Monday, April 7th, 2014

A school where the students are given control over everything: they make up and enforce the rules, the curriculum, the teaching, everything. That’s the situation documented in Approaching The Elephant. If you imagine it would turn into Lord Of The Flies, you’re not far off. It had a bit less violence but made up for it with a lot more screaming. So if you’re interested in watching 90 minutes of kids screaming at each other, to say nothing of coming perilously close to sawing their own fingers off (several times), this would be a great film for you.

The thing with the saws was actually a pretty good example of what I thought was wrong with what sounds at first blush like a great idea. What’s wrong with giving kids the tools to learn? Why should we impose rules on how they should use those tools?

Well, here’s a few things to think about: During what they very broadly referred to as wood shop, the kids seemed to prefer using a coping saw, no matter what they were cutting or why. Nobody explained to them how to use one, which would apparently have been too preachy. A coping saw is a C-shaped bow with a very thin, very sharp blade strung so tightly between the arms that it’s notorious for breaking easily. If you use one without wearing safety glasses, you’re just begging to lose an eye, but if you let 8-year-old kids use one without wearing safety glasses, that’s criminally irresponsible. Or am I just too old-fashioned?

Approaching The Elephant | 10:51 am CST
Category: entertainment, festivals, movies, play, vacation, Wisc Film Fest | Tags:
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2 Comments

  1. 1 Alex said at 2:09 pm on April 7th, 2014:

    For clarification: the students were instructed on how to use the various different saws (not just coping saws) that were used in the wood shop (there’s a brief snippet of one of the students learning to use one in the movie and there was much more instruction that didn’t make it into the movie). And we never had one accident using any tool in the wood shop.

    Best,
    Alex (the director of the school in that movie)

  2. 2 Dave said at 10:51 am on April 8th, 2014:

    Thanks very much for your reply to my post, Alex. I thought you and your colleagues put forward a noble effort toward setting up a free school. I have been intrigued by the idea of a free school since reading a copy of “Summerhill” that an elementary school teacher gave me years ago. The impression I took away from watching “Approaching The Elephant” was that you and your colleagues may not have been as prepared as you could have been to execute your ideas with greater success. I used my observations of shop class to illustrate this because I felt the scenes of children sawing with their fingers perilously close to a blade that is easy to break contrasted rather sharply with the very extended scene of you and your colleagues discussing school safety. I don’t doubt your word that you spoke with the children about shop safety and that they hammered and sawed all year long without getting a scratch, but in the film footage presented there was little evidence of concern for safety. It appeared more like you simply turned children loose in a room full of hammers and saws on day one and let them go at it. Just like your school, you could very well be able to make a success of shop class by doing it that way, but my point was that a little more structure in both would probably be a good thing. Best of luck to you and your colleagues in your quest to improve education, and thanks again for comment.