Earlier this summer, a high-school senior named Hannah stood on top of a tall wooden lookout tower in the middle of a sunny field, gazing at two exquisite bifold French doors. Her expression was complicated, more complicated than one would expect from a high-school senior looking at French doors: both loving and rueful. She had, to her own surprise, built those doors over the previous several days at Fortnight, a summer carpentry camp at Smoke Farm, about 60 miles north of Seattle. It was the final day of Fortnight, the bus carrying the students back to the city would be arriving soon, and she seemed to be having trouble figuring out how to tell those doors good-bye.
Hannah is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, works at her parents' restaurant, gets good grades, and does well on her high-school track team. But she'd never done something like this before—picking out bits of salvaged farm lumber to build French doors with eight hinges and 12 large panes of glass, meanwhile learning to use hammers, routers, screw guns, and a metal drill press. A few days earlier, Hannah had been visibly frustrated with herself for not being able to drive a screw straight into a piece of wood. Now she'd just tapped the final pin into the final hinge.
At the edge of the field below, the rest of the dozen or so students were cheering and dancing across a 42-foot-long bridge they'd just constructed over a streambed—made from 2,000 linear feet of lumber, with 700 screws and bolts holding it together. Hannah had helped with the bridge, too, but decided to linger with her doors.
"I've been working on these all week," she said, her eyes slightly teary. "I want to hug it." Then she did. I'd never seen anyone hug a door like that before. Arne and Micah, two of the Fortnight counselors, admired her craftswomanship, from the color gradation of the lumber she'd selected to how snugly it all fit together. "This was handmade with care, and it shows," Arne said, running his hand along the wood. "No machine made this."
"Don't ever let him tell you you're not a machine!" Micah joked.
"Okay," Arne said. "No mindless machine made this."
Hannah smiled, nodded, sniffled a little, and scrambled down the watchtower to join the party. Below, a counselor named Matthew—a burly, bearded builder—watched the students celebrating from a distance. He seemed almost as emotional as Hannah. "This week is what I've been looking forward to for months," he said. "For us counselors, this is like..." He made a stabbing gesture at his heart and twisted the invisible knife. "Like tearing our guts out and stuffing them back inside in a different order."
In the four years of Fortnight's existence, its students have completed three major structures: the watchtower, the arched Chinese bridge, and the "tree house," an 18-foot octagonal platform wrapped around an old Douglas fir 30 feet above the ground. With its retractable staircase and lower crow's nest, it looks like a safe perch to sit out a catastrophe. Since its completion, the tree house has been the site of a few dinner parties (using rope-and-pulley systems to hoist up the food) where the adult diners are astonished that the magnificently improbable structure they're sitting in was built by teenagers.
At this summer's Fortnight, the majority of the students were girls and the majority were students of color. Most of them had been recruited from Chief Sealth, Franklin, Nova, and Garfield High Schools, and many had been to Smoke Farm in the past, either for Fortnight or for some of the farm's ecology and education camps. Their personalities and backgrounds were all over the map: from friendly to surly, from shy to maniacally exuberant, from valedictorian types to those who seemed to be struggling just to stay in school.
But that was just my impression—there was no way to know for sure. Fortnight cofounder Adam Nishimura explained that it's not the kind of camp where counselors play amateur psychiatrist or armchair social worker. There's not much in the way of coddling, name games, icebreakers, or prodding about what's going on with the students' home lives. "We say it's a volunteer experience," he said. "They're there to learn how to do stuff, and they're there to help complete a project... It's trying a little to give them the feeling of what it'd be like to drop into a jobsite. We're not trying to treat them like kids."
That approach seemed to work wonders. Within a few days, the social divisions and built-in cliques the students came in with noticeably softened: The chronic slouchers straightened up, smiled more, and became full participants in all the conversations and activities. Other students were having surprisingly candid conversations about race. I jotted down one excerpt I overheard during a lunchtime conversation, when one of the black girls said to one of the white girls: "The only reason that cop let you go is because you're white. If you were black, he'd have slapped you like that girl at Franklin got slapped." The white kids would sputter during these exchanges (the moment one realizes one is the involuntary beneficiary of a brutal history is never pleasant), but they'd all keep talking.
