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'What's It Like Here?' Fourth Graders Give Author The Scoop On Schools


When writer and educator IndaSchaenen wanted to find out what really goes on in Missouri’s schools, she decided to ask those who are closest to the action – students, and more specifically fourth-grade students.

So she traveled throughout the state, talking with fourth-graders in public, private and parochial schools, in rural, urban and suburban areas. She asked about their courses, about their friends, about why they think they have to go to school in the first place. And she asked what she said was the best trigger of them all: “What’s it like here?”

The result is her new book, “Speaking of Fourth Grade: What listening to kids tells us about school in America.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Schaenen said she chose fourth grade because it is a time when students are beginning to mature and can better express what they are feeling.

“Fourth grade is a really significant year,” she explained. “It’s the year when most states in the country begin to look at data in a very deep and meaningful way, particularly in literacy. If reading abilities are not where they need to be, by roughly fourth grade, age 9 or 10, kids are not set up to read in order to learn. For those three or four years of elementary school they’re learning to read.

“Even though they’re reading images, they’re doing preliminary kinds of interpretation of texts, they’re not necessarily expanding across the curriculum through reading. So we have to have students really ready to read for learning by fourth grade.”

Now a middle school English teacher in a St. Louis County district, Schaenen (pronounced SHAY-nen) has a doctorate in education. She has written fiction and nonfiction and also worked as a journalist. Here are excerpts from her interview at the St. Louis Public Radio studios, edited for clarity and length.

On how she conceived the book:

“I loved hearing the voices of actual people, just reading voices, one after the other, on a single subject. And as I got more and more into education, it seemed to me that it would be really interesting to do a Studs Terkel-like set of interviews and conversations with kids, just to talk about what their experience of school was like, particularly at a time like this, when different kids are experiencing such different kinds of schooling.”

On how fourth graders are maturing:

“Kids are starting to evolve from very concrete, literal-minded thinking to more abstract thinking, and I really saw that in my participants. I saw some children very, very literal still. For example, in parochial schools I could say, so how does God fit in with your experience of school here? And some kids would start to talk about morals and morality and higher thinking around principles and values that play in school. And other kids would say, well look, the Bible is so thick, God fits in my desk with great difficulty, because look how thick this book is compared to this book – God doesn’t really fit in so well. She meant it completely literally – that’s how God fits into school.”

On being able to just sit down with kids and talk:

“And listen, listen, listen. I’d sit there and listen to them. I had driven two hours one day. I threw my dog in the car and we drove down to south Missouri because for only one student in that whole area I had the combination of access to the school and then the parents said OK, and I said you know what, I’ll drive down. For one child in that area, it’s worth it. I got down there, and when the other kids realized what I was doing,  they all wanted to participate. So I created a kind of add-water-and-mix consent form, and the teacher said is that OK, and I said of course it’s OK.

“So in some cases, they had two or three kids at the same time, four kids at a table, in a classroom talking, just like this, and it was so great. And I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m doing this as a job. This is really interesting. And sometimes, because I had so many kids in one school, I gave them a printout of the interview questions and said, you guys pick the interesting questions for you and write down answers or  to the questions that are most interesting to you. And I got really interesting responses that way, too.”

On the social aspects of school:

“They had the most complex responses to questions about friends and social life. The relationships with their friends are so important. What’s going on at recess? Who’s sitting with whom? Who tends to be nice to whom? How does so and so get along with so and so? What happens when this boy enters the scene and those other boys are not being friendly? How layers upon layers upon layers of critical thinking apply to their social life is phenomenal. That said, that contrasts with a little bit of simplicity, with their understanding of what’s going in reading or math, for instance. Those answers are yes/no, good/bad, right/wrong. There’s not that level of complexity and nuance.

Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Inda Schaenen

“They really, really love their recess. One of the most painful consequences from the kids’ perspective is when teachers took away minutes of recess. Because that’s the one thing they have that they love most of all in their day.”

