Little Bookworm went off to school today with her “motor project.” It began a month ago, when she came home with a small motor — a small cylinder with two wires sticking out the bottom and a little spindle coming out of the top. If you press the wires to the two ends of a battery, the spindle spins.
Little Bookworm’s project was to glue something to the top of the spindle that would revolve when the wires were connected to the battery, then to place the “finished project” in a theme decorated shoe box. After umpteen hours of working on it — and my contribution of glue gun labor — Little Bookworm marched off to school with a shoe box that had a drawn on the back wall a ferris wheel and a wonderfully maze-like roller coaster. The motor was mounted on a block and, affixed to the top was a disc of paper which had attached to its edges strings, and on the bottom of those strings, little squares of paper representing passenger seats. The final result is very charming.
When it was finished, I asked Little Bookworm, “So, what did you learn about motors?” Her answer: “Nothing.” “Well, what did Ms. Teacher tell you about the project when she assigned it?” Answer: “Take it home and make a diorama showing the motor spinning.” “Did she explain how a motor works?” “No.” Lest this simply be Little Bookworm not paying attention, I asked the same questions of two other classmates in the neighborhood. They, too, saw this as an arts and crafts project, without having any idea about motors.
The motor project was a home project. There’s also been a lot of arts and crafts time in school, because of the “Mission project.” California 4th graders all study the Missions that the Spanish put in place between San Diego and Sonoma, beginning in the 18th Century.
Here’s what I can tell you about missions, based upon just my memories of my 4th grade public school studies 35 years ago: The missions were built by the Spanish, who “owned” California. The Catholic priests came out with the soldiers and traders, with the plan that they would convert the Indians to Christianity. The missions were built along a highway called “El Camino Real,” which still exists today. Each mission was built to be no further than one day’s horseback ride from the next mission, making them sort of like motels for Spanish travelers. The Indians did a lot of labor building the missions. They worked there, were schooled there and, when they died, were buried there. The missions were built of adobe brick, a combination of mud and straw. They had very thick walls, which helped keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And on and on. I’ve since developed a more mature understanding of the missions (this kind of knowledge), of course, but it exists almost side by side with my original exposure.
At Little Bookworm’s school, they’ve been “building” missions from milk cartoons, plaster of Paris, kidney beans (for the tile roofs), fake grass and trees, etc. Done with a lot of parent help, they are arts and crafts marvels, and quite lovely to look at. So I asked Little Bookworm, “What did you learn about the missions?” “The priests built them using Indian slave labor.” Well, that’s a bit PC for the very complex relationship that existed between the priests and the Indians (since the former viewed the Indians as souls to be saved and raised up, not only as primitive laborers, while the Indians viewed the priests as powerful beings who were not felled by smallpox and who were accompanied by men with all powerful guns and horses), but it’s still an answer and accurate so far as it goes.
“What did they use to build them?” “Adobe, which is a mixture of manure, straw and mud.” (Good answer, and I’m so glad she didn’t say milk cartons and plaster of Paris.)
“Who were the priests?” “I don’t know.” That’s still okay, because I don’t really expect the school to teach them the nuances of 18th and 19th Century Spanish Catholicism.
“Where did the priests come from?” “Spain.” (Yes! She knows a hard core fact.)
“Why were the priests there?” “I don’t know.”
“Why were the Spanish in California?” “I don’t know.”
“How come California was Spanish and not American?” “I don’t know.”
“What purpose did the Missions serve?” “I don’t know.” (She was thrilled to learn about the motel and “one day’s ride” aspect.)
“How did the priests get the Indians to work on the Missions?” “I don’t know.” (A little explanation here about guns, disease and faith.)
And on and on. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind how little she knew if I didn’t know that she’s spent at least 20 classroom hours on this project. That means that, out of 20 classroom hours, the only hardcore information she’s taken away is that priests came from Spain, enslaved Indians, and built Missions out of adobe bricks made from clay, straw and manure. That strikes me as a very poor return on time spent.
I’m harping on this because it ties in to my constant gripe about what I see as the public school system’s profound misunderstanding of arts and crafts. Thirty or forty years ago, educationalists figured out the obvious, which is that not all people learn through words, but that some people are better visual or tactile learners. The logical thing to do, and the thing that you see in my beloved Montessori, is to focus on key issues related to any given subject, but to give kids the chance to study and express the information through the medium most natural to them. The schools, instead, simply abandoned the idea of conveying lots of information, or enabling the kids to learn lots of information, dumbed down lots of subjects so that they could be turned into giant arts and crafts projects. The Mission project is a perfect case in point.
To my mind, the best way to have taught the kids about the Missions would have been to get the kids excited about Missions. Tell about the great explorers casting out from Portugal and Spain. Explain about the discovery of the Americas. Tell about the Spanish greed for gold, silver, land and Christian souls. Tell of the brave explorers, the vile killers and the good (and bad) Fathers. Tell about the Indians’ first horrifying exposures to guns, horses and disease, three things that left many of the survivors believing that the Spaniards were either inherently superior or had tapped into a better religion. And so on. It doesn’t have to be a pretty story, but it’s not either the simplistic story of my youth (Spanish brought God) or the simplistic story of my kids’ youth (Spanish brought slavery). It’s a rich and exciting story of greed, faith, warfare, disease, innocence, etc. It’s a most exciting narrative if it’s not sucked of its life so as to support a milk carton infrastructure.
By the way, this is the type of story that can be read or told in a couple of mornings at school. Having piqued the kids’ interest, then tell them to do research and come back with a project that reflects a certain aspect of this era, or of the Missions specifically, or whatever. Depending on their skills, the children can write an essay, draw cartoon panels, make a diorama, write play, or do any other thing that enables them to take what they’ve learned and integrate that knowledge into a unified whole. I know kids can do this because I’ve seen them do it.
As it is, after 20 hours, my daughter learned almost nothing about the Spanish in California or about the Missions — but she learned a whole heck of a lot about milk carton construction techniques.