When master carpenter Perry Wilson showed his friend's son how to build a tree house, he discovered that he was really teaching the child the value of mathematics. The task brought to mind his own struggles with a learning disability and the failure of his school to help him realize his potential. As a result, Wilson quit his job and established If I Had a Hammer, a program that uses alternative methods, specifically the construction of a small house, to show kids how to put the material they are learning in school to work. Included: Perry Wilson, founder of If I Had a Hammer, shares a personal experience that illustrates the message he tries to convey to kids.
"School subjects are often taught with no connection to how or why [they] are important. The Hammer program helps children to ... see the big picture, to choose to learn because the material is relevant to their lives," Perry Wilson, founder of If I Had a Hammer, tells Education World.
Although the students who participate in Hammer appear to be building houses, Wilson says, the houses are only "props," tools for teaching. The program reinforces science, math, and language arts skills as it introduces students to the construction process -- from working with a budget to measuring a room. Hammer students work in groups for individual "bosses," who organize their efforts. Ultimately, they create an 8- by 11-foot house that has windows, a door, and a front porch! More than 200,000 students have experienced Hammer so far.
Although he established the Hammer program and created the classroom curriculum that complements the building experience, Wilson did not read well until adulthood. A learning disability caused him to struggle in school and fail fifth grade. That is why the Hammer program focuses on fifth graders.
"If you don't succeed in school at this point, it's clear," says Wilson. "You make a choice to like school or not like it. Students are made or fade."
For Wilson, fifth grade was crucial. He feels that the educational system became convinced at this time that he couldn't learn, and he hopes to help kids avoid this fate. Because of his own experiences with learning disabilities, he seeks to show kids that they all have the ability to learn. Wilson tells students, "You have to work to learn, but it is worth it."
"I'm surprised that while we hear a lot of talk about hands-on education, it is often limited to pushing a button or pulling on something," explains Wilson. "These activities are a valuable first step, but Hammer goes beyond it. Children go to new depths with hands-on learning in our program. Give me everybody! I want to work with all of them."
"I went to lunch and thought about what the little girl had said," Wilson continues. "I think she knew she could do it -- the mathematics and the physical part of building a house. She knew she could achieve all the steps in the process. That is the key to what I'm trying to do."
The If I Had a Hammer program has been offered in 60 cities largely in cooperation with children's museums, but currently Wilson is setting up new partnerships with community and technical colleges. He is eager to build relationships with colleges because he feels that they benefit students long-term in an even more profound way.
"If you've been to a college as a fifth grader, you feel [the college wants] you there," explains Wilson. "You see new applications for study and opportunities for careers. It stays with you."
Chuck Royston has served as a "megaboss," the name the kids have for the "boss of bosses," for Hammer in east Texas for the last two years. A member of NASA's Apollo team, Royston includes his work experiences in his Hammer presentations.
"My job is to keep the kids busy, keep their attention, keep them entertained, but most of all, to make them understand that the subjects they're taking in school are vital to their success in the 'real world,' that world they encounter after graduation from high school," says Royston. "Before they leave, the kids make a vow to me that they will take their subjects seriously and study hard."
Royston appreciates the opportunity to influence children at a vulnerable age. He tries to encourage them to believe that they can accomplish anything they want if they apply themselves. Royston thinks that if only one or two students take his message seriously, the program has done an enormous amount of good.
"I tell the kids in all seriousness that if I hadn't gotten that strong foundation, they wouldn't have let me be on the Apollo team. Someone else would have been on that mission, not me," Royston explains. "It's vital that they know how important education is to being able to have an exciting career and doing what you want to do with your life. And the fifth grade is just the right time to make that kind of impression on them."