Friday, October 30, 2015

character building

An article in Education Week claims that Technology Isn't Bad, It's Character Building. Of course wrestling through difficulties with technology can be character building in comparison to sitting around doing diddly squat all day or in school. Trying to saw a straight line can have the same effect. In fact, Ruskin had noted that to take a thin shaving from a plank or to lay a brick level in its mortar would mold a man's character in ways that words alone could not. But the basic thrust and selling point of technology, including digital technology is to make things EASIER, requiring less skill and more certain, at less expense.

Character, on the other hand often arises from doing difficult things. Some people call that kind of character "grit," or "determination." Schools should also be the place where difficult things are done to mold a willingness to embrace challenges: those that will come one after another inevitably from life. Digital technology is an equalizer, but only in that anyone who can afford the technology can do amazing things easily, without effort and certainly without any particular exercise of determination or skill.  For the sake of comparison when it comes to character, have students craft something useful, beautiful, or both.

In a parallel matter, I had downloaded the new operating system El Capitan to my Apple computer and laptop and had difficulty getting my mail functioning right. It was a challenge greater than what would be faced by kids in school trying to get their iPads to download necessary apps. Perhaps I should be thankful to Apple for the work they did in fostering the development of my character.  In any case, it did feel good when I managed to get my mail working right on both computers and without having to call for technical support. It also felt good to share what I learned with Apple so that they can make things easier for others.

Yesterday I had a remarkable day in the wood shop at Clear Spring School. As an activity for our annual harvest party, we made native American totem necklaces upon which students from pre-school up to high school stamped power words, letter by letter using a metal stamping set. We adorned their power totems with feathers tied with artificial sinew. At one time, I had about 6 pre-school students and their mothers and teacher in the wood shop, each waiting their turn to make a totem piece of their own. I asked one little boy what his power word is. J-O-E he replied. What power there is in such a simple name!  I asked one of my second grade students what her power word would be. "Water" she replied, but then upon further thought added "and rainbows," noting the connection between the two. She stamped the word water, and then used markers to tell the rest of the story.

The idea that character must be built upon artificiality is mesmerizing. The children who came through my shop were not lacking in character, noble aspiration, or compassion for others, even at such an early age. One of my 5th grade students was in the wood shop working on his power totem when the pre-school students arrived in a sudden flood. I felt suddenly overwhelmed. Garrett stopped working on his own totem and began helping the pre-school students with theirs. He looked up at me in the midst of being so busy, and said, "Now I know how you feel sometimes in class." The ability to empathize with another is an aspect of character that may be hard to teach, but that may be discovered and preserved in the right learning environment.

The point here is not that character must be built, but that it must be allowed to flourish. The artificiality of schooling can convince children that the essential points of character may not matter. But challenge the students to make beautiful and useful things, and character will stamped in bold letters within the school and in the community at large.

The photos at the top is of one of my high school students helping her little sister (3 years old) in the wood shop.

As you can see in the photo at left, box parts are becoming boxes, as I prepare to fill holiday orders.

Make, fix, create, and please enable others to learn likewise.

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