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The Voices of Children

Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, by Kenneth Koch, Vintage Book, 310 pp., $1.95

By Peter M. Shane

TOO OFTEN, reformers do not take seriously the people whose lives they are trying to change, They see the experiences of people in need of help and these people's perceptions about their own lives as some how irrelevant or oversimple. Reformers in education, where the affected group is children, find this mistake an especially easy one to make; a child, whatever his observations or suggestions, is unlikely to offer a comprehensive, systematic plan for a concrete reworking of his educational environment.

However, unless educational reformers take children seriously, reform, at the very least, is hollow and arrogant. A child is still closer than any adult to the experience of childhood. No adult lives under the same stress of rapid personal growth and change. Few adults can approach the world with the same unclouded curiosity. Without romanticizing childhood, it is legitimate to maintain that the free expression of children's energies and perceptions is necessary for education, and that taking the insights of children seriously is crucial for the personal development of children and for improving their individual classroom settings as well as the larger educational structure.

Letter to a Teacher and Wishes, Lies, and Dreamsare eloquent pleas on behalf of taking children seriously. Letter to a Teacher, written by eight Italian farmboys, 13 to 16 years old, challenges not only the selfish individual attitudes of teachers and administrators, but also the class bias of the Italian public school system. Wishes, Lies, and Drams includes an essay by Kenneth Koch on teaching children to write poetry, and 250 pages of children's poems that demonstrate that sensitivity and originality in self-expression are far more than the gifts of a genetically privileged few.

While the statistics cited in Letter to a Teacher specifically address problem of the Italian school system, the boys' observations are relevant to American education, too. Their school, located in a church in the farming village of Barbiana, was started for children who have failed or who have nearly failed public school. Because the parents of girls from town believe that a woman can live her life with the brains of a hen, only boys attend the school, which the authors acknowledge as "racism." However, like Herbert Kohl's sixth grade children in Harlem or the children in George Dennison's First Street School in lower Manhattan, the students improve when instructional flexibility, Individual encouragement, and a stress on group development are substituted for the rigidity, anonymity, and competitiveness of public schools.

Of course, the mechanics of educational oppression are sometimes different in America. As in Italy, we often send our poor to poorer schools. On the other hand, instead of flunking the poor on masse, we segregate students in "tracking" system that reinforce economic and social separations. We give them a different set of expectations or teach them different subjects ("home economics" vs. "Industrial arts," for example). Our tools are subtler, but the results are the same.

MOST IMPRESSIVE about the Letter, besides its thoroughness, is the boy's resistance to sloganeering. The wealth, they point out, may go to school only to certify with diplomas what they have already learned at home. Holidays from school deprive the poor of access to the only medium they have to improve their academic skill and, particularly, their mastery of language, "School," they write, "with today's schedule, is a war against the poor." Nevertheless, they recognize that the failure of education is a failure for all children:

True culture, which no man has yet possessed, would be made up of two elements: belong to the masses and mastery of the language.

A school that is as selective as the kind we have described destroys culture. It deprives the poor of the means of expressing themselves. It deprives the rich of the knowledge of things as they are.

Kenneth Koch's book deals with the problem of allowing younger children to use their powers of expression creatively. His incisive essay, based on his experiences teaching first-through-sixth graders in a New York public school, is a concise resource for teacher looking for ideas and guiding principles. He discusses the effectiveness of different ideas for poems, what physical and emotional settings are most conductive for children to write poetry, and the differences in presenting opportunities to write to children on different grade levels.

Koch's attitude toward the children is the most revealing part of his method. Children's poetry, he emphasizes, cannot be poetry if tailored to adult expectations. Encouragement and inspiration are all-important, not merely praise or exposure to poetry of any sort, but the removal of barriers to writing like an insistence on rhyme or the use of complex technical terms, exposure to condescending "poetry for children" or to adult poetry whose images are too crafted to the child-like. All the children in Koch's classes had their poetry read aloud anonymously: they were praise, encourage, and urged to develop their thoughts further without the pressure of grades or ridicule. Among the most successful projects were poems written by large groups. Using Spanish words in poems strengthened the confidence of Children ordinarily unsure of the place of their language in American culture.

Koch writes:

Teaching is really not the right word for what takes place: it is more like permitting the children to discover something they already have... Treating them like poets was not a case of humorous but effective diplomacy, as I had first thought: it was the right way to treat them because it corresponded to the truth.

Koch's experiences with children and the poetry he shown us, like the moving and persuasive letter from Barbians, reveal the ultimate tragedy in any country's failure to use it education resources creatively for all children--the stifling of childhood insight and imagination and the threat to our future source of energy and strength.

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