I Wish for Change

Unleashing the Power of Kids to Make a Difference


By Kyle Schwartz

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From the author of I Wish My Teacher Knew, how grownups can empower children to stand up for what they believe in

Third-grade teacher Kyle Schwartz often tells her students: “You are not here so you can make money in a decade. You are here so you can make a difference now.”

Young people are up for the task. In the face of school shootings, cyber bullying, and other challenges students face at school, there are students who are changing the world right now.

In I Wish for Change, teacher and author Kyle Schwartz equips both teachers and parents to help children stand up for what they believe is right and make value-driven decisions. She shows how children’s adaptability, vulnerability, and empathy make them excellent agents for change, as well as how to teach children about the mechanics and structures of power so they can effectively change them.

Filled with inspiring stories from Kyle’s students and educators around the nation, as well as practical, replicable strategies for the classroom, I Wish for Change is the guide for every teacher, educator, and parent to show kids that their voice matters.


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Author’s Note

I Wish for Change wouldn’t exist without the hundreds of children that I’ve had the pleasure to teach. Their stories are what make this book come alive. To protect the privacy of my students and their families, certain identifying characteristics have been changed.


I Wish for Change

The best part of writing a book focused on youth empowerment has been the opportunity to get to know so many young people who are already making a difference in their communities. Their stories have been a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. As I spoke with them, I noticed similar themes coming up in each of our conversations. I decided to explore this further and conducted a little thought experiment. I invited a few of the young people featured in this book to help out by simply asking them to finish the sentence: Most adults think young people are _____________.

Here are some of their responses:





I can’t say I am surprised to hear that young people, even those who are already deeply engaged their community, think this is the shared perception of adults. A common narrative seems to be that young people of today are somehow worse than the generations that came before. Author Richie Norton points out that Google auto completes the phrase “Millennials are…” with the terms “lazy,” “stupid,” “idiots,” “the worst,” “entitled,” and “killing the napkin industry.” So many of the young people I talked with feel discounted and dismissed by adults as a whole.

I wanted to dig a little deeper into how adults actually see young people. So, I continued this thought experiment on social media. I asked adults to complete the sentence: “Most young people are ______.” Here are some responses I received:

“a joy to be around”

“more resilient than we give them credit for”

“inventive, imaginative, full of energy, and optimistic”

“full of stories worth writing”

“an endless supply of energy, raw ideas, and promise”

Perhaps these particular respondents had a different perception of young people than the majority of adults. Or perhaps the type of adults who make negative generalizations about youth were not compelled to put those thoughts in writing. Or maybe there is a dramatic disconnect between the views that most adults hold about young people and what we communicate. Could it be that most adults actually think positively about young people but just don’t express it?

Young people are clearly listening when grown-ups drone on and on about “kids these days.” They hear the same recycled lines about the younger generation not being prepared for the “real world.” They are subject to endless hand-wringing about the ills of social media, an over reliance on technology, and a need to be constantly rewarded. My sixteen-year-old cousin Colin left his traditional school and opted to take his high school classes online. His central rationale was, “My teachers were always putting us down. They say we are lazy and always on our phones. I just got sick of it. I don’t want to be stuck in a room all day with people who hate my entire generation.” Colin told me there are, indeed, supportive adults in his life, particularly his parents, but on the whole the constant criticism from adults is, “Bad and getting worse.”

When I told Colin I was writing this book, he was instantly encouraging. He said he was proud of me, that the topic was important, and that he couldn’t wait to read it. His pep talk was exactly what I needed to keep me going. It broke my heart to think that Colin may not hear the same motivating messages from adults that he so freely gives.

Do young people like Colin ever hear a counter narrative? Do they know there are adults who champion their potential? Do they hear us rooting for them? Or is it drowned out by a million little sighs, slights, and eye rolls?

As caring adults, we must aim for encouragement to be louder than all the negativity. This book seeks to be the antidote to the intergenerational mudslinging, to serve as a reminder of the influence we can have on young people. After all, the successes of young people are shared by us all. We all benefit when a young person sees a problem and takes action. Children can make a difference, not years from now, not when they are older, but right now. Why wait?

