New York City Diarist

Matthew Clavel
Building Bridges
Autumn 2007

It was my second year teaching in the Bronx, and Timothy was one of my toughest fourth-graders. Prone to wild rages and showing dismal academic skills, he had already been in trouble with the police. I waited with dread for Timothy’s reaction to our bridge-building activity. Our lesson involved simple ingredients: small marshmallows and toothpicks. After a quick overview of engineering principles, I split the class into groups and made each one responsible for constructing a bridge. I would judge the bridges based on how far they could stretch when the desks beneath them were pulled apart.

I paced the classroom for a while amid squeals of excitement, and then glanced at Timothy. Hunched over a table with his group, he was entranced. He and his teammates were well on their way to building a long, unwieldy-looking, but surprisingly strong frame. The boy was a natural; I was stunned—and delighted. Timothy’s toothpick-and-marshmallow bridge would be a highlight of our competition.

That was seven years ago. I now teach fifth grade at an elite private boys’ school in Manhattan. My engaged, knowledgeable boys learn in a laid-back atmosphere. Our budget is generous, and I recently obtained permission to purchase old-fashioned “Erector sets”—giant boxes full of thousands of metal and plastic pieces. Remembering my Bronx experiences, I envisioned a weekly building session. After vainly scouring New York for these outdated kits, I turned to the Web and finally managed to order three boxes from a company called Merkur. I wasn’t surprised that my homeroom quickly became enamored with the new Erector sets. Every week, we set aside 30 minutes for the boys to work in small groups. It’s a fantastic chance for them to take an intelligent break from their classes. I think that kids in New York’s public schools would benefit, too.

Our public schools need to explore activities that focus on boys. While my current school boasts regular gym, sports, and recess, Timothy’s offered few chances for kids to run around. During my first year, the children had just one gym period a week, and after-lunch recesses were rare treats. The inactivity had a disproportionate effect on the boys, who seem to need to blow off steam more than girls. Classroom outbursts, even fights, were part of daily life there. My students’ concentration problems may have contributed to their abysmal test scores, too. A weekly exercise with screwdrivers and Erector sets might have helped them focus.

Building exercises also strengthen teamwork. As with team sports, a well-structured activity in which groups of kids build cranes, cars, and bridges forces them to rely on one another. To motivate the boys even more, a bit of competition (whose crane can lift the largest load?) helps. Better to build teamwork in this context than with the fuzzy “group learning” beloved by progressive educators, which impedes real learning.

Another key skill is problem solving. Building with Erector sets, I’ve found, pushes kids to find solutions on their own. In affluent communities, the excessive presence of tutors has discouraged kids from thinking for themselves; in low-income areas, too many kids simply fall behind and give up. Further, the U.S. will need far more architects, engineers, urban planners, and computer minds as the century progresses. We will face robust competition from both Europe and Asia. A well-run building curriculum, however modest, might help get kids to consider careers that our nation will need.

Building projects also encourage alternative career options for those who struggle in school. Indeed, we should expand high school vocational programs, which are often derided for asking less of children who could be going to college. After all, everyone has to go to college, right? Maybe, but plenty of kids would excel, and earn decent livings, as plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics.

I haven’t kept in touch with Timothy, but I hope he has succeeded. He would make a great carpenter.

Matthew Clavel, a former Teach for America corps member, now teaches fifth grade at a private school in Manhattan.

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