By Jason Johnson – Kawakawa Teacher
When I think of the moments of true engagement that I witness as I work in Kawakawa they are, almost without exception, when ākonga are busy creating real things. There are many opportunities in the adolescent program for rangatahi to make real things. Things that are beautiful, functional and have value to themselves and others in the community. To the adolescent, producing real objects brings “a valorisation of [their] personality, in making [them] feel capable of succeeding in life by [their] own efforts and on [their] own merits” [From Childhood to Adolescence p.61]. These are the feelings that help us to build our intrinsic motivations.
This term I have worked with a group of students making flatbreads. We have come back to this activity every week, and it has yet to lose its appeal, or its value as an opportunity to learn. Its success lies partly in its simplicity. The ingredients are nothing more than is necessary – flour, water, salt and yeast (if we’re feeling fancy) we cook them on hotplates in the classroom. But it is this very simplicity that allows ākonga to easily come back to it again and again, to practice and refine their technique.
While working our dough and cooking and taste-testing our bread, we discuss many things: The cross-cultural appeal of traditional flatbreads; the nature of proteins and polymers, like gluten; the relationship between surface area and volume. We also talk about our lives, comparing family traditions and our preferences for takeaway curry. This “casual” conversation becomes deeply linked to the work we are doing – we are learning new skills, so our brains are building neural connections at a phenomenal rate. It becomes a part of who we are, and who we are becomes more deeply linked to the things we can do, and the people around us. As a friend of mine likes to say “Neurons that fire together wire together!”
Throughout her writing, Maria Montessori implored us to provide opportunities for students to work with both the hand and the head. Our ability to manipulate our environment, and thus construct it alongside our own personality, is posited as a driving force of civilisation:
“It is characteristic of man to think and to act with his hands, and from the earliest time he has left traces of his work, rough or fine, according to the type of civilisation…. All changes in man’s environment have been made by the hand of man. It is because the hands have accompanied the intelligence that civilisation has been built, so it may well be said that the hand is the organ of that immense treasure given to man.” [Education for a New World. p62]
So I value the work that we do with our hands in Kawakawa. When we make real things, we are making ourselves. This is important work.