Have you ever asked a child why they are in school? As a third-grade teacher, I ask this question to my students each year. Their answers seem to follow a script. Almost every child will answer confidently that they go to school so they can learn. If you ask a child why they need to learn, many will tell you it’s so they can get good grades. Then, they might add, they will need good grades in order to go to college or so they can get a good job.

This thinking is so prevalent that it is rarely challenged. Workforce training, while certainly a benefit of schooling, is not the goal of education. My students are learning to read, write, and multiply not so they can ace a test or snag a job, but because those skills will help them navigate and understand the world. I tell my students, “You are not here so you can make money in a decade. You are here so you can make a difference now.” The obligation of the school is to teach, but the obligation of the student is to contribute.

Young people are up for the task. While my generation was, in the words of singer-songwriter John Mayer, “Waiting on the world to change,” the children of today are not so complacent. They are changing the world right now. This book is filled with the stories of real, young people who have already helped others, who have already made a difference. This is a side of children I am very familiar with.

I work with young people day in and day out. I don’t often witness deeply ingrained selfishness and egocentrism. More often than not, I see organized efforts to help others alongside small acts of compassion. Kids in my class have raised money to send goats and chickens to children in need halfway around the world. They have collected canned foods for the local homeless shelter, even though 90 percent of the students at my school live below or very near the poverty line. One year, our soccer team hosted a yard sale on the front lawn of our school and donated all the proceeds to a local animal shelter. Our students have sent handmade cards to the veterans hospital on Veterans Day and to the senior center on Valentine’s Day.

It’s these everyday acts of casual kindness that reveal my students’ true nature. When I knock something over in my classroom, a child is there helping me clean it up, before I even have a chance to bend down. When a child scrapes their knee at recess, a group of kids rushes over to prop them up. They tie each other’s shoes, pick up litter, and present me with an endless stream of drawings and crafts. When a child makes a teary-eyed confession to the class that they have lost someone they love, the other children scoot closer to put a loving arm around a friend’s shoulder. They offer words of comfort and encouragement. These acts of generosity add up.

I saw firsthand the impact my students can make when I asked them to write notes to me starting with the phrase “I wish my teacher knew.” Their answers were thoughtful and honest. One said, “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.” Another said, “I wish my teacher knew how much I love my family.”

Photographs of the notes went viral. In doing so, my students inspired teachers from Algeria to Japan to Germany to ask the same beautifully humble question, “What do you wish your teacher knew?” Their voices were featured on every major media outlet from the Today Show to the Today Show Australia, and Good Morning America to Good Morning Great Britain.

What did my students do with all the fervor and excitement of being on television? One girl came to school with an idea. “Miss, we are famous now!” she proclaimed. I figured the next line might be a plea to cancel homework, but instead she finished, “So we should help people.” This suggestion started a modest neighborhood effort to collect books, which later became a citywide book drive sponsored by our local television station. We collected and distributed tens of thousands of books to families all across the city of Denver.

In writing this book, I confirmed that my students are not an exception to the rule; they are merely one example among many. Young people of all ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles are actively making their communities better. I am honored to share some of their stories. In reading their accomplishments, I hope you realize that each of these young people had the guidance and support of adults just like us. We can be the caring adults who believe in the potential in every child and are ready to step up and help them make a difference.

Each chapter in this book explores a different aspect of empowerment, from understanding power and fairness to the importance of belonging, effort, responsibility, and agency. In addition to inspiring stories, each chapter also shows through anecdotes and research why young people are so effective at improving the world.

At the end of each chapter, you’ll find a section called “Spark the Conversation.” It offers open-ended questions that you can use to start a dialogue with the young people in your life. Teachers can start these conversations with their students, families can open up a dialogue with their own children, and coaches can explore empowerment with their players. Having these conversations is just one of the many actionable steps you can take to empower young people. I hope this book leaves you with tips and strategies to show children how powerful their voices, choices, and passions truly are.