On their daily lives at school:

“They do love questions about their routines – what do you do first, second, third fourth, tell me about your day questions, and what do you do for fun? What kinds of heroes do you have, pretend or real? They also really like to think about what teachers are like. I would ask them: What makes a good teacher? I asked the question what makes a good leader, and do you consider yourself a good leader. I played around with the order of those questions in the pilot interviews. Because when you ask a child: Do you consider yourself a leader, they sometimes will say the unexpected response, yes or no. If they say no, and then I say what makes a leader anyway, some kids would say a leader is someone everyone’s afraid of. Or a leader is someone who bosses everyone around.

“We always assume everyone wants to be a leader, but kids sometimes think of leaders as not necessarily nice people or good people. They think of leaders as people to be afraid of or bossy. One girl said that leaders point a lot – you go here, you go here. There are kids you would think as an external judgment wouldn’t think of themselves as leaders, but they do, because they have some kind of position at home, as the eldest of the children, or responsible for other kids or for cousins. They do think of themselves as leaders, certainly at home if not at school. So that was another really rich vein of inquiry.”

On learning despite school:

“We are humans and humans are absorbing information at all times. Learning is just absorbing and retaining something. So I always think to myself: We’re all learning, all the time. The question is in school: Are students learning what it is we say we want them to learn? So for teachers particularly, the question isn’t are they learning or not, but are they learning what you think you need them to learn at that moment.”

On giving teachers the freedom to teach, not making them “script-following automatons”:

“A teacher in a room with 15 students, 20 students, 30 students is making decisions at all times that if she or he is going to be student-centered, there’s an individual path that an individual student is on in his learning or her learning. Then there’s what needs to happen for the whole class. And then there’s the building level and then the district. So in terms of teacher autonomy and freedom to make those decisions that benefit this or that student at this or that moment, that’s entirely a function of the power that the teacher has, and the aptitude of the teacher to make those decisions.

“So when I say script-following automatons, I’m talking about decisions that pull that power away from the classroom teacher and locate it outside of the classroom. The minute it’s outside of the classroom – and I understand why the tension is there – but the minute it’s outside the classroom, you’re losing something about what needs to happen if curriculum and instruction are going to be completely student-centered.

On what kids think school is for:

“That was a fascinating set of questions. I called them the abstract questions. Why do kids go to school anyway? What’s it for? Really, most students, and I mean really, almost everybody, will say, it’s for getting a job. It’s for jobs. It’s for employment. It’s for work. The difference here is in what kinds of jobs. So the well-resourced schools have students who will say they’re going to school to learn to become doctors or lawyers or scientists or maybe a salesperson or this or that or the other professional. In other communities you’ll hear them say jobs, if you want to work at a cash register, or if you want to work at this job or that job, it’s about making change. It’s about less specific jobs and certainly less professional jobs. Math is for learning jobs. What’s school for? It’s for jobs.

“Now, some kids will say, very few, it’s so you can know more in life or you can know things, or you can be a good person – less utilitarian responses. But really, most kids will say it’s for jobs, even at the age of 10.”

On what kids find meaningful, in and out of school:

“It’s very difficult to see why you go to school if you are doing worksheets or doing a reading program that is really just about working through programs online and scoring points. School just isn’t meaningful.

"Why do kids go to school anyway? What's it for? Really, most students, and I mean really, almost everybody, will say, it's for getting a job."

“So in rural Missouri, for example, I’m thinking of one boy, and he just said school is what he does almost like without even thinking about it. The entire richness of his life, everything meaningful and interesting to him, happens outside of school. He has complex, interesting relationships with his father and his grandfather, and he hunts and he fishes. and he loves to listen to his mother’s stories. He just came completely to life talking about everything outside of school. And the minute we were talking about what he does in school, there was this kind of deadpan, yeah, we do that and we do that and I don’t really know, we do that and we do that, but it’s less meaningful.”

On how kids learn:

“There’s that kind of empty sponge idea, where a lot of kids think that if they had no school, they would be completely dumb, that they wouldn’t know anything. That they’re just a blank slate, empty bucket, and a teacher’s job is to scoop everything she knows out of her brain and into their brain. What we know is, obviously, human beings aren’t wired that way. We know a lot. You are actively always constructing what it is you learn. You hook what it is you’re learning onto what it is you already know.

