BOWERS: For some, class projects take on mythical proportions

May 31, 2014 

Here in Merced County, we are down to the last days of the school year, which means end-of-the-year class projects. Projects are not, of course, only assigned in the months of May and June. But during these final weeks, the class project takes on mythical proportions for those kids who need just a few more points.

We are quite fond of projects in these United States. The very word connotes bustling activity and purpose, a concerted effort ending in a product of use to some deserving individual or group. We have highway projects – I cannot remember a time when some part of Highway 99 in the Central Valley was not subject to an improvement project. We have construction projects, renovation projects, bridge projects, government projects, maintenance projects, and projects to study the efficacy of completed projects, which might conceivably result in new projects to fix past projects gone slightly awry. It is no wonder that our public schools, microcosms of the larger social system in which they exist, are just as enamored of projects as the rest of us.

My eighth-grader recently completed a skeleton project for P.E. He worked on it with a friend for two nights. The result was admirable: A two-foot skeleton made of nuts, bolts and wire attached to a wooden stand. It was impressive, and we took pictures and sent them to our relatives. Our son and his friend named the skeleton Sean. Though Sean would definitely have some trouble getting through an airport metal detector, he is nevertheless charming, and I plan to display him prominently once he has been graded and returns home safely.

I have never been an arts-and-crafts mom. I do not read the articles in Redbook that begin with, “Here’s a fun art project for kids and adults.” I have no artistic abilities and little patience, and so I am useless when it comes to class projects. Thus, the job of project supervision – and class projects always require parental oversight – has usually fallen to my husband, who is a genius at making things. Mostly, he makes furniture, but he is also capable of conceiving of skeletons made from nuts and bolts and a little wire. He is a teacher’s dream parent, a dad who gets excited when he sees the word project at the top of the paper his son brings home.

The closest I came to helping with a project recently was when my eldest son, a junior in high school, called me from his first-period class on a Tuesday morning. Since I am on summer break from UC Merced, I was in my pajamas, enjoying a late-morning cup of coffee and filling in the newspaper crossword puzzle.

“Mom,” he said. “Could you buy me a pot, like for planting flowers, that I could paint on?”

“Is this for that history project you mentioned last night?”

“Yeah. And could you get one for Brandon, too?”

“When do you need it?” I asked.

“Next period,” he answered.

When I was at the garden center in Walmart, looking for suitable pots, I overheard a woman talking to the cashier about a project her son was doing. She was buying a single, small clay pot.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you getting that pot for a history class your son is in?”

“At Buhach Colony?” she replied.

“Yeah,” I answered. “I was just wondering what size of pot you were buying.”

We compared pots.

“I never had to paint a pot for any history class I was in,” she said.

I agreed with her, and between us passed a tacit indictment of the contemporary public school system. But I was more frustrated with my son, who had interrupted my morning plans, than I was with his teacher, who was simply filling up the last few weeks of the semester as creatively as possible. Besides, I liked the part of the project that required the class to guess what event was depicted on each pot. But still, I wondered, why a flower pot?

“Why couldn’t you guys just draw it on paper?” I asked my son later that evening.

“Because,” he answered, “then it wouldn’t be a project.”

Brigitte is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced.

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