Why Kids Need to Make Things


by Eric Schwarz, co-founder and CEO of Citizen Schools 

One of the things we’re known for here at Citizen Schools is a unique event called a WOW!—a cross between a science fair, an arts festival, and a potluck. All semester long, kids have been working with volunteer experts to discover amazing things, and in December it’s time for them to teach back and show off what they’ve made and learned. It’s a lot of work, for both the kids and the volunteers—not to mention Citizen Schools staff and Teaching Fellows.

But in many ways it's the key to why apprenticeships make such an impact.

My Favorite WOW! Memory

One WOW! feels to me like it happened yesterday, even though it was more than 15 years ago. In our second year of Citizen Schools, I went to a WOW! for a carpentry apprenticeship, taught by a carpenter named Joel Bennett. The team of kids had all produced really high-class carpenter’s toolboxes. They had measured them, cut them, sanded them, shellacked them—the whole thing.

The kids learned a lot. But those of us behind the scenes learned a couple of things too. We learned that a couple of kids didn’t know how to measure. In the second week, Joel had asked a seventh-grader named Kiel to cut a piece of wood in half. Kiel said, “Half? What’s half?”

Kiel was getting B’s in school and he didn’t know what half was. So Joel broke down the concept of half, they cut the piece of wood together and moved forward.

Meanwhile, Francisco was another young boy in the apprenticeship. He was 11, a recent immigrant from Central America. His toolbox was amazing.

Around week nine, the kids were planning their presentations and deciding what their toolboxes would be used for—gifts to their moms, or just upgrades in their own personal workspaces. Joel had noticed that on the side of his toolbox, Francisco had written MIGUEL in big letters.

Joel hadn’t heard him talk about Miguel, so he asked him, “Francisco, who’s Miguel? I thought you were keeping this or giving it to your Mom.”

Francisco said, “Miguel is this older man who lives in my neighborhood. He’s always doing nice things for me. He gets me ice cream. Last summer he took me out to a baseball game. I’ve never had anything to give him. So I’m going to give this toolbox to Miguel.”

An Unintended Consequence of the Standards Movement

When Joel told me this story, it brought home to me that kids need chances to give something. They need to be makers of things and producers of knowledge, not just consumers of things and recipients of knowledge.

Erik Erikson talks about the eight stages of human development. The fourth stage—Competence—is the early adolescent period that Citizen Schools students are living in. Their inner lives are a conflict between a sense of inferiority and a sense of industry, what Erickson describes as familiarity with the tools and technologies of the adult world.

Very few kids in the typical urban school today are getting that sense of industry. Very few poor kids, many with parents who are struggling in the work world, are becoming familiar with the tools of the adult world, whether carpentry or rocket science or law. As the standards movements sometimes has the unintended consequence of stripping away shop and art classes and engaging projects in science, we need to find different ways for kids to become producers, to be successful with successful adults, and to build both knowledge and things that they can give away.

Citizen Schools apprenticeships tackle this challenge by bringing adult volunteers, who are themselves makers of things, to be a part of a school’s second shift. They don’t just talk to kids about the things they make—the students actually make their own. And every single apprenticeship, from carpentry to solar car design to law to drumming, ends in a WOW!

And when the kids present their toolboxes to the Miguels in their lives, the feeling of accomplishment and pride kids feel will change their lives forever.