Just before February vacation, Suzanne's fifth-grade students finished the
bookcase they designed and built for their classroom. During my regular
Monday afternoon science lesson, the students cut the last boards, sanded
them and finished nailing the bookcase together. Then after school on
Friday, five children stayed late to seal the wood with a non-toxic,
When they were done, we slid the bookcase into the seven-foot-wide space
under the windows and between the radiators. The students were very
pleased with their accomplishment. Another teacher stopped by and was
amazed that the children had actually made such a beautiful bookcase.
When Suzanne moved to different elementary school in Bridgeport last fall,
she left her extensive library behind. Fortunately, our librarian neighbor
Nancy, donated many boxes of discarded children's books to Suzanne's new
classroom. Now another bookcase was desperately needed.
Buying a bookcase to fit that space would have been expensive even if we
could find one the right size. Although this might have been a solution,
it would have no educational value for Suzanne's students, who were
enthusiastic about the prospect of building a bookcase. So, we began right
after the New Year.
Almost anything can be a learning experience if it is approached with that
intention. This is especially true for today's children who spend so much
time in front of TVs and computers. We started to design the bookcase by
first measuring the books in order to decide how high the shelves needed to
be. Here was an authentic reason to measure using inches and feet, and an
opportunity to internalize terms like height, width and depth.
These fifth graders had studied local evergreen trees before the winter
holidays, so they already knew something about White Pines, the monarchs of
the Eastern forest. We chose this wood because it is easy to cut, sand and
nail, is stable when dry and is local. The small sawmill near our farm
sells wonderful, inexpensive fresh-cut white pine lumber.
I bought six, one-foot-wide by eight-feet-long, rough-cut boards which
Carlton, the sawyer planed on both sides. The students enjoyed carrying
the boards from my truck into their classroom. They stacked them in the
bottom of the coat closet, with small spacers called stickers between the
layers. This allowed the still-wet boards to dry further. The pine
imparted a wonderful aroma to the classroom. Now, the children really know
how fresh pine boards smell.
Although everyone was very anxious to get started with the actual building,
we needed to do some blackboard work first. Once twenty-five kids are out
of their seats, it's hard to get a message to all of them. We needed to
talk about the use and care of tools, about right angles and the importance
of accurate measurements. We discussed the grain in wood, cooperative
behavior and the need for taking turns with the limited number of tools
available. The importance of watching and paying attention was implicit.
Fortunately, Suzanne is working with a student teacher. The third adult,
Ken, allowed for better supervision. We always use hand tools because they
are much safer and more cost-efficient. One of our goals is to empower
these children with the notion that they can do things for themselves.
Much of their world - entertainment, food, education, transportation - is
simply presented to them. The idea that a class could make a bookcase, or
grow a meal has become really radical. This authentic learning is student
directed and a source of great satisfaction.
The children were all very eager to saw, to measure, to hammer and to sand.
Girls and boys, skilled and inept, shy and bold, all wanted to cut and
smooth the boards and then bang in the nails which hold them together. In
just five, hour-long classes, we planned and finished the bookcase. Other
adults passing the room were excited to see these students engaged in and
enthusiastic about this hands-on learning.
The Parents Club at the school was enthusiastic about this project, too,
and gladly reimbursed our modest expenses for materials.
Truly valuable education isn't really about books, buildings and tests. It
is more an attitude that emphasizes the possibility of discovering learning
There is so much useful and educational work that needs to be done.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "The Politics of
Food" and "Living on the Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays
Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future
is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from
Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing
and those since November 1995 are available there.
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