Speaking of Fourth Grade

What Listening to Kids Tells Us About School in America

A powerful and illuminating contribution to the education debates, from the voices of the kids themselves

“You learn a lot when you ask a fourth-grader to tell you about school.” —from the introduction to Speaking of Fourth Grade

Fourth grade is ground zero in the fierce debates about education reform in America. It’s when kids (well, some of them) make the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and volumes have been written about fourth grade by educators, administrators, philosophers, and pundits. Now, in this fascinating and groundbreaking book, Inda Schaenen adds the voices of actual fourth-grade kids to the conversation.

Schaenen, a journalist turned educator, spent a year traveling across the state of Missouri, the geographical and emblematic heart of the country, visiting fourth-grade classrooms of every ilk: public, private, urban, rural, religious, charter. This journey gave her the chance to see how different approaches to education stack up against each other, to chronicle what kids themselves—a remarkably diverse set of them—have to say about all-important questions such as “What Makes a Good Teacher” and “What Makes a Good Student” and to learn exactly what they think about conflicts, friendships, and the very purpose of school in the first place.

Drawing on the children’s candor, Speaking of Fourth Grade elevates their collective insight into a range of hot-button issues, including STEM initiatives, standardized curricula, reading for rewards, bullying, high-stakes testing, and how (and why) highly privileged kids are taught to think while underprivileged kids are taught to sit still and behave. These youthful perspectives are punctuated by Schaenen’s exquisite gift for elucidating the educational zeitgeist of our time. The result is a 360-degree view of what going to school in twenty-first-century America is really like. The honest, revealing, and at times amusing voices of the children in Speaking of Fourth Grade will stay with readers—parents, teachers, and others—for many years to come.


“Fourth graders are that unbeatable combination of curiosity and innocence, enthusiasm and honesty. Schaenen has captured their essence and teaches us not only about children but also about the current state of education in the United States with its broken promises and unmet possibilities, its successes and failures. This is a book for teachers, parents, and perhaps most of all, policy makers.”
—Sonia Nieto, professor emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
“No one knows the experience of schooling better than students yet we rarely hear their voices in today’s school reform discourse. Speaking of Fourth Grade powerfully breaks the silence and invigorates the debate by allowing students’ authentic voices to ring through.”
—Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of The Dreamkeepers
“Perfect for readers who are passionate about the future of American children.”
Library Journal
Speaking of Fourth Grade is a delightful read and a welcome invitation to teachers to reverse roles in order to become the learner.”
—Shirley Brice Heath, professor emerita of English at Stanford University and author of Ways with Words
“By listening well to fourth graders, Inda Schaenen manages to bring all the most hotly contested issues of U.S. education into high relief. She makes a passionate and powerful argument for the student-centered schools we need.”
—Kathleen Cushman, author of Fires in the Bathroom
“By opening up the discussion to fourth graders themselves, Schaenen offers an outlet for voices often overlooked in the debate about education in America.”
Publishers Weekly
“At a time when (even classroom) space for student perspectives is shrinking, Inda Schaenen reminds us that adults have a lot to learn and that listening closely and deeply to students is at the heart of good teaching.”
—Deborah Meier, founder of the Small Schools movement and author of In Schools We Trust

News and Reviews

Education Week

A piece by author Inda Schaenen in Education Week

Foreword Reviews

A review of Speaking of Fourth Grade in Foreword Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly calls Speaking of Fourth Grade "an outlet for voices often overlooked in the debate about education in America."

Goodreads Reviews