Why did the workshop courses disappear from the college?


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Illustration by Chelsea O’Byrne

Recently, I saw a TV commercial full of young adults excited about the training they had received for new technical careers, financially aided by the provincial government. With the severe shortage of skilled workers in Canada, I thought this was a step in the right direction.

Watching the commercial, I couldn’t help but think that at some point every child had had the opportunity to learn technical skills.

My interest in technology began in grade 7 when my class was sent to another elementary school in Scarborough, Ontario for a workshop course. It was the 1960s, so only the boys spent the afternoon learning industrial arts. The girls went to a room equipped with a kitchen and sewing machines.

I still remember the thrill I felt when I first entered Mr. Douglas’ shop. It was an amazing place. There were shelves containing wood and steel sheets, I could see machines and tools everywhere. There was also a peculiar smell, which I soon discovered to be that of freshly cut wood. I recognized a few machines that I had seen used by adults, but for others I had no idea what they were used for.

Our teacher explained that we could safely use all the equipment by the time we graduate from grade 8, but for now we would start slowly, learning drawing techniques, then working with leather and plastic. Gradually, we would move into metal and wood projects that could be built in the second half of our 7th grade year. Every week, we discovered a new machine. This lesson always began with Mr. Douglas detailing the horrific injuries the machine could inflict if not handled safely. He found ways to inspire his students to listen and learn to be extra careful with every machine. We left each class with all our fingers.

When we graduated from grade 8, students could choose from a neighboring high school for arts, science, and business, or we could choose the high school that focused on technical courses. At least half of the boys have taken the technical courses and I believe that many chose this path because of the confidence they gained from the positive experiences Mr. Douglas provided in the classroom. I still know a lot of those boys. They have now retired from technical careers which they found both interesting and financially rewarding.

Although each student’s skills varied, we took pride in crafting useful artistic creations that we designed, selected raw materials, then shaped the raw materials and added finishes to complete items such as turned wood bowls, paper towel holders, metal dust pans and bookends.

I became an elementary school teacher, but never lost my love for crafting and have always been fascinated by tools. I always have a wood project going and I keep a vintage car nearby that needs fixing. Neighbors ask me where I learned these skills and I always say, “In 7th and 8th grade shop classes and, of course, making lots of mistakes.

My three children have also watched and learned from my mistakes and successes, as adults they have now had the satisfaction of doing many of their own home renovations.

So why have those important shop classes – which encourage technical careers – disappeared from the 7th and 8th grade experience? I can only comment on the two schools in which I worked where the workshop class disappeared.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I worked at a school in east Toronto where Ken, the shop teacher, reminded me most of Mr. Douglas. His shop even had welding equipment and Ken trained the students well. Progress has also been made in the 20 years since the segregated 1960s. Girls and boys took both Industrial Arts and Home Economics.

The demise of these programs began when staffing committees were formed to determine how teachers were assigned to each school. Many school boards did not consider workshops to be mandatory, and staffing committees had difficult choices to make. The two teachers usually required to provide safety in workshop classes led to big changes in the workshop curriculum and drastically changed the focus towards designing mousetrap cars and building Lego . It may have been the result of liability issues, but there was much less hands-on construction using power tools and hand tools. Students did not have the opportunity to build their own projects and learn how to use tools safely. The focus became more on group design work. Anyway, in the late 1990s, I observed a dramatic decline in student enthusiasm for shop classes.

At one point in the 1990s, I had a few students in my own classes who were interested in wooden boats. They were thrilled when I got permission and funding from the school board to build an eight-foot motorboat. For two months, my students worked there before and after school. They learned to follow blueprints, use basic tools, and were proud of the finished boat, which we called the Pee Wee. We christened it on a small lake at a staff member’s cabin. It was an exciting day for all of us with every student having a turn. When it was sold for $300, each student received a $15 paycheck.

I worked for several more years after most of the Toronto District School Board shops were disbanded. When I noticed that students were struggling in regular classes, I brought some basic tools and old lawnmowers for them to work on. And in rare cases, these students have operated the engines. By observing their interest and joy in their accomplishments, I could see that these students were in desperate need of this alternative learning experience. Years later, I met one of these students at a car show and was surprised when he mentioned that he still owned the lawn mower.

Is there a chance the proper stores will come back? Most of the time, I think not. But there are times when I hope alliances between educators and industry can fund courses and provide the tools I learned to use so many years ago.

Currently, in my studio, I proudly display the wooden horse that I created in Mr. Douglas’ class 57 years ago. I can only hope that in a future workshop, a retiree proudly displays the widget he or she designed and built using an AutoCAD program in grades 7 and 8.

Rod McNair lives in Scarborough, Ontario.

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