As a self-professed political junkie, I was rather excited when the school librarian gave my students a research assignment on the presidential candidates. “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” I wondered. I suppose it never occurred to me that a group of fourth graders could be engaged in an activity that bores – even exhausts – most adults. Boy was I wrong. Upon returning to the classroom, my students – all native Spanish-speakers – couldn’t wait to tell me about “La señora Clinton” or “Mitt Ronnie”.
Acknowledging their interest, I decided to start an English lesson a few days later with an article about the latest election news – Governor Romney had suspended his campaign, leaving only four major party contenders. A few students groaned – primarily those who had been researching Governor Romney – while others cheered, realizing that the competition just got a little bit easier for their own candidate.
Recognizing that their opinions of the presidential candidates probably had more to do with who was assigned to them than who they agreed with, I decided to have them talk with a partner about the qualities that a good President should have. I expected to hear very “kid-like” responses, such as, “He should be nice,” or “He should want to help people.”
I was intrigued when Uriel spoke up, “He should put more police on the streets and near our houses to protect us.”
I was momentarily immobilized when Yaretzy declared, “He should give more healthcare.”
I had to ask. “Yaretzy, what do you mean by that?”
“Well, sometimes when people are sick, they don’t have the papers to give to a doctor so he can make them better. They should be able to have something, so they can get better.”
Amazing. Here is a classroom of children from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston, dying to have a rich and meaningful discussion about real policy issues that affect their everyday lives. I spent so much time talking down to them and assuming that they were too immature to handle the issues of the “real world” that I didn’t even notice that they have been both handling and forming opinions about those issues for quite some time.
I believe children have something substantive to say about the world in which they live. I believe that the more I encourage my students to form opinions and discuss those opinions, the more prepared they will be for effective citizenship. If I expect them to one day shape and lead our society, now is the time to start talking to them about it. They are ready – eager. They really do have something to say. This I believe.
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