Real Work: Making a Fence

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, May 5, 2000

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 encouragement.

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, outdoor work.

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

This page and its contents are copyright © 2000 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.