Talking shop: Vocational classes are alive and well
Making things with their hands lets students walk away with skills and confidence to see projects through from start to finish
Gary Bernstein believes the industrial arts classes at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown, New Jersey, are some of the most essential students can take. Pupils must agree: Even though the program is an elective, most students choose to take the class, and in the 6th grade the course is part of a cycle of electives.
Bernstein not only talks about bridges — how they allow trucks carrying almost everything consumer buy, to get to local grocery and corner stores — but explains the physics and engineering behind how they’re constructed. He’s even seen the impact his teaching has had, as one of his former students helped design and construct the new Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge over New York’s Hudson River.
“It’s literally the most important class outside of the core classes because it’s the only subject where kids can use knowledge and skills from all their classes,” he said in an email. “There is a serious shortage of people who 'know how to do things' in our country.”
That shortage may stem from what the Brookings Institution found as a “decline” in the number of career and technical education (CTE) classes being offered in high schools. Over nearly 20 years, between 1990 and 2009, the number of credits earned in CTE high school classes dropped by 14%, according to its 2017 report, “What we know about Career and Technical Education in high school.”
Still, in some schools, woodshop and other industrial arts courses are alive and well. There, teachers are still putting physical tools in children’s hands and showing them how to etch, drill, carve and saw to turn a raw piece of wood or metal into something new that students create on their own.
College versus trade
Steve Kuhn, who teaches woodshop classes at Fred Newhart Middle School in Mission Viejo, California, has watched as schools have shifted the focus of what’s viewed as important for students to learn. He believes schools are now more focused on test scores than “giving their students a well-rounded education,” he said in an email.
Kuhn, who remembers taking shop classes when he was in junior and senior high school, has gone back to his former campuses and found they no longer offer many of the classes he once took — and also enjoyed, he said. Many of the rooms are now just “regular classrooms,” he said, and some of the courses have been swapped out for computer classes.
“Schools have the thinking now that everyone has to go to college to get a job,” said Kuhn. “They have forgotten about the trades.”
Schools may be reacting to what some experts have found — that taking CTE classes while in high school doesn't impact a child’s decision whether or not to enroll in college, which the Brookings report noted. But there is a positive affect from taking CTE class, according to that report, as they are “associated with high wages,” and for every year that children take higher-level CTE classes, they see almost a 2% bump in wage increase later.
Economies of trade
That finding would hardly surprise Joe Mauck, who does more than just teach students how to work with their hands and machinery. His students learn that going into an apprenticeship after high school is a “…more financially successful choice on average then going to college,” he said in an email.
Mauck said students who take his woodworking classes at St. Helens High School in St. Helen, Oregon. walk away learning how to design and build things with their own two hands — and also with a new regard for others who create, craft and build as well.
“Students learn to have more respect for those that do trades,” Mauck said.
Kuhn said students also walk away with respect — for themselves. After completing his woodshop classes, his students know they can see a project through, from start to its completion, and take that sense of accomplishment to their next endeavor. Plus, he added, it’s nice that their class work has more of a chance of surviving than a written paper.
“When students leave my woodshop they feel proud of their work, their accomplishments, and their achievements,” he said. “In 10 years they probably didn’t keep their English essay but they sure have or know where their project is they made in woodshop.”
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