Teachers 'hear the whistle blowin' in Waltham museum

The world of work.

Butcher, baker, candlestick maker.

Shipwrights and shoemakers, maltsters and mule spinners, saw gummers and salt casters. Joiners, housewrights, iron puddlers, bell founders, coopers, corkcutters . . . .

The workers who built America mastered many crafts. Some of those skills have disappeared, others live on behind the doors of shops and factories from Maine to California.

Today's students don't know America's workers, past or present, say Michael Folsom and David Weitzman. Students think that work was usually done only by the poor and that it was joyless. And schools have given little help. Children are taught that the American Revolution was fought by generals and politicians over stamps and tea - with no mention of the threat Colonial iron smelting posed to English industrialists.

Folsom and Weitzman are the driving force behind ''Don't You Hear the Whistle Blowin' - the World of Work in America,'' a project aimed at bringing alive for children the kinds of work and machines used to build America. The two-year undertaking, sponsored by the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, Mass. , and funded by a $145,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, aims to show elementary and secondary teachers how they can help students understand a neglected part of US history.

It is the first major project for the fledgling museum, which has found a home in a restored factory building in this New England mill town. The towering red-brick structure is itself a landmark in industrial history. Here in 1813 the Boston Manufacturing Company became the first site in the world at which a complex series of processes turned a raw material (cotton) into finished goods under one roof using power machinery.

The project's first step was a two-week summer workshop with 20 area teachers. Their assignment was to record the world of work, the machines and their operators, by videotaping interviews with people on the job. This year the teachers will use what they've learned, guiding student teams into the workplace to discover America at work.

The teachers lugged their cameras to a machine shop, a harpsichord factory, and a dressmaking shop. ''We chose (professions) which are traditional,'' says Mr. Weitzman, a nationally known curriculum expert who led the seminar. ''They're the kind of industry that's been going on for 100 years, and in some cases 500 years.

''Within one week (the teachers) learned how to use the equipment. . . . It looks as though we will have succeeded just wonderfully in one of our major intents, and that is to show teachers that 'you really can do it! It's not scary.' This (video) equipment is very typical. We're not giving the teachers anything that they won't be able to find in their own school.''

Mr. Folsom, the museum's executive director and project director for the program, says the teachers' eyes have been opened to things most people don't get to see. ''America is the most powerful industrial country in the world,'' he says, ''but industrial experience is not generally understood. Somehow it's kind of mysterious; it's distant, it happens someplace else. What we experience is the consuming of products rather than the process of making them.''

Today, adds Weitzman, ''work is hidden away. So we never get a chance to see what people do for work. Children are really limited in their job choices by the work they see. It never occurs to them that there are people hidden away in factories all over the country doing really remarkable kinds of work.''

''There are artists in industry today,'' he continues. On a visit to a machine shop, they met a man who works on a lathe. ''I've had some experience on a lathe and I could appreciate what he was doing. When he got through turning a piece, it had a mirror finish on it. It looked like it'd been polished with a rag and polishing compound.

''When I talked to the director there, he said that the man is probably one of the most skilled machinists in the country. It's important for kids to see that guy, and that he really enjoys his work. He's operating a very interesting machine and he's doing work where every job he puts on that lathe is entirely different from the one he just finished.''

By introducing students to such people, he says, they are indirectly being asked, ''Have you ever considered the fact that there are interesting things to do besides fixing typewriters or becoming a gas station attendant?

''Or going to college? As teachers, we see a lot of kids who shouldn't go to college because that's not where their interest is. But we've pretended since the late '50s that everybody goes to college, or everybody should go to college.'' That has led to inadequate vocational training for students whose abilities and interests are geared to working with their hands, he says.

One key exercise for the teachers was visiting Felton Street, an eight-block strip of auto body shops and other small businesses in a run-down part of Waltham.

''We were the wildest thing that had happened on Felton Street probably in 20 years!'' Weitzman says. ''People came up to us and wanted to know what we were doing. We told them and they all wanted to give us a piece of the history of Felton Street, something that they knew about.'' Through interviews, studying old maps, and doing other research, the teachers pieced together the history of Felton Street. Along the way, they learned how the rise and fall of the railroads affected the street and how now-extinct industries once made it prosper.

''The assumption is . . . that every town has a Felton Street,'' Weitzman says. Next summer, a concluding seminar will look at what the teachers and their students found on their visits. Meanwhile, last summer's work focused on encouraging the teachers and getting their comments and reactions. ''Sometimes they tell us, 'This is really neat,' '' says Weitzman. ''Or, 'We can't do this - our principal wouldn't let us.' Or, 'We can't get out to spend hours and hours.' So what we say is, 'If you can't go out and spend two hours on Felton Street, could you go out and spend 20 minutes?

''You could find three buildings within a block area in 20 minutes. Then maybe a week or two later you could go out again. We want to know what problems they're going to run up against. Then we're trying to work it out so they can still do the activity, maybe on a smaller scale or closer to school.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.