This semester, Mrs. H’s sixth-graders at Mt. Hope School in Lansing are “doing journalism” with me. While I’m volunteering there twice a month, I’ll be helping them form story ideas, learn to ask good questions, and write a story about the world around them.
The first day of our lesson, I turned the corner from the folk-tale lessons we did this winter. The two topics aren’t totally unrelated. A lot of information’s conveyed in a newspaper or storybook: what the writer values, what the culture considers important. The difference in reciting The Little Red Hen or writing about cafeteria fare is simply enabling a student to investigate what’s important to them.
Like when I was an editor at a daily paper in Wisconsin, all good stories begin with some wondering. Any sentence that begins with “I wonder” is fair game — it’s like pitching a dozen story ideas to an editor and letting her choose the best one.
“I’ll be your editor. So, what do you wonder about?” I waited. No one bit. “OK, I’ll start: I wonder how long some of the teachers at this school have been teaching. I wonder how the district can keep up with old school buildings.” Hands started going up. “Yes! What do you wonder about?”
“I wonder why cafeteria food is so bad,” someone said.
Another: “I wonder why this school building has a bomb shelter in the basement.”
“These are great. What else do you wonder?” Three-quarters of the kids’ arms shot up.
“I wonder why all the rich people live on this side of the street and all the poor people live on that side.” Oh. That got heavy fast.
I repeated that girl’s question for some kids in the back who hadn’t heard it the first time, buying me time to fight the urge to editorialize. (Answers kill a wondering session.)
We turned this into a wondering free-for-all. I’d point to someone and they’d ask a rapid-fire question. “I wonder why Donald Trump thinks he can make up his own rules.” Everyone laughed. “I wonder about ISIS.” No one laughed.
“Good question, but let’s think local,” I said. We’re not out to change the whole world here; that’ll come later. So students fired off questions about un-tasty healthy snacks (a question that dates to the beginning of time), neighborhood parks, and the basketball records of Magic Johnson, a Lansing graduate (and the guy responsible for school lunches, coincidentally).
“I wonder why I couldn’t go to this school in third grade,” a boy asked from the back of the room. The building recently converted from a neighborhood K-5 to a magnet for grades 4-6. Again, I said nothing. (Must. Not. Be. Answer-Bot.)
“I wonder why all the kids in my neighborhood go to different schools.” Oh, yeah, they notice.
Like the namaste moment in another Lansing school, I saw something I’d missed: these kids who’re impacted may have no idea about school choice, magnet schools, court-ordered desegregation policies. Like a tremor under their feet, though, they feel the implications, even if they can’t name the sensation.
And, uncomfortably, someday my kids will probably ask the same questions: why did we go to school there? Why do all the kids on our block go to different schools?
And what answers will they find when they go searching? (For they’ll reject this Answer-Bot, that’s for sure.)
I wonder, my kids might say, why Mom and Dad’s whole being-there theology didn’t include us being there?
Man, it’s so much easier to be an editor than a parent. And yet … doesn’t one inform the other? Doesn’t being on this side of an “I wonder” help me see the implications of our choices?
See, the ideas we’ve kicked around in Mrs. H’s class have done what good wondering does: it’s followed me home. It’s led to more wondering. Wonder upon wonder.
And because we’ve been invited, I’m guessing there’ll be action, too: wonder after wonder.
I like where this is going — all of this.