Real Work, Real World, and Creativity

I have a friend who, together with her quadriplegic husband, raised four wonderful children. Those “children” are now adults with not-so-young children of their own, and I continue to be impressed with their intelligence, integrity, and persistence in the face of obstacles. My friend and I have talked over the years about the things that contributed to her family’s growth. There are many factors, of course, but one that was a bit different in that particular family was that, from the time they were very young, the children were needed to do important work. Their mother was five foot two on a good day, and their father a 200+ pound man unable to move any part of his body.  For their father to dress, eat, and get to the bus for work required many hands. If a fly landed on him or he needed to wipe his brow, someone’s hands were needed. And it wasn’t just the basics. The family took many camping trips. In order for Dad to get into the water he loved, the family had to rig a pulley to lower him safely down the beach—everyone’s strength required. My friend’s husband has since passed away, probably the most courageous man I’ve ever met. I would never have wished his years of disability on him, but, together with his wife, he was able to use them to teach his family important lessons.

We support one another.

We can be strong.

We can solve hard problems.

We are all needed.

We can do important work.

I’ve seen similar dynamics in many of the farm families I’ve known. When young people are part of the real work that allows their family to function, they develop both problem-solving skills and confidence in their abilities to tackle future problems. In some ways, the dynamic resembles that of teachers whose confidence in their ability to use creativity in teaching (creative self-efficacy) allowed them to find greater joy amidst the stresses of COVID and “bounce back” when things didn’t go their way. Once we’ve done hard important work, it is much easier to believe in our abilities to do such things again.

I thought about all this as I read a recent opinion piece in EdSurge, talking about students’ needs returning to school after the disruptions of the pandemic (and, I have to add, with uncertainty about how those might continue). There is much conversation about the academic losses of the last two school years, and they are real. But the social and emotional disruptions have been at least as powerful. Atwell and Schlund suggest that one way to help students move forward in both academic and social/emotional ways is through engaging them in real community work. The terminology and specifics can vary with academic service learning, community problem solving, or place-based education, but in all cases, students learn academic content while engaged in the real work of their communities. They feel needed and important, because they are. They feel the work is valuable, because it is. And that kind of affective development builds their capacity for problem solving in other areas, as well as confidence and persistence when things go wrong.

Teaching embedded content, that is, teaching content while addressing real-world needs of your school or community, can be complicated. It requires teachers to have in-depth knowledge of your learning standards and the ability to apply them in new situations. It opens learning up to being affected by a host of real-world variables. But it can be powerful in both academic and affective ways. Perhaps this summer might be a good time to learn more about the options and envision a way you might take a small step toward instruction that serves your community. As your students see their potential to do important work, it will serve them well.

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