Right now, young people all over the globe are solving problems they didn’t create. Children are not responsible for issues such as war, housing insecurity, global warming, and inequities in education, yet so many are willing to work toward solutions. We need the wisdom, creativity, and leadership of young people. The more young people feel empowered to make a difference, the sooner we all will be living in the better world that these young people are wishing for.

The question is this: Will you help young people turn their wishes into reality?


Understanding the “Power” in Empowerment

Are my students empowered?

I would like the answer to this question to be a simple, complete “Yes.” But in order to know if my students are empowered, I need to understand what empowerment is. Easy enough, right?

Well, it turns out empowerment is one of those deceptive little words. It seems straight forward but hides a multitude of theories and philosophies inside it. There is no unanimously agreed-upon definition, so we each get to form the meaning of empowerment ourselves. To do that we must understand “power.”

We all live in a world made up of a complex, layered web of social norms, societal pressures, and ingrained power structures. If we want the young people in our lives to not only be able to navigate this world, but also to challenge it and improve it, we must help them explore the concept of power.

Is Power Good or Bad?

Jennifer Bacon, community organizer and member of the Denver Board of Education, wisely stressed that people who have been disenfranchised and abused by systems such as government or education often see power as both negative and fixed. “It is like a learned powerlessness,” Bacon explains. “When your perception changes and you see power as neutral, you reset the power structure. You can claim a collective power. Only then can you work toward change.”

Most social scientists define power as the capacity to influence others. While that definition of power is decidedly neutral, the effect of influencing others can often make people view power either positively or negatively.

If, as a teacher, I say, “I’m in total control of my classroom,” that may be viewed as a boastful statement of my skills as an educator. But if a student in my classroom said, “My teacher has total control over me,” we would assume that child feels insignificant.

If we want to be empowered and empower others, we must conceive of power as relational rather than dominant in nature. We shouldn’t teach young people to fear or avoid power. We should teach young people to embrace power and cultivate it through coalition.

That’s what Milo Cress did. He was just nine years old when he noticed something at restaurants. Milo realized that nearly every drink was automatically served with a plastic straw, and he figured all those straws were going to end up in the trash. Milo wanted to change that.

“I was worried adults wouldn’t listen to me because I was a kid… but I found the opposite to be true.” Milo told a reporter for the Daily Beast. Milo took his fantastically simple idea—an “offer first policy”—to his local café, and the management agreed to offer customers a straw first instead of just popping them in drinks. “Initially, I just was annoyed at the waste,” Milo explained. “I started talking to some other people, some of my friends, and convinced them to order drinks without straws.” Milo told me what started as just talking to people close to him about ways they could reduce their own personal waste soon turned into more people wanting to reduce their use of single-use plastic straws.

From there, Milo created the organization Be Straw Free in order to continue advocating for this change. He encourages young people to use the “Each One Reach One” strategy, which he describes this way: “Each person invites (at least) one restaurant to consider offering straws to customers instead of serving a straw with each drink automatically.” He also encourages customers to order drinks without straws whenever they don’t need or want to use one. Now cafés and restaurants around the world, even global companies such as Starbucks, McDonalds, Disney, and several airlines, are turning away from single-use plastic straws.

This is a perfect example of the power of relationships. Milo started with a small action he could personally take. He reached out to his friends, family, and the local business community to convince them to do the same. Then he helped those people leverage their relationships to advocate for change.

Adults tell young people, “One person can change the world.” That statement is true, but it stops short. Instead, we should tell children, “One person can change the world when they get a lot of other people to work alongside them.” Our messaging to young people needs be “leverage your relationships, embrace your influence, and use it responsibly.”

Seeing the Culture of Power

Third-grade math is all about multiplication. Kids love it. They see multiplication as a special knowledge reserved for “the big kids” and are eager to join the club. One of my students’ favorite lessons is called “Array Day.” I show them examples of arrays—objects organized into columns and rows—and then I look both ways and whisper as if I am revealing a secret, “You all are living inside an array, and you don’t know it.” I pull back a little and cautiously explain, “You are all sitting in an array right now.” The kids glance at each other, and there is a communal gasp as they realize that for most of their lives they have been organized into neat columns and rows on colorful classroom rugs.

