.

I keep all of the letters I get from kids, and am often woefully behind on writing back, simply because life whirls along.  I wish that the kids who write could see me opening their mail in my kitchen.  I’m always thrilled to read about the spark of inspiration.  Yes, a letter might say, you gave me a new way of seeing.  Kids write other wonderful things that I hardly deserve.  Reading these Yeses is a gift.

I try to say Yes myself to as many school and library visits as are doable, given the quiet time I need to research, sort out my thoughts and write.  I don’t manage to do it all.  But during the past year, I visited many incredible classrooms, and had some conversations with kids that reassured me:  what I always say I believe about their capabilities isn’t wrong.  If you listen to kids, truly listen, they will change how you process the world and what you believe is doable.  They will.

Last week I visited a classroom in a charter school on the south side of Chicago, an old building a few blocks from where I live.  A gifted student teacher, working with an amazing classroom teacher, had spent most of the fall reading and analyzing Chasing Vermeer with a class of fourth graders.  They invited me to visit.

Stunned is the best word for how I felt in that classroom.  Impressed isn’t enough.  The kids were articulate, eager to share what they’d done, and experts on deconstructing a mystery!  Each had written a long mystery story of their own, after keeping detective notebooks for weeks and figuring out how Chasing Vermeer was put together.  (I think they know my thinking better than I do myself.)  They had trained themselves to become detectives.  They had predicted, tracked and sorted ideas.  They were in obvious control of much knowledge.  The scope of this unit was truly amazing. 

I took pictures, but their student teacher, the mastermind behind this piece of curriculum, had taken many photos that she shared with me, images showing process.  She gave me permission to share some here.

I wish that those who decide which schools succeed, which fail and how kids best learn could have visited this classroom with me.  With kids, almost all is possible given respect, confidence, belief, opportunity to focus, a bunch of Yeses and a few materials.  Joy is always around the corner, and I believe it’s often closer than we think.

Kids, given a chance, will show the way.