The Value of “Real Work”

I’ve long struggled with the expression, “real work,” when it’s used to suggest that certain realities (the abstract, theoretical, or idealized sphere of the classroom, laboratory, etc.) aren’t as meaningful, as authentic, or as rich as other situations. I find it to be too pat a distinction. What we experience in our day to day life as a group is real to us, and meaningful. Even when it is a game we’re playing, or an exercise in seeing or drawing or computing or expressing ourselves, the applications are obvious most of the time, and not hard to find if one considers just a moment. Still, I confess, those times when we make direct contact with the world beyond our classroom have a particular impact. Recently, there have been many such occasions.

As described in our recent blog and on the school’s website, during conference week earlier in November, the group volunteered at SHARE, the huge local program that works with a network of community organizations to provide food, support and advocacy for those combatting hunger and food insecurity in the area. The children were thrilled by their time there, and by all reports were incredibly hard workers.

We also mailed letters to President-elect Trump. As we answered several inquiring children, “Yes, we are really sending them to the real President-elect. Stamps and all.” Just a few days after they were put in the mailbox, we listened to a podcast on 99 Percent Invisible (if you don’t know it, you should — 99percentinvisible.org ). The episode described the work of the people who read and sort the approximately 40,000 pieces of communication — letters, emails, etc. — that are sent to President Obama daily, of which he personally receives ten per day. It was moving to hear the human stories involved, and that day we also posted President Obama’s contact information for any child in the group who might wish to send him a message. (whitehouse.gov/contact — He’ll be receiving his ten-a-day through his last night at the White House, January 19th.)

Earlier in November, the children each presented the Life Skills Project they had recently completed. Some projects involved phone calls to businesses, setting up businesses, working with mentors, and research. Others also involved learning domestic skills like cooking, laundry, cleaning, and shopping. Every one of them involved some level of meaningful contact with the world outside of the classroom.

Just last week we were visited by Austin Carter, my daughter’s fiance, who also is an avid scuba diver. In connection with our earlier reading about Jacques Cousteau, he shared with us his stories, video and photos, equipment, and information about absorption of oxygen, nitrogen, etc. that helped us at least vicariously experience the thrill of being close to nature under water.

We are still in the process of counting the donations to Unicef that were made through our Trick or Treat for Unicef Drive and through our pizza sale. TD Bank no longer offers free counting, and we are not willing to lose any of the donation to fees charged by other institutions. Therefore, we are rolling coins the old-fashioned way. We’re now down to the pennies…

And so as much as I resist the tendency to create a dichotomy where there need not be one — in this case, between school work and real work — I also confess that there is a special thrill when the connection to the world outside of our classroom is direct. And personal.

Next week we head out again, this time to People’s Light & Theatre, where we’ll see a performance, attend a “talkback” with the cast, and thus begin our research for our own writing and performance project. We’re excited for our own work on this at school in January, and given the ambitions of this group, I suspect it will feel like real work to every one of us, even when it is happening within the beautiful confines of the Miquon campus.