Thursday, January 27, 2011

poverty, television and American education

One of the biggest problems in school improvement is poverty. Working parents often leave children alone in the after school hours, where they have access to unrestricted television, but no tools and no Grandfather's wood shop to visit and find personal inspiration. Being poor in America used to provide the opportunity to see tools and people at work. One of the largest predictors of school success is the success of parents. If we compare poverty rates in the US (20%) with that of Finland (5%), we can account for the dramatic difference in PISA scores and perhaps look no further.

If we were to end poverty in America, we would see better schools as a result. But we have never accepted a national will for that. Instead, many would prefer to see people rise up on their own efforts, and are willing to accept children living in poverty as a reasonable price to pay for their idealism. But our success as a nation is truly dependent on the success of all. We must provide the means and incentives for parents and children to better their own lives. From my perspective that means wood shop, for all students, in all schools.

For children in poverty to be entertained and distracted by television and thus stripped of their creative power is a formula for national failure and international disgrace when we could actually do so much better.

An important pilot program is taking place at North Bennet Street School in Boston. I had visited NBSS in 2001, and first learned about Educational Sloyd from their development director. I did research and wrote articles about educational sloyd, reminding North Bennet Street School and woodworkers across the US of their role in the establishment of woodworking programs in public schools. In 1883, students from neighboring Eliot School began visiting NBSS for 2 hours a week and that led to the adoption of woodworking education for all students in the Boston Public School system. That system of woodworking education served as a model for the introduction of woodworking education in cities throughout the US.

And what we are witnessing now is the return of woodworking education. I am pleased that I had a role to play in that, through my work at Clear Spring School and as a mentor for North Bennet St. School as its renewed its relationship with Eliot School after a 125 year lapse. I don't know how many woodworkers in the US can fully grasp the significance of this. But significant it is. This morning, I am writing a letter of support for the director of North Bennet Street School for a grant application they are submitting to a major foundation. Please cross your fingers and wish all our children the best of luck. First Boston and then the world.

As you can see in the photo above, I have been hand-cutting dovetails for the drawer to fit the maple cabinet I'm making. I have learned that cutting the pins first actually gives a more accurate fit, so after doing it the other way for years, I am now convinced. Pins first and then tails. You can witness the precise fit. We have to break out of our old ways if we are willing to allow change. Turn off the TV set and Make, fix, create. Set an example for your own children to follow.


  1. Doug-

    I am very interested in the progress of woodworking programs in schools. I have begun to write up a program of my own that I intend to present to school administrators around my area of CT. I have a few leads right now, but mostly I am curious to see how it will be received. Any advice?


  2. I agree with your connection between poverty and education. And I think you hit the nail on the head in regards to national will - education and poverty both can be alleviated in America, but we lack the will to execute the deeds needed. Sometimes I think that is the ideological price Americans pay for being American, sometimes I'm just frustrated by it.

    Thanks for the words -- PW

  3. Chris, you might want to print out the pdf 21 reasons for Woodshop in the 21st Century in the file "published resources" which you will find as a link to the right. That was a document I helped NEAWT develop for distribution to school administrators. Some administrators understand the value of woodworking education and some do not. Some will take very little convincing. Perhaps you will talk to the right one. If you hear the word "no" don't give up.

    Cowboy, I think that the idea that it is acceptable for some children to be raised in poverty is an unacceptable notion, but one we seem to be stuck with.

  4. Doug-

    I'll be reading this document today. Thanks. In addition, what is your knowledge of the success of woodworking with kids who struggle socially and/or emotionally? Has specific research been done that I can call on? I am thinking of making my program cater specifically to these children.

    All the best-


  5. Chris, children struggling socially or emotionally can have trouble with woodworking just like any other kid may find it difficult. Many kids are so into computer gaming, because that is where they've been allowed to hang out, the the slower pace of cutting things from wood is difficult for them. But with encouragement, even difficult students slow down, become attentive. there has been a notion that kids who aren't intellectual must have some other compensating gifts. Like hand skills or athletic skills are automatic for those who are not as smart. They are not. But if you can learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, you have learned a thousand things.

  6. Thanks Doug-

    I will have to find a way to use this knowledge to fuel my program's furnace. So far so good. 2 more questions though. 1, Would you mind if I were to use your pdf for NEAWT when the time comes for me to present to my town's administration? It would be a big help. 2, Could I send you a description of the program once I have it better organized? Your feedback could help.


  7. Chris, you are certainly welcome to use the NEAWT pdf. We published it for free distribution in support of woodworking education.

    I would be glad to go over your proposal.

  8. Doug -

    I agree it's unacceptable to have children in poverty. For the moment though, it's a situation we are stuck with, some portions of the country more than others. That is the frustration I was trying to express.

    Chris -
    There's research into your question - check into occupational therapy, specific disabilities and maybe a private school in Houston, TX catering to special needs students. I work as a wood-working teacher to special needs kids, and I probably wouldn't have this job if there wasn't a study supporting me.

  9. Thank you so much for this great information! I am a senior at John Brown University and I am currently writing a paper for a media class about the effects of television on children. I am including a portion about children in poverty and how they are even more affected than other children. I am using this post as a source for my paper! Thanks again!


  10. Ashleigh, good luck with your paper. I hope it turns heads. The correlation between screen time and a variety of problems for teens is more well documented than the link between smoking and lung cancer, and yet we do nothing about it.

  11. Anonymous6:41 AM

    I was just perusing your wonderful blog for the first time, read this post and started to reminisce. My Mom was a temporary woodworking teacher in the Boston Public Schools during World War 2, when there was a scarcity of men to teach woodworking, and I still have her "patterns" in a box in the attic and the drawings of the simple things her and her boys would make in class.

    My Mom grew up poor, but she did so much with her hands, so much more than I do. She sewed all my clothes, and when we moved to a place with some actual soil, she started a vegetable and herb garden. She was very patient, and I remember if the stitch wasn't quite right, she would carefully rip it out and do it again, never getting frustrated or upset, like I would (because I was programmed for immediate gratification). She made me some beautiful things, timeless personalized classics, a whole wardrobe for my first job as a legal secretary.

    I valued those clothes because they were different, and I knew the work (and the love) that went into them. I kept them for a long time after I could not quite fit into them anymore, and when I needed space, decided to give them away to a place I respected that could us some business clothes for its clients.

    I never did much with my hands except type ... but I suppose it's not too late (before arthritis sets in!) to develope the patience and slowness it takes to plant a small garden, or make some light and cool summer dresses because you absolutely hate all the soul-less ones you see in the stores.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences through your blog.