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At Bancroft Elementary School, reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic meet the three C’s of knitting class.
In Toni Conklin’s Thursday afternoon class at Bancroft Elementary School, talking is not only permitted, but encouraged. And the eight 9-year-olds seated around an undersized Formica table in Room 210 have taken to this assignment with vigor.
Jessica and Darline have just discovered that they both have relatives working on the housekeeping crew at American University. Nearby, Jorge and Alex discuss the Spanish words for frog: “It’s rana,” says Jorge. “It’s sapo,” counters Alex. Alex and Rafael soon lapse into a discussion of World Wrestling Federation superstar the Rock. Alex drops his schoolwork to pick up a knitted, stuffed frog from the table, demonstrating the Rock’s most recent win by smashing the frog against his hand.
Conklin’s students aren’t here to learn about pro wrestling, but the teacher says the idle chitchat doesn’t detract from this scholastic activity. The students are, in fact, slaving away at their schoolwork at this very moment: They are knitting.
Across the room, the class bulletin board displays pictures of happily knitting students next to blue and purple construction paper words. “The Three C’s of Knitting!” announces the board. “Cooperation, Concentration, and Communication.”
Conklin, in fact, might just want to add a fourth C to the knitting catechism: conviction. The teacher speaks with religious zeal about the benefits of teaching kids to knit, which she says range from improved conflict resolution to the calming of overactive kids. She says the activity may even help kids prepare for the Stanford 9 Achievement Tests: “They learn to follow directions. They learn listening skills. They learn to be patient when something isn’t automatic.”
Conklin’s co-teacher, Tim Mead, explains that the students spend three hours a day on reading and mathematics, and that the rest of the week is divided up into other activities, including social studies, science, and music. The two hours a week devoted to knitting, Mead says, allow the students another way to learn to focus.
And that’s where the chatting comes in. Conklin calls it “verbal therapy”—a structured time when kids can find their own way to sort out issues with each other or talk with their teachers about how things are going at home. “While they’re knitting, it’s acceptable to talk,” Conklin says. “Usually, when you are in school, you are expected to be quiet. This gives them the license to sit and talk and chat with each other in a constructive way.” And to make cool wrestling frogs, too.
Bancroft’s love affair with yarn started before its current knitters started to wear socks. In 1990, Louise Meyer, then fiber arts chair and educational program director of the Potomac Craftsman’s Guild, decided to take her passion for wool to the school around the corner from her house on 18th Street NW. “It’s a way to connect with the community,” says the modern-day Madame de Farge. “What better way than through the children?”
Meyer tried teaching the kids activities as diverse as felting, spinning, and dying silk with Kool-Aid. She taught weaving to all the second-grade classes for seven years, setting up looms in each class for a month and allowing each student one class period to weave. But over the years, she realized that unless the children bought their own looms, they would lose their new knowledge the minute they moved on to the next grade. Besides, the looms were expensive and hard to stuff in a backpack, and they were made for only one person at a time.
So, in 1997, Meyer decided to try knitting instead. Armed with boxes of donated yarn and enough knitting needles to bristle a large porcupine, Meyer descended on Bancroft—and, more specifically, on two third-grade classes, including Conklin’s.
“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to teach them each to knit,” says Meyer of that first class. “It was an uneven start.” Old photographs show the classroom awash in tangled yarn, with children elbow-deep in haphazard projects in various stages of completion, looking askance at a few frazzled volunteers.
“Some of the kids were so accurate and careful. Others couldn’t do it at all,” Meyer reflects. “We never knew how to store it. The needles fell out of the stitches, and the kids would get all sad. We tried plastic bags and then those shoe bag things that you hang on the wall.”
Two classes shrank to one. But Meyer persevered, finding more volunteers, calling experts for help, and, finally, applying for funding through the Potomac Craftsman’s Guild. Last fall, she won a nonrenewable grant for $2,500 from the Simple Abundance Charitable Fund, a personal foundation set up by Bethesda resident and inspirational book author Sarah Ban Breathnach. Though Meyer didn’t get the money she requested—enough for five years and knitting classes in all grades—she did get enough to hire a certified knitting instructor for the spring semester. (Funding for next year, though, has not yet been secured.)
Enter Soraya Howard, who now comes twice a week to Conklin’s class, taking the kids in small groups for an hour at a time. Certified as a handwork teacher by the Waldorf Applied Arts program at Sunbridge College, in Spring Valley, N.Y., Howard started the students off making simple drawstrings for the cloth bags that contain their supplies. Then Howard had the students make their own knitting needles from dowels she had bought from the hardware store, which they rubbed on the sidewalk to make pointy.
“They need to know that they could do anything. They just need to get creative and they can do it,” Howard says. Now her proteges are busy making frogs, purses, and stuffed mice.
Jose Buruca’s mother, Maria Pineda, has sewed since before she moved to America from El Salvador in 1985. When Jose started bringing knitting home from school, Pineda was so intrigued that she asked him to teach her how to do it herself. “These are things from the past, from before industrialization,” she says. “It’s all very practical.”
This reaction is just what Howard wanted. “My reason for going to school and learning to teach this stuff is for the kids to see where all this came from and that they can do it on their own, like their grandparents did and their parents, too,” she says. “They don’t need this commercial stuff—they can do it themselves.”
But most of Bancroft’s kids don’t have Little House on the Prairie ancestors. Nearly 90 percent are first- or second-generation immigrants who speak other languages at home, says school principal Fay Thompson, and most of their parents work jobs that don’t leave them much time for handcrafts.
There are a few exceptions, like Pineda. And, although immigrant parents may lack time, many do have strong handcrafting traditions to draw upon—traditions that also grant boys a place to sew and knit. Isaias Castillo’s family is bereft of knitters, but his uncle weaves. “He made a net to fish with. He made a big one; it’s 18 feet already. He said when he leaves he’s going to take it to El Salvador. He said they used to cost like $500. Now they cost like $1,000 over there,” explains the 9-year-old.
The spectacle of third-graders spending two hours a week learning to knit has some back-to-basics education advocates knitting their brows. Mike Schmoker, author of the manifesto Results: the Key to Continuous School Improvement, says that Conklin’s students are being shortchanged. “Kids who do not read at grade level by the end of first grade have a 1-in-5 chance of ever catching up…. I’ve toured 250 classes, and it’s amazing to me how many things other than reading kids are being taught in school,” he says. “As it is, in schools that tend to be low-achieving, I cannot imagine there being time for things like [knitting].”
Thompson, of course, points to her school’s Stanford 9 test results as evidence that opening schools to knitting needles is a good idea. Bancroft’s results have improved in each of the last four years, and Bancroft was one of only 32 of the city’s 146 public schools to meet a majority of their target scores with last year’s tests. And she has a fair number of education scholars on her side, too. “We get so hung up on high-stakes testing, and how all the kids in D.C. are failing—to me, that’s really negative,” says Jay Shotel, chair of the Department of Teacher Preparation and Special Education at the George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education. “Why don’t we figure out things that will motivate them to learn?”
Thompson hopes to one day expand knitting to every Bancroft classroom. “We’re so bogged down in the way we think it ought to be,” she says. “If every time we decide to offer something different, and the only question is, ‘How does it affect reading?’ look what the kids would lose: music, art, science.”
Right now, though, Christopher Butler would probably rather be reading. Stitches keep falling off his needle, and while everyone else has moved on to cats, frogs, and purses, he still has a few rows left to go on his Easter chick. “I like the activity of knitting. I just don’t like knitting this dumb chicken,” he says. “If I could knit anything, I’d knit a real-size car and drive it around town.” CP