“So there’s no such thing as the empty bucket. But somehow kids still do think – and I heard this in all kinds of schools, too – that without school, you really wouldn’t know anything. You basically would be walking around just kind of empty and devoid of all understanding and knowledge. So somehow they’re giving them a message that’s a little bit confusing.”

On reading for pleasure:

“Very few and far between were the schools and students who have enough time built into their day to read for pleasure, just pure pleasure – purely voluntary reading for enjoyment, for entertainment, for passing the time or for exploring other worlds, understanding how other people live. In terms of those social questions, about friends and how complicated and nuanced those responses were, those kids with the most complicated and interesting responses to the social questions were those students who also were reading for pleasure regularly. That actually correlates with what social science research says about what the value of reading fiction and literature is, it makes us much more understanding of other people and other ways and more sensitive to how people really are in the world.

“Setting that aside, reading, in schools of scale, is right now, really, in Missouri not where we want it to be. It’s really not. There’s been a long, slow but very persistent regression toward decoding, saying words, and saying words is not reading. Saying words out loud across the page is not reading. Every teacher will tell you, the cell phone is a problem right now. It is for adults. It is for sure in schools. Because trying to compete with that little screen, at younger and younger ages, is a problem. They are reading less. They are spending less time with books in front of them. That’s across the board. So how do you create the space and time people need to just relax with a book, in total silence? That’s very hard right now.”

On testing:

“It’s confusing to them. They’ve come to internalize their performance on these tests as their way of helping or harming their community. I heard lots and lots of talk about that in north central Missouri and rural areas. In one example, kids march in the parades in the summer behind banners that say advanced and proficient on the MAP test. That’s putting a lot of responsibility on a fourth grader, to say if you score such and such on a test that someone very far away, a couple of hundred miles away, has made for you, and if you do such and such on that test, you get to march in a parade. And if you don’t, you don’t. That’s a burden. That’s a burden. And it has not really so much to do with anything meaningful. Alfie Kohn, a scholar, says standardized tests measure the least important knowledge. And I think it’s important to remember that.”

On kids’ sense of fairness:

“It plays into everything they do everywhere. And I say that because I was that kind of kid. That’s not fair. This is fair. Wait, she got that, I didn’t get that. So children in general are very aware of what’s fair and what’s not fair and what’s consistent and what’s not consistent. That said, it’s not really even so much that it has to be everybody gets the same exact slice of pie because if you are a fair person or a fair teacher, you can make it very clear to children that so and so needs a little bit of this right now because this just happened. And then kids will understand.”

'The cell phone is a problem right now. It is for adults. It is for sure in schools. Because trying to compete with that little screen, at younger and younger ages, is a problem.'

On how to redesign fourth grade:

“Really, what it always gets back to is this. Is the school responding to the needs and interests and wants of its community, of its families? Schools are places where parents entrust children. So a really good school takes what it is parents want and responds in very local ways but ways that are connected to global and national standards of excellence in terms of instruction and curriculum.

“So that means every school that’s good is student-centered. It just is. To be student-centered means the values, the experiences, the cultural realities of that child are taken into account and are used to drive what happens next, to imagine what happens next. And if nothing else, if schools do that you’ll automatically be on the right path.”

On how doing the book has made her a better teacher:

"When I read the teacher chapter over and over again, it reminds me of what it is we need to do, which is treat every single child with dignity and realize they are complex, growing people, and understand that their experience of school is profoundly emotional, and how they feel in school has pretty much everything to do with how they’ll learn in school. So if we remember that, what we do and how we design the environment, and I mean the affective environment, the emotional environment, has a tremendous amount of influence on what gets learned. So in terms of my practice, thinking of that at all times, now I try to press pause sometimes and go off track a little bit. When kids feel all right, when they feel that you trust them and believe in them and care about them, learning happens. The learning that we want to happen happens.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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