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Shop class retooled at S.F. high school

Susan Notes:

Now what we need to do is to re-introduce hands-on curriculum alternatives in elementary school. Bring bring back the blocks! And anybody who doubts the deep pedagogy embodied in messing around with blocks should read The Block Book, ed. Elisabeth S. Hirsch. You can get a used copy for $1.76 at Amazon.

First the blocks, and then the test tubes. I can proclaim from personal experience that basing the reading instruction of so-called reluctant or deficient readers on the Elementary Science Study concept of messing around in science, as enunciated by David Hawkins in The Informed Vision, will transform reluctant readers' and writers' attitudes AND skills. There are no scripts here.No elaborate plans telling a teacher what to do. What is offered truly is a vision.

When my father visited my open classroom, tagged at the NY State Department of Education as an urban ed reading lab, he was impressed by the array of hammers and handsaws as well as test tubes and animal skeletons, but he said what was missing was a jigsaw. And he bought me one.

I admit I was scared to let kids loose with that, and I gave it to a grateful 4th grade teacher.

Can you imagine a jigsaw in the curriculum of an elementary school today?

Incidentally, NY State Department of Ed inspectors came to see why my students' reading scores had skyrocketed. They kept asking me what reading program I used. I told them Shel Silverstein was popular.

I would add that I learned an enormous amount of science while running that classroom. So did my principal. One day he came into the room, incredulous. He'd just come upon a fifth grader teamed up with two second graders who had just dropped heavy and light objects simultaneously from the 3rd floor stairwell. He said to me, "Do you mean to tell me that heavy objects don't fall faster than light ones?" That's what the kids had told him they were proving.

I told him to ask the kids. They'd probably be happy to do the demonstration again so he could witness Newton's principle. I later dedicated a book to that principal.

My husband got involved, helping a couple of 2nd graders make slide rules. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute architecture students volunteered time, helping kids build bridges and then staying around to do math experiments. Our bridge builders and Sound Experiment kids watched a film about the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge borrowed from the Physics Department at RPI--and they talked about it so much that the PTA in this working class neighborhood asked me to show it at one of their meetings. For another meeeting, they asked me to bring in Clay Boats, Sink or Float, Ice Cubes, and other experiments because they wanted to know first hand what their kids were so excited about.

Before the room opened, I announced that it was Media Resource Room because everything we did had a reading/writing connection and I wanted the library connection to be official. If the NY State Education Department reading officials never understood what I was up to, the NY State Library people 'got it' to the tune of giving me a sizeable grant. And the Wilson Library Bulletin published an article about our operation.

The person in charge of reading in our district never visited that classroom, nor did the language arts or math coordinators. But the district Music Coordinator was one of my most enthusiastic supporters. He saw the power of the sound experiments-and everything else. He donated old band instruments (which the kids repaired with plastic tubing, fishing line, and so forth) and found money in his budget to buy the lumber with which we built the bridges.

Forgive my nostalgia. Rather like Proust's madeleine, my memories of a wonderful place for teachers and children to be were triggered by reading the words band saw in the article below.

by Jill Tucker

For countless years, the band saw at San Francisco's Thurgood Marshall High School collected dust, an educational relic left over from a lost era of kids building birdhouses and tie racks in woodshop.

Those power tools were put in storage when shop class went out of style - the victim of budget battles and politically correct policies that eschewed the idea of channeling kids into blue-collar jobs.

But the saws are buzzing again at the Bayview neighborhood high school.

Students are cutting pieces of maple and mahogany, building intricately designed 9-inch square panels that will cover the back of a wooden bench.

It's not called shop class anymore. Instead, it's a computer and industrial design course, sponsored by San Francisco State University with college students acting as mentors. The grant-funded project cost $15,000, money that pays for supplies and faculty assistance from Martin Linder, San Francisco State associate professor of design and industry, who organized the venture.

But it's doing what vocational education used to do: offering students a window into something other than algebra and single-file rows of desks all day long.

The Thurgood Marshall students love it.

All of the 24 students first sketched designs symbolizing what community means to them. Then they planned prototypes on computers using design software.

Their finished pieces will be mounted on the back of the bench.

Senior Linda Huang worked on the finishing touches of her panel, a cupcake made from a layered mosaic of wood pieces and veneer, complete with frosting, sprinkles and a cherry on top.

"I believe food brings people together," she said. "Cupcakes are a crowd pleaser."

She did not hesitate when asked what kind of cupcake it would be: vanilla cake with strawberry icing and rainbow sprinkles.

She was also clear about the color of her future: It won't be blue-collar, despite her newfound mastery of the band saw. She's waiting to hear from several colleges and is thinking about studying interior design.

Linder launched the Industrial Design Outreach Program in 2003, offering local high schools free hands-on instruction to encourage students to be creative thinkers and consider careers in the field. Local high school students have created CD packaging, designed musical instruments and produced innovative lighting. This is the program's second year at Thurgood Marshall. The Miranda Lux Foundation helped fund the project.

Course teacher Tera Freedman, the high school's computer design instructor, said many of the students never knew what it was like to create something.

"Some of the kids have never worked with their hands before," she said. "They're consumers. They're being raised as consumers."

The class drew a wide range of students, including those bound for college, those nearly flunking out and special-education teens as well.

At first the sound of buzzing saws startled other teachers at the two-story school, Freedman said. That was an old-school sound.

Early in the 1900s, vocational education was created to give students job skills. Later it was considered the dumping ground for those not considered college material.

As a college degree became increasingly important, education officials increasingly shunned the idea of vocational education, pushing all students onto the college track.

Indeed, the Bayview campus is officially called Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, "a four-year college preparatory high school with a diverse student body," according to the district's Web site.

In recent years, there has been a movement to revive the idea of vocational programs, but under a new name: career and technical education, or career tech.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell are among the most vocal advocates.

"In the demanding 21st century, California can't afford to leave any students unprepared," O'Connell said a year ago while releasing studies showing the benefits of such programs. "Career technical education is helping us motivate students who may be disengaged and better prepares students for both college and careers."

Between federal and state funding, California spends more than $500 million on career technical programs that include a wide range of courses, from ornamental horticulture and graphic arts to welding and even old-fashioned auto shop - although state curriculum standards call it "vehicle maintenance, service and repair."

The program is getting a high-powered push from Sacramento this week.

The California Department of Education is launching a statewide marketing campaign Tuesday - called WhoDoUWant2B - encouraging students to start planning their future with the help of career technical programs.

Not much of that has made it back to Thurgood Marshall's 650 students yet.

"It all has mostly gone away," Principal Guillermo Morales said of vocational classes. "Once you do budget cuts, you lose programming. These are the ones you lose."

But when officials cut shop classes, they threw the baby out with the bathwater, Morales said.

Such programs reached students who couldn't find their way in other high school classrooms.

The San Francisco State program at his school - which combines college students, skill saws and a wooden bench - has found a middle ground, Morales said.

Truant students are finding their way to the class every day, and college-bound teens are considering careers they never knew about before the course.

"As long as they leave here with choices," Morales said.

The bench will stay behind, finding a permanent place in the main office.
To learn more

For more information about state career/technical programs: http://www.whodouwant2b.com

— Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle



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