Armed with a clipboard and a worksheet, I send them off to find examples of arrays in the real world. There is a collective awakening as they realize their entire world is filled with arrays. The calendar on the wall… array! Tiles on the floor… array! Tables in the cafeteria… they are all arrays! Kids start competing for who can notice and name the arrays first. For weeks after, kids will run up to me, breathlessly, and exclaim, “Miss. The bookshelf. It’s. An. Array!”

The arrays have always been there. Children have lived among these arrays. They have used arrays to help them understand the world. Their little bodies have been organized into arrays to form lines as they walk through the school hallways. Yet until third grade, they have never formally noticed arrays. Once children have been shown examples of arrays and given the language to describe them, they start to see them everywhere.

This is what it is like to see the culture of power. It has always been there, informing and dictating our lives, but so many of us live inside it without ever recognizing it exists. In order to empower children, we need to understand how a culture of power plays out in classrooms. As education reform leader Dr. Lisa Delpit explains, the culture of power is deeply ingrained in learning. “The power of the teacher over the students; the power of the publishers of textbooks and the developers of the curriculum to determine the view of the world presented; the power of the state in enforcing compulsory schooling; and the power of the individual or group to determine another’s intelligence or ‘normalcy.’” The layers of power are so deep they are difficult to fully recognize.

Seth Kreisberg, author of Transforming Power: Domination, Empowerment, and Education, says, “Schools are places in which relationships of dominations are played out extensively every day between teachers and students, and always this domination is justified as [being] in the best interests of students.” We don’t want to think of our schools or recreation centers or homes as places of domination and control. As adults, we don’t want to think that we possess authoritarian traits. But in order to empower others, we must see what is truly there. Every inch of our schools, our classrooms, and our neighborhoods are covered in issues of power and control.

A fence is power and control. Most of my students live in a cluster of three-story brick apartment buildings. Hundreds of children live within just four blocks. There isn’t much outside space for children, but there is a grassy courtyard ringed by apartment buildings. However, that particular green grass is surrounded by an imposing wooden plank fence. Some fences direct traffic, some fences keep dangerous equipment guarded, and some fences keep out intruders. That fence was put there so children would not chase each other around or do cartwheels on that gorgeous grass. If children did play on the grass in front of their homes, presumably, the grass might be trampled on. It might get patchy. That wouldn’t look nice. So there is a fence.

Roads are also power and control. If you look on a map of the apartments that most of my students live in, you will see something interesting. The western boundary of the city of Denver is mostly made up of a straight, four-lane thoroughfare, Sheridan Boulevard. Curiously, the city boundaries jut out abruptly to exactly circle the apartment buildings and a few blocks of houses where most of my students live. Instead of being a part of the more affluent county that surrounds the apartments on three sides and the multimillion dollar homes just 2,136 feet away from that fenced-in grass courtyard, the apartments are part of Denver proper. While the school district does provide buses to pick up kids in the morning and drop off kids in the afternoon, the location of these apartments means that in order for children to walk to their school or library or recreation center, even the nearest park in their own city, they must first cross one of the busiest streets in Denver.

What communities choose to emphasize and invest in demonstrates power and control, too. Michael Bonner, a second-grade teacher, recounts a story from his hometown of Perquimans County, North Carolina, in his book, Get Up or Give Up. While Perquimans is a small community, it is well known for the athleticism of its young people. When Michael was young, the town decided to build both a basketball court and a tennis court for the residents to enjoy. The children of Perquimans were excited by the newness of the projects. They were thrilled to finally play on a real concrete basketball court, even if it didn’t have painted lines and closed at sundown because there was no lighting. However, when the tennis court was built, the facility remained open late into the night because the town invested in street lights to illuminate the area.

