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On Friday, December 20th  at 11:27 a.m. the teacher who had arranged to have me read to her 6th grade class asked me a good question: “Why are you doing this?”

I remember the time because 11:30 marked the end of my allotted time with the kids. We’d gotten the reading and their drawings done with three minutes to spare. Woo hoo!

“Excuse me, what did you say?” I asked, pulling my attention from the 57 kids sprawled on the floor drawing the faces of shelter dogs .

I’m just wondering why you do this,” she said, gesturing towards the white board with our list of ways to “Be Kind” to shelter animals and my simple instructions for drawing a dog’s face. She is a smart, funny and creative teacher, so if she was asking she really wanted to know. “I mean, you’re a writer, right?” she clarified. “You don’t get paid to do this.”

“If you mean I don’t get paid money, that’s true” I replied. “But I think of spending time with the kids as a kind of litmus test. It’s one thing to write a kids book, but it’s another to have them like it.”

“Fair enough,” she smiled. “Thanks for sharing CritterKin. I think you passed the test.”

Back home, curled on the couch with my cat and a cup of Earl Grey tea, I gave more thought to her question. The longer, more complex answer has to do with the reasons CritterKin exists and what I’m beginning to think of as a monumental shift in how we see and approach education.

First of all, writing for and sharing with kids is my way of getting back to a part of myself I like and trust very much. As I said in a previous post, this part of me believes implicitly in magic and goes looking for it in all the “in between” places she can find. As an adult the “places” are different (I no longer fit comfortably beneath the camellia bushes), but no less compelling.

Second, in writing and illustrating CritterKin I’m tackling some topics and issues that have perplexed and plagued me since I first set foot in a classroom, and I’m doing it through play! Don’t get me wrong here. I know that play is hard work, and it’s all too easy to fall off the jungle gym and get the wind knocked out of you. However, play is also about possibilities, the challenge of self-discovery and the freedom to make mistakes – three things that were sorely lacking in my school years.

As I allow myself to slip into the shoes/paws of the CritterKin mutts, I abandon the maxims and rules, the self-conscious dos and don’ts that we impress upon ourselves. I am free to think, feel and express myself as dogs everywhere do with honesty, enthusiasm and shameless abandonment. This in turn frees me to look at the people in the dogs’ lives with honesty and amusement. In this way I hope to help us re-examine how we treat ourselves and others. That’s why each of the CritterKin mutts has a particular topic or theme to tackle. It’s why Ricky Bobby, a paralyzed puppy mill survivor, is the perfect CritterKin mutt to help kids explore the topic of kindness. It’s why Lance’s life, as a misunderstood pit bull, is an ideal way to take a look at  prejudice, stereotypes and bullying. You get the picture.

Bandana and Dog 300x250Am I saying that we should abandon all rules and let children just do whatever they please? Of course not.  Children need guidance, boundaries and rules as much as they need encouragement to explore. What I AM questioning is our cookie cutter approach to education and the assumptions we make about what and how children should learn. The best way I can think of to begin this discussion, is to have you watch and consider a recent TEDx talk given by 13-year-old Logan Laplante. Logan asks two very simple, but profound questions. “Why isn’t learning how to be happy and healthy a priority in education? What if we based education on the study and practice of being happy and healthy?”

Great questions Logan, and ones I think hold the key to this “monumental shift” I was talking about earlier. Just as I have learned to trust and take great delight in the process of writing and illustrating the CritterKin stories, I believe that all kids have the ability to discover and pursue interests that not only make them happy, but will allow them to make significant contributions as well. This won’t happen if we continue to tell them that their survival depends upon them following rules and studying for jobs they feel no real passion for. Nor will it happen if we don’t make discovering what makes them happy/excited/challenged/curious/energized/eager to learn a fundamental part of education. As Logan so rightly points out, happiness isn’t something that magically occurs once you’ve completed school, found a job and gotten married. It is a skill that needs to be cultivated and celebrated.

Recently, thanks to Marty Keltz, I have discovered the #hashtag people. In their tweets I hear echoes of what the CritterKin mutts are teaching me – trust yourself; don’t be afraid to explore; make mistakes and try again; resist the urge to make assumptions; do your best to understand and have compassion for others; work as a pack; explore project based learning that makes learning real; and most important of all, lead with your heart. Because it is the heart that really knows what you were born to do, the gift that you and only you have to share.