Huddled over a small cart, Caleb Schellenberg and classmates at Incarnate Word School in Chesterfield got their hands dirty as they took apart an engine that once sat inside of a power washer.
Caleb, an eighth-grader, is used to working with engines — he and his older brother buy motorcycles for cheap off Craigslist and rebuild them for fun. So it came naturally to him when he explained how the power washer engine had a broken crank shaft, which had left a huge hole in the metal casing.
“This is so cool — I feel like I’m in my own garage,” he said of the experience, which took place in the rectory garage. “I have learned a lot about what it looks and feels like to get all the way inside an engine. We usually work on engines that are semi-working, so we never have to tear them all the way down. So this was a good experience.”
This is the second year that sixth- through eighth-graders at Incarnate Word have participated in elective courses. They’re learning lessons that aren’t generally covered in the curriculum; and in some cases, they’re gaining hands-on skills that are useful in everyday situations.
Caleb and his classmates are part of a class on automotive, electric, plumbing and woodworking skills, taught by pastor Father Kevin Schroeder. The priest, who is an accomplished woodworker, said he hopes that the students learn practical skills — such as wiring an outlet and patching a tire — but that they gain an appreciation for the trades.
Other classes, which are rotated each quarter, include Italian cooking, acting, engineering, hand lettering, Greek mythology, knitting and computers.
“I had heard of some other schools doing this in junior high, and I said we’ve got to implement this,” said science teacher Brian King, who organized the program with Diane Hinton, a math and English language arts teacher. “We wanted the kids to do something hands on and something they are passionate about. We poll them: ‘What classes would you like?’”
The teachers have found themselves just as engaged in the courses, too. King enjoyed teaching a math-based fantasy football class last quarter.
“I competed with the kids — I didn’t do very well,” he joked. “But it was neat to see them excited about math. We didn’t do it with calculators. We sat down with pencil and paper. It was exciting to see — they could not wait to get to a math class.”
Students in Father Schroeder’s class also will be learning how to patch a tire and will make a wooden frame for a full-length mirror for the sacristy. He said he hopes that students will develop a reverence for the holiness of work and an appreciation for the men and women who work in the trades.
These hands-on experiences also might lead some students to a possible future vocation, he said. In this day and age, skilled workers in the trades are greatly needed, as the priest has experienced first-hand in trying to hire workers for smaller jobs at the parish.
“It’s hard to find people to do our work,” he said, “There are fewer and fewer tradesmen and women, and we’re feeling that effect in parish life.”
“More than anything it’s important we appreciate the jobs that people do around us that we probably don’t notice,” Father Schroeder said. “Whether it’s fixing your toilet, when your electric doesn’t work right. I think a lot of times we take that for granted that it works, and when it doesn’t, somebody makes it magically work.”