Interestingly, the people of Perquimans have always come together around its basketball team. Playing basketball in college and beyond has long been a dream of so many of the young residents. Few people in the town even play tennis. To this day, Perquimans County does not even have an official tennis team. Yet, it was the tennis court that got the paint and the lights. The resources did not go to where they were most needed; they went to where people in power wanted them.

Michael told me, “It is unfortunate when a community misuses power to devalue children. But it is even more of an atrocity when a child feels helpless in their own school and community. As an educator, I still distinctly remember heart-wrenching conversations with friends and students who expressed how they felt powerless and did not feel valued as human beings.”

Courtyards, roads, basketball courts—most adults navigate through these spaces without noticing the complex network of power and control. Interestingly, being relatively oblivious to these components of our culture is a luxury that only the powerful enjoy. Dr. Delpit explains, “Those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence. Those with less power are often most aware of its existence.” We adults have a common blind spot when it comes to power, precisely because we have it. Adults see those fences simply as fences, children see those fences for what they are—barriers.

Once we are aware of the structures of power and control, we can evaluate them, challenge them, and even change them when needed. What’s more, we can teach children to do the same. By naming the structures of power in a child’s world, we can help young people understand their place among them.

Spark the Conversation

•  What does it mean to have power?

•  Is power good or bad?

•  Is there a part of your life where you feel empowered?

•  What are you in charge of? What am I in charge of? Should that ever change?

Understanding a young person’s initial impression of power can help direct the conversation. When a young person believes power is bad, it is usually because they have experienced power in an oppressive way. They might be hesitant to describe themselves as powerful because they don’t want to be seen as controlling. If this happens, help that young person see that power isn’t just domination; power can be based in relationships. People can join together to make their communities stronger. Young people can join in and eventually become leaders.

Another way to begin talking about power is to examine where the young person feels a sense of control. Maybe they feel empowered on their volleyball team, in their band, or in their religious community. This can be a good way to discuss what empowerment feels like.

There is also an opportunity for us as caring adults to reflect on how we are sharing our power with the young people in our lives. Perhaps that young person can help you see an area where you can relinquish control.


Young Agents for Change


What comes to minds when you hear that word? My guess is the word childish brings to mind actions and beliefs that are immature, demanding, and selfish. Is this meaning what we should associate with a word that is defined as “like a child”? Adora Svitak, just twelve years old at the time, made this point during her 2010 TED Talk: “We should abolish this age-discriminatory word, when it comes to criticizing behavior associated with irresponsibility and irrational thinking.”

She is right. Framing the very characteristics of childhood in a negative light creates an environment where children are not lifted up to meet challenges. As Svitak says, “When expectations are low, trust me, we will sink to them.”

We adults need to elevate and even revere the very nature of childhood. We need to name the amazing qualities that make children such effective agents of change. The good news is there are so, so many.


I am always amazed by the ability of children to navigate social grouping. Student mobility impacts my classroom. In 2018, 20 percent of my students joined my classroom in the middle of the school year. Walking into an established learning or working environment is understandably intimidating, even for adults. Think of all the adults you know who avoid new social situations. I have a friend who turned down a job opportunity because she “doesn’t know anyone there.”

Yet, several times a year a new eight-year-old walks right into my classroom. They enter into a new school, a new set of rules and expectations, and a new group of peers, and they get down to the business of learning with remarkable ease. Of course there are always children with complicated circumstances, but the majority of new kids seem like old friends in a matter of days.

Then there are the daily lives of middle school and high school students, which are ruled by bells and class schedules. Each day students are required to physically move to a different location, work with a different combination of peers, use different intellectual skills, and learn a different academic content every hour or so. Kids must be artistic at 8 a.m., mathematical at 9 a.m., learn a new language at 10 a.m., and to top it off, climb a rope in front of their peers in the gymnasium at 11 a.m.


On Sale
Jul 16, 2019
Page Count
224 pages

Kyle Schwartz

About the Author

Kyle Schwartz is a third-grade teacher and the author of I Wish My Teacher Knew. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

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