In a short period of time, it became radically less important where the students came from or where they might be going. What started mattering was how well their teams worked together in the "hammer games" (a hammer-and-nail relay race), or whether they could coordinate themselves to load those 2,000 linear feet of lumber onto pickup trucks, or who moved whose tape measure and speed square without asking, or whether the team working on gluing and screwing together boards for the bridge was moving fast enough for the team behind (which was cutting the lumber) and the team ahead (which was assembling the bridge's wooden arches). At one point, the gluing-and-screwing team received an affectionately scolding note scrawled across one of the boards: "You guys need to move a little faster. Boredom is setting in. Love, the team behind you."
Throughout the week, I kept hearing from the Fortnight supervisors that the sign of a successful counselor is one who's standing around and seems to be doing nothing. "Walk away and watch" was their slogan. The trick, one counselor said, is to observe carefully while appearing to be doing something else, or nothing at all—step in if there's a safety issue, but otherwise let them encounter, wrestle with, and solve whatever problems they come across. "That," Nishimura says, "leads to a much greater sense of accomplishment than having the IKEA directions."
Nishimura admits that in the beginning, Fortnight wanted to differentiate itself from other camps by not having any "dumb camp songs." That's one battle the counselors had to concede. Now the students insist on songs and chants, some they make up on the spot, some remembered from previous years. The students seemed to love them all the more because they weren't your typical Pollyannaish summer-champ cheers—they felt more like an expression of the real world. An especially popular one from this year, typically led by Micah, a tall counselor who'd stand in the middle of a group of students, went like this:
Are we here to have fun?
How do we play?
WAY! TOO! SERIOUSLY!
What do we do?
CHEAT TO WIN! CHEAT TO WIN! CHEAT TO WIN! CHEAT TO WIN!
Then everyone would jump up and down and scream for joy.
Fortnight was started four years ago by a few experienced carpenters and a few recent college graduates, all do-gooder types who'd been involved with other programs at Smoke Farm. (It's a retired dairy farm where I've done some volunteer work myself, primarily as the cohost of a summer lecture series called the Symposium. I had never been to Fortnight until this summer.)
Many of Fortnight's founders talk about it as a kind of social-justice program. Like arts education, trades education (the preferred nomenclature, for political reasons we'll get into later, is CTE, or "career technical education") has been whittled away in recent years by budgetary pressure for school districts to improve their standardized-testing scores.
As Dr. Shepherd Siegel, a longtime CTE advocate, who got his start in education by teaching incarcerated youth, puts it, "I once heard a superintendent from another state bring that issue to its most cynical level: 'If they don't test it, we don't teach it.' So bye-bye, arts. And bye-bye, CTE."
This is a problem on several fronts. The first—which several CTE advocates told me was a political hot potato—is the disservice to students who deserve a relevant education from their public-school system but who aren't necessarily going on to earn a four-year degree at a liberal arts college. This is a controversial idea to articulate for several reasons, not least because it's extremely unpopular to suggest that any student in public education isn't bound for a baccalaureate degree.
"People who purport to be the progressive leaders of education reform are way behind the times," Siegel says. "They're still operating in the post-WWII model, the G.I. Bill model." (The G.I. Bill, passed in 1944, subsidized college educations for returning WWII veterans, resulting in millions of American veterans getting BA degrees they otherwise might not have been able to afford.) "That led to a lot of our parents and grandparents going to college—it was a great thing in the 1940s and '50s. But we don't live in that world anymore."
Siegel says that during his time as the CTE manager for Seattle Public Schools, he heard principals get up in front of hundreds of students and declare: "All of you are going to college!" But not all of them—perhaps not even the majority of them—are going to get a four-year degree, Siegel argues, which sets the rest of them up to feel like losers and make ill-informed choices about the many, many other options they could successfully pursue, such as the trades. "And, in certain schools, if the kid doesn't go to the four-year college, where do they go?" he asks. "They go into the military! In some schools, they've been left with nothing in between."
