Certain of my reluctant readers may not be doing so hot in their core academic classes, but one thing unites them all: Autoshop class, and it’s where they’d rather be. Yes, it is heartening to see my students learning a trade that will prepare them for working in a particular industry. Fine, but what is most exciting to me is that they are happy and focused when they are elbows deep in grease or creating a 3d animation. What, then, is it that gets these students motivated to perform in their “vocational education” classes and transform into sloths in mine? Reading ability has alot to do with it; English Language Learners can be two or more grade levels behind once they begin regular education language/arts classes. These students, especially the boys, are less likely to participate in class if there is any possibility they will be embarrassed in front of their peers. The reality is that learning to read and write confidently and effectively is a long, tedious process. Success in any english class is not immediately achieved nor guaranteed, and so the pursuit loses meaning. That is why shop classes are poised to do alot of good.
I discovered the answer to my question while reading Mihaly Csikszenthihaly and his research into the concept of Flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he says, “The more a job inherently resembles a game–with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback–the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.” Rebuilding a car engine is an ordered, sequential experience, with clear results. You either put the pieces together correctly or you don’t. The engine will start, or a problem exists for the student to solve. My students are happy when they are in control of their learning. The activities in which these students are able to particpate provide “… a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting” the students into a “new reality.” The resulting happiness my students claim to experience when working in these classes was caused by them getting into the “flow” of the activity.
There is no doubt that securing funding for upgrading the “vocational ed” curriculum will benefit students in positive ways, especially the reluctant readers and writers present in classrooms across the country. The fact that shop classes will equip students with life skills is great. But in order for a student to learn, to like to learn, and then to pass that love of learning onto younger generations, he or she must be happy. I have since learned to incorporate the simple lessons of shop class into my curriculum. And, although I can not offer a big block engine to rebuild, I can create activities that aim to get my students into that illusive state of “flow” that makes us all very happy.