Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Wikiseat Project - Getting the "Catalysts" and Emerson's "The American Scholar"

by Sean Wheeler

The "Catalysts" were handed out on the 14th of September, and I've been a bit busy since then!  The video above shows the first group of students as they picked out their "Catalyst" and the project suddenly became very real for them.  It was a great day and I was sure to take tons of pictures and conduct a few video interviews.  I haven't had a chance to edit the interviews together yet, but I can honestly say that the whole project took a definite turn when they got the parts in their hands. 

The "Catalysts" were constructed by John Malloy, a local tradesman, as a side-project/favor and they turned out great.  Our pieces still need the holes drilled, and might require some paint, but John was super helpful with his pricing and he came through for us as I was starting to worry if this thing would ever get off the ground.  He documented his process and will be meeting with the students to discuss his process in the upcoming week or two.  I look forward to having my students get a glimpse into the steps that John took in learning how to build the part, as well as the discussion that my students will be able to have about their own learning process as their work on the Wikiseat begins.

We're reading Ralph Waldo Emerson as well.  Last week had us working with "The American Scholar", this week we're tackling "Self-Reliance".  In the opening of "The American Scholar", Emerson lays out what he saw to a crucial issue that he hoped the American students would come to both realize and confront, 

It is one of those fables which out of an unknown antiquity convey an unlooked-for wisdom, that the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.

The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man, -- present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,--a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship.

The students and I got pretty deep into this one.  I started by asking them what they wanted to be in ten years.  They told me they wanted to be doctors, veterinarians, athletes, business executives, salon owners, artists, and rappers.  It was a set-up question, of course.  I pointed out to them that nobody said "happy", or "in love", or "interested", or anything of that ilk.  They all told me that ten years from now they wanted to be a job.  They didn't say anything about wanting to be a person.  What would Emerson think of these answers?  He'd say we hadn't learned anything since he pointed out the problem over 100 years ago.  My students have the message loud and clear.  They go to school, to get into college, to get a job and then they can start their "life".  Emerson holds that the American student should be more closely tied to what Walter Gropius referred to when he said of his work with the Bauhaus academy that,  "Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.With his admonitions to "study nature" and to acquire an "active soul", Emerson calls on American students to recognize and confront the dignity of creation as a vital component of our educational mission.  He goes on to point out that all too often, "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books."

This project, for us, is a way of exploring Emerson's ideas.  The students are doing instead of getting, making instead of regurgitating, and engaged rather than being passive participants in their learning.  I've got tons to process and the project keeps moving forward at a rapid pace.  I'll be posting the journal assignments (and hopefully a few student responses), posting random interviews and pictures,  and discussing all of the interesting turns the project is taking along the way (ex.  The Geometry teacher and I have been holding cross-curricular classes for the past three days!).  Stay tuned and please be patient as I try my best to work with the kids, plan the next step, and reflect on the vast amount of learning that has gone on thus far.

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