But if the emphasis for principals is improving standardized-testing scores (as has been the case since the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act), the imperative to provide a relevant and strong education for all students, whether or not they're bound for a four-year degree, is compromised. "It's the difference," Siegel says, "between a principal walking into a shop class and saying, 'Let's update all this and get a great 21st-century shop,' and a principal saying, 'Hey, if we get rid of all this equipment, I can have another remedial math classroom.' And I've seen a lot more of the latter than the former."
There's also the sticky question of dignity, Siegel says, and the American stigma associated with "shop" class and working in the trades. (That stigma is partly why educators prefer the term CTE, which includes accounting and computer programming, instead of "shop" or "trades education.") He, and other CTE advocates I spoke with, talked about individuals who were very good at and very happy with their jobs in the trades, but who still felt a pit in their stomachs about being losers. "I have a lot of friends in the trades," Siegel says, "and it bothers them because some principal at some point gave them the idea that the only winners are those with baccalaureate degrees. So they'll be out there, raising a family, earning six figures doing work they love, and they'll still have self- esteem issues."
Michael Theriault, the secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, is also a strong advocate for CTE, but disagrees with the idea that CTE is of primary importance to students who aren't going to college. "The way you're describing it is a bit outdated," he says. "Shop is not just a sort of fork in the road for those folks—you have it to bring them back to the possibility of a college education, so they see there is a purpose for trigonometry, or English, or even history."
Theriault's ideal school would fold CTE in with the rest of the curriculum so, for example, students could read Euclid in the morning and experiment with applied geometry in the afternoon. "There's a population that learns better when there's a hands-on component," he says. "That population frequently becomes disaffected in ordinary classroom settings where you sit and are lectured to and take notes and so on. But if they can put their hands on something, and can go back and forth between that and books so they can see the application, they learn better." Moreover, a college-bound kid with trades education should have a much easier time paying off those student loans.
Jonathan Knapp, a longtime auto shop teacher, who is now the head of the Seattle Education Association, tells stories about students who were flailing in their other classes—some were immigrants with shaky language skills and chip-on-their-shoulder attitudes—but were extraordinarily gifted mechanically. Being good at one thing gave them the confidence to buckle down and work in their other classes. Knapp also sees a sinister factor in the elimination of CTE and arts education, and other teach-to-the-test trends: "There are a lot of really powerful, unsavory characters who are interested in privatizing public education for financial gain," he says. "A good number of characters in the education-reform game are actively trying to narrow the scope of public education because they don't see a value in it."
Two years ago, the Fortnight crew expanded their programming from the farm into the city, and began conducting multiweek after-school programs. They named their umbrella project—the Smoke Farm camp plus the in-city programs—the Sawhorse Revolution. Besides building things at the farm, Sawhorse students have constructed garden shelters for P-Patches and done remodeling at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. The Sawhorse budget for 2012 was about $35,000, which mostly comes from grants and donations (a tiny sliver—1.5 percent—of the budget comes from a suggested donation instead of tuition, for the families who can afford it).
Nishimura and other counselors say the economic and education issues raised by the CTE teachers were part of the early inspiration for Fortnight and Sawhorse. But as they kept working with the students, and hearing the parents talk about how proud their children were to walk around the city and point out different parts of a building, or how one might fix a broken fence, larger and more ineffable questions of dignity started to emerge: What do students lose, whether they're going to college or not, when they have no idea how the built environment they move through fits together? What do we all lose when we've acquired a sense of learned helplessness that comes with not knowing how any of the things we interact with every day (doors, toilets, light switches) actually work and we have to rely on specialists to fix even the simplest things?
"A student who can build or take down walls is not so trapped by them," says Sarah Smith, another young Fortnight/Sawhorse cofounder. Building bridges, garden shelters, and French doors might seem like a lark, but it has deeper implications. "It's a preparation for urban living in many ways," she says. "How to be engaged with the built world of the city as well."
And, I would argue, with each other.