License to Sew

Middle School FACS (Family and Consumer Sciences) isn’t the cooking and sewing of yesterday. In fact, many FACS teachers don’t teach sewing at all P1040022these days.  It’s not in the state standards as a stand-alone skill.  Fashion design, care of resources, reading instruction manuals: These are covered in the standards, but not teaching of sewing per se.  Fortunately, the middle schools in my district still have sewing machines, local standards still allow for teaching kids how to operate them, and the teachers understand that the justification for omitting sewing from the state standards—“No one sews anymore”—is not entirely true.  In my part of the world, 4-H is still a big deal and fabric stores still exist. In the larger world, the world beyond the borders of my county, the fashion industry is HUGE—and people who enter into that world need to know how garments are constructed if they’re going to design them.  Learning to sew is a career skill for some kids—no less important than learning to draw, play a musical instrument, or use basic computer programs like Excel and Word.

So it was a thrill yesterday to watch a sewing lesson—and one that was about as perfect as any lesson could be.

The kids came into the room, put their binders and paraphernalia on the desks in the classroom portion of the FACS room, and proceeded without delay or loud chatter to their assigned sewing tables.  Their teacher took attendance by simply asking the tables to report out the names of the missing kids.  Two kids were gone; she recorded their names later. Then she began the class with three very simple, short directives.  First, a correction to a privilege she’d accorded the students earlier in the year (one sentence, very clear, about music and iPods). Then, a review of the parts of the sewing machine (The students pointed appropriately as the teacher called out the names of the parts: presser foot, bobbin winder, feed dogs, and so forth).  Finally, the day’s agenda (Steps 8-11 on the License to Sew).

Have you ever tried to explain a complex task to an 8th grader? Try thirty at a time on a potentially dangerous, motorized machine.  Can’t you just see the apprehension in a novice teacher’s eyes? The constant hands in the air? The ever-rising level of talk as the students  wait for the teacher to run around the room to each one individually identifying parts, showing each one how to load the bobbin, confirming that the machine is correctly threaded? The horsing around that middle school students are so very capable of? None of that happened in this FACS room.

Here’s how this teacher did it: She issued those students a “License to Sew.”

P1040025If you look closely at that “license,”  you’ll see genius at work.  To start with, the students taught themselves the parts of the machine and how to thread it (including bobbin winding) by reading the instruction manual.  Anyone with a question first asked a fellow student at the same sewing table.  On the blackboard, the place of last resort, was the teacher’s HELP list.  The teacher answered the questions of the kids who had put their names on that list. What that meant was that she wasn’t frantically trying to answer thirty questions, all exactly the same, many about trivial matters, or running around reassuring the anxious ones and restraining the ones with the potential to cause harm.  She was helping kids who genuinely needed her expertise.  For all the rest, self-reliance and a little help from a friend did the trick. Incidently, that’s an important goal of the FACS standards: helping kids learn to act responsibly and productively.  Kids moved ahead at their own pace, and a quiz later on—taken individually, when the student was ready, in a one-on-one minute with the teacher—confirmed knowledge of the parts of the machine and the necessary application skills.  The next step was practice sewing on paper templates. I missed that scene, but I saw the templates, commonly used in introductory sewing lessons to give the students practice without wasting resources–in this case, precious fabric.

When I was in that FACS class yesterday, about a third of the way into the P1040019hour, when everyone had been issued their “license to sew,” the teacher conducted a quick demo.  The kids—orderly, quiet, attentive— clustered around her as she showed them the next steps in their first project, a pincushion.  She showed them how to pin two pieces of fabric together (“Right sides kissing!”), leave a hole, turn the item inside out and stuff it, starting with the corners. Then she released the students to the machines.

At one point, a student I was standing near asked me for help. Her bobbin thread was hopelessly tangled, but I didn’t know the machine, and besides, the rule was, ask a friend first.  So I suggested that and reiterated that if she P1040015didn’t understand, she should write her name on the HELP list. Another student overheard my response and stepped right up: “I can help you with that,” she said. Exit me.

Imagine some of the other things that could have been going on in this classroom:  At a table covered with fabric scraps (from which the students were to choose two pieces for the pincushion), no one was tussling over the fabric, pushing or shoving others, or throwing fabric wildly about. The scene was orderly—and  the teacher wasn’t standing nearby controlling this situation, either.  She was seated at another table where kids who finished could line up with their license and their project in hand. She P1040024measured their seams and checked off the steps on the license. All over the room, kids were working at their own pace, and everyone was engaged.

When the end of class grew near, the rest of this teacher’s clearly articulated and rehearsed expectations played out: Without reminders or fuss, the kids stowed their possessions, picked up the room and put all the equipment back where it belonged. They disposed of the fabric bits that had fallen to the floor and pushed their chairs in. Exit them.

A spectacular class: Specific skills were learned, character traits like self-reliance and independence were honored and nurtured, and the instruction the teacher provided and the procedures she had instituted allowed for students to progress at their own rate and take responsibility for their learning.  I’ve seen art teachers and music teachers and technology teachers do this same thing.  In any project-based learning scenario in any subject area, the procedures must be clear and the pacing has to be orchestrated to accommodate different kids progressing at different rates. The class must operate (forgive the pun) like a well-oiled machine.

This one did.

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