Living on the Earth, May 5, 2000: Real Work: Making a Fence
Over the last several weeks, fifth-graders at Hooker School in Bridgeport
have been building a fence for their vegetable garden. Made of cedar posts
and long scraps of lumber from a sawmill, this fence will define the
planted area and help to keep exuberant students from running through the
peas, potatoes, and garlic already growing there.
Although the children are also turning over sod and the compost pile,
spreading woodchips on paths between the beds, weeding the salad greens
growing near the school building and picking junk food wrappers out of the
bed of tulips and daffodils they planted along the school's chain-link
fence, building this rustic and practical fence is a favored job. Digging
holes for the posts, sawing cedar trees and rails to length and nailing
them together are very challenging and enjoyable activities.
Suzanne uses the garden as an interdisciplinary, educational environment
for her fifth-graders. Monday afternoons, after an indoor planning session
there's just an hour of outdoor gardening time and lots to do. You may be
thinking that turning 30 or more active ten-to-twelve-year olds loose
outside with hammers, bow saws, shovels, pitchforks and a post hole digger,
supervised by just two or three adults would create a fairly dangerous
situation. On the contrary, a wonderfully creative chaos is the result,
out of which comes authentic learning as well as an interesting garden with
a new fence.
It is truly amazing how involved and how innovative many of the children
are. The students appreciate doing this real work in their increasingly
virtual or "made-somewhere-else" world.
They compensate for a lack of skills with a wonderful determination to
succeed in digging that post hole deep enough or driving that nail home.
Many of the students experience more success here than in the classroom.
One young man who doesn't bring his homework in, always remembers his
hammer on gardening day. He is proud of his work on the fence.
I've long been impressed both with the strong desire to hammer nails among
young people, and, to put it politely, by their great need for practice.
This hammering is especially hard. Many of the longer rail boards are oak,
which, although it will last a long while, can be really difficult to nail
through. This is especially true when the post is not quite the Rock of
Gibraltar because of very shallow bedrock along the fence line.
Nevertheless, the students persist. They need just a little guidance and
Some of their attempts don't work out. There's a lot to learn about the
strength of materials and the joints between them that is most easily
discovered by doing. Children can't learn from their mistakes if they
don't get a chance to make any.
Much of the discussion about education these days describes the need for
more standardized testing and increased use of technology. These narrow
competencies ignore what motivates students, the exciting connections that
come from doing something real yourself, and the pleasures of hands-on,
Even if I didn't believe in the vital importance of this kind of authentic
education I would still volunteer in the garden because the students bring
me joy and hope every time I work with them.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)2000, 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 "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 $10 postpaid or through any
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