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Listening to Children

The energy and unpredictability of the classroom are wonderful antidotes to weary policy debates

<p>Listening to Children</p>

When I feel low in spirit - after days of weary legislative beggary in Washington, for instance - I go back into a public school and spend a day with children and their teachers.

This is not some kind of venture into part-time sociology. I do not spend these days "observing pedagogical interactions" or compiling notes that could perhaps be elevated to the noble status of objective "research." I spend these hours simply listening to children, sometimes answering the questions that they ask me if they or their teacher, as they do from time to time, decide to put me on the spot.

In one inner-city elementary school, the children in a writing program asked me questions far more personal, and much more interesting, than the ones grown-up reporters usually ask: "Is it lonely to write books?" "Do you feel sad because you're old?" "How do you feel when people praise your books but can't pronounce your name?"

In another school, a teacher let me take her first-grade class and do a reading lesson. I was a tremendous failure. Everybody spoke at once. I had forgotten what to do when all those little protons and electrons started spinning and colliding with each other. The teacher had to bail me out. It was a useful lesson in humility. (Perhaps all of the so-called "experts" in the pedagogical world ought to be put in this position several times a year. It forces us to think more carefully about the confidence with which we issue our ex cathedra prescriptions. Doing the real thing in the real world with real children now and then is a good medicine for excess certitude about how much we think we know.)

In Philadelphia, one pleasant day last fall, I learned exactly how to make an economically essential product called "green slime." I doubt that this is something tested on high-stakes exams; but it was fun and it reminded me of the rewardingly chaotic messiness of education when a teacher's day has not been scripted down to drilling children for a miserable journey that arrives forever at a pre-planned and utilitarian objective.

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