by Emily Kaplan
I had a student once, a second grader, who loved the phrase “This leads me to believe.” I’d be at my desk waiting for the children to arrive at the start of the day, and she’d come slinking in, always the first, with some variety of news. “I noticed,” she’d begin, her gaze averted conspiratorially, “that the snow on the playground is almost gone.” I’d nod. And then she’d stand up, suddenly, before delivering her analysis. “This leads me to believe that we will have double recess today.”
She always used the phrase to great effect— she was led to believe a great many things over the course of the year— and it imbued her declarations with a delightful authority. The memory of our exchanges has stayed with me as I’ve moved from school to school, from the inner city to its most affluent suburb, from a school in a Guatemalan village to a militant urban charter. I’m reminded of her as I come to know the quirks and the beloved phrases of every class I meet— because there are always quirks and beloved phrases, just as there are always new ways of testing the rules and cracking you up, of endearing you to every child in the room. Having taught all these children in all these vastly different places, I’ve been led to believe one thing: that no matter where you go, how much you change the culture and the context of the classroom and the school, who kids are and what they need remain fundamentally the same.
When I taught at the charter, I found a note on my desk one morning. It was on lined paper, written in the handwriting of one of my second graders.
Keisha does not have to go to pe for too hole weeks becaus she is sick and she could get raybees and dy. from Keishas mom.
As I was laughing, I was thinking of one of the boys in my class in Guatemala, who used to hide behind a bookshelf, one foot sticking out. I’d make a show of searching the classroom, calling out his name. “Oh, I wish I could find Juancho,” I’d despair, opening cabinet doors and peeking under the carpet. “Is he here? Or here? Where could Juancho be?”
And then one day a little voice burst forth from behind the bookshelf. “YOU’LL NEVER FIND ME!” he cried, his foot quivering with glee. “BECAUSE I’M BEING VERY QUIET!”
Kids are hilarious, always— but especially so when they think they’ve got you tricked. It’s like this wherever you go.
Outside the classroom, my students’ lives have varied greatly. I’ve had students whose parents attended one year of schooling, and I’ve taught children of Harvard professors. I’ve taught in classrooms with a whiteboard worth ten thousand dollars, and I’ve taught in places where workers don’t earn that much money in a lifetime. In the suburbs, I was chastised for confiscating candy; in Guatemala, parents asked why I refused to spank their children. The contexts of my students’ lives outside the classroom could not have been more different; inside it, though, children have been remarkably similar.
Children everywhere want to be successful, and they want to be given the tools to determine their own success. They are single-minded scholars of idiosyncratic passions— sharks or trains or presidents— and they are eager to learn from each other. They want to please themselves, their peers, and all the grown-ups in their lives. They want to move their bodies, and they want to listen to stories. They are impulsive and creative and have a keen sense of justice. They care about animals. They like things that go vroom. They love repetitive songs that will slowly drive you insane.
Little kids want to be seen and they want to be loved. Ultimately, it all comes down to that.
As a society, we need to refocus, so that we can best see and love and educate our children. We are stuck in an era of so-called education reform, of imposing developmentally inappropriate expectations on young children. We have been led to believe that we must change the way we educate them, with no good reason why: children are just the same as they have always been, in the city or the suburbs or in a village across a border. The changes we inflict upon them serve ends that are not theirs— test scores or politics or parental ambition— and the children themselves are suffering.
My experiences, though, have led me to believe that the way out is clear: instead of demanding that young children adapt to a particular set of policies, we must adapt our policies to the universal needs of young children. I believe, that is, that we must let the children themselves lead us.