Retooling English

| September 13, 2010

My family had many ways of knowing and doing.  My mom was creative—she loved to garden, learn new crafts, quilt and sew.  She could transform the simplest components into something lovely or useful. My dad was (and still is) an artist when it came to carving the earth with a backhoe and a bulldozer.  He has a way of envisioning potential from raw materials, and he could MacGuyver his way out of any mechanical problem with the simplest tools.  Even though it needed electricity, hot water and a heating system, the old farmhouse house they spent a lifetime renovating was a testament to their ability to unlock latent possibility with their hands. My way of knowing seemed best suited to the world of books and schooling, but I always longed for my parents’ manual skills.  They, in turn, loved my academic talents and wished me a future where I could earn a living with my brain, not my back (as if the two were polar opposites).

A few years ago, my department chair asked me to teach an English class for students in the school’s vocational program.  Designing this course with him brought me back to thinking about the habits of mind of people who like to work with their hands. What could I offer students whose way of knowing was different from mine?  How could I infuse English class with the same sense of authenticity, purpose and accomplishment that are such hallmarks of learning a trade?

Our class met during the last period, so after spending the day learning “useful” skills in culinary workshops, in the auto bays or on the construction job site, students trudged back to the classroom.  English was their only academic requirement taught outside the vocational program space.  During the day, they wore Carhartts and hard hats or chef’s toques and checkered pants. To come to English class, they had to change into the traditional school dress code of button-down shirts and dress pants.  Many of them expressed quiet frustration (in words or in body language) at leaving the “real” worlds of the shop or the kitchen.  They felt they needed to give up their identities as empowered practitioners to sit behind a school desk.

Society and school showed them two paths: either use your intellect and go to college, or use your hands, learn a trade and earn a living.  This false dichotomy caused them to dismiss and devalue the intellectual demands of their work in the trades and in turn, to believe that English was essentially irrelevant.  Texts like Matthew Crawford’s essay (now a book) “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” Studs Terkel’s Working, and Mike Rose’s “I Just Wanna Be Average” allowed us to confront the myths about work and school and provided rich fodder for thinking and writing.  The students’ values improved the authenticity of my pedagogical practices—I learned to teach writing in terms of tools and craftsmanship, independence, pride and individual style.

I hope students learned that a classroom is not automatically a cognitively fertile environment, and that college-bound people are not the only ones who are entitled to a vibrant life of the mind.    On the other hand, I also tried to challenge their preconceptions about the “uselessness” of English class. Someday, I plan to use what they taught me about electricity and wiring to swap the hideous light in my kitchen for a better one.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll even write a poem about it when I’m done.