My downstairs bathtub is filled with paper bags of dried beans, picked at the end of the season and waiting to be shelled. My time is pretty limited, and sometimes the shelling takes a back seat. I brought in the bag, with a discard bucket for the shells and a container to collect the beans, and showed Isaiah what to do. He looked at me pretty skeptically, but started in anyway. He shelled continuously for 20 minutes. The next day; more of the same. Other students in study hall began to be curious. What kind of beans were those? Jacob's Cattle? Soldier? Why are they named that? Are they edible? How do you eat them? What do they taste like? Where did you get them? Why don't you just buy beans?
The next thing I knew, students were asking me ,"If i finish all my homework, can I shell some beans?"
I've spent some time reflecting on this odd turn of events. This was, after all, one of my most dreaded childhood chores, ranking only slightly after "picking rock in the garden." Why were children begging to be "allowed" to do it?"
Authentic experience. That is what this generation lacks. They are so disconnected from the tangible world, with so many electronic experiences filling their days and nights, that they crave the real, the basic, the sensory. So far disconnected from their food supply, that they little understand that a chicken nugget was once a clucking, feathered animal, breathing air and eating food. So disconnected from the natural world that they little understand the connection between placing a seed in the ground and its end product. These are not city kids. I teach in a rural district, yet few of my students are from families that garden.
They sit in a circle on the floor shelling beans, and I watch them as the container fills, doing just what I and my children loved to do: sink their hands deep into the bowl of shelled beans and just experience the feeling of the beans in hand. There's something about it: one student said, "It's so...so...calming."
Could it be that what we humans need is so simple after all? Could our great-grandparents have had it right from the start? Corn husking bees, quilting bees, hay making, barn building, these were all ways that our forefathers found community and bonding. These 7th graders seem to have hit upon it: shared work with gentle conversation created not only the feeling of a job well-done, and the feeling of accomplishing something worthwhile, but that most sought after and basic human need: a sense of community. All the facebook, instagram, and twitter feeds do not replace face to face interaction. Playing video games is not the same as productive work.
Authentic. Not cyber. Not in the "cloud." Real. Tangible. Meaningful. All in a handful of beans.