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Saturday, April 30, 2011


     I’ve made a number of visits to schools and libraries this winter, and have also been following the discussions, suggestions, arguments and threats circling around school reform in this country.  It strikes me that one ingredient in this problem is missing:  the kids themselves.
     Given an opportunity and when treated with true respect, kids are capable problem-solvers.  More than that:  kids from all kinds of backgrounds would willingly participate in a debate about the best ways to learn and what to study.  Kids have amazing practical ideas, and there is great power in an inspired mind – I am impressed, over and over, by how sharp and incisive kids’ thinking can be. 
     On a recent visit to a school in Indianapolis, I asked a group of ten- and eleven-year-olds to imagine the best set-up for learning.  One boy said he thought every school should allow kids to be more creative in their work, and should include a room where you could go and ‘invent stuff’, just a place filled with odds and ends, tools, materials, whatever the school could include.  In short, a place to mess around and use your hands.  Another student said he thought too much time on computers made kids forget to think (!!), and that more time should be spent working on solving real problems out in the world, or at least the neighborhood.  He wanted grownups to listen to kids’ ideas.  “Kids would work much harder and care more,” he explained.
     At a talk in Plymouth, Minnesota, kids wanted to know how to develop a story that will make the reader care; how to put good ideas together so that everyone will think they’re good; how to do the kind of research that goes into my books.  At a library visit in Milwaukee a few days ago, I was blown away, again, by how passionate kids can be – about ideas and how to communicate.  Passionate is the key word, once they feel ‘safe’ sharing and believe the listener is truly interested.
     All kids want to participate.  All kids want to feel the power of being valued.  Recently, I chatted with a young boy, someone barely up to my elbow, who attends an inner-city school in Chicago.  He had a packet of basic math skills that he whizzed through, his homework.  Then he wanted to talk.  Bursting with energy and sparkle, he said, “So what’s YOUR story?”  He was really asking.  “Everybody’s got a story,” he confided. 
     They do.  I wish that kids could have a voice in the making of their own education.  Although this seems obvious to those of us who have worked closely with many kids, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to those in charge of reshaping our schools.
     Maybe if the experts asked a few questions and listened a lot more.  Listening is free, and it’s easy to do.  It’s possible our kids could be included as valuable partners in reassessing our beleaguered public school system.  I believe we have untapped power, and it’s everywhere.