Back to School

Why Textbooks – and 3D Printers – Matter.

As a middle school teacher, planning for back to school started much earlier for me than it does for parents. During the summer I would take professional development classes, clean out my classroom, and think about new and improved lesson plans. I would also think about shopping.

Specifically, as a science teacher, my plans were often hampered by my budget – or rather, the lack of one. I taught in public school and was given no budget for classroom supplies. Therefore, any experiment, lab activity, dissection, or project I did with my class was financed out of my very slim, new-teacher paycheck.

Part of the fun of being a science teacher is watching kids discover the magic of science. But in my class, the magic was largely limited to whole class demonstrations. My kids couldn’t do hands on labs because I just couldn’t afford it. I could periodically spring for materials for demonstrations in each of my five classes, but there was no way I could afford materials for each of my 125 students, even if I put them in groups of two or three or four.

Some of Stephanie's students display their assignments.
We may not have done lots of labs, but we did do lots of projects. For our ecology unit, kids could choose an ecosystem, then research an animal from that ecosystem, write a brief report about the animal and its ecosystem, and create a model. I always had a beautiful, colorful classroom!

After three years in the classroom, I left teaching for a host of reasons. Twenty years later, I no longer experience back to school from the perspective of a teacher, but as a parent. And although my perspective has changed, the lack of resources in some of our public schools hasn’t.

For a variety of reasons, I have one daughter in private school and one in public school – and the difference in resources is startling. In my youngest daughter’s private elementary and middle school, there is a “make lab.” Make Lab is what Shop Class once was: an opportunity for students to learn how to use with tools they might need in work and in life. However, today’s 21st century world, the tools look different than they did when I was a student. The jigsaw, dark room, and drafting tables have been replaced with 3D printers, computer-controlled embroidery machines, and digital engravers.

When my older daughter began public high school a year ago, her school had neither a Shop Class nor a Make Lab. She did have a technology class, but they often didn’t have enough working computers for all of the students, and the software on them was – at ten year’s old – already archaic. The school was simply unable to afford to keep software and hardware up-to-date. Today’s technology ages and becomes obsolete more quickly than the shop tools of old.

The good news for my oldest is that, thanks to a grant submitted by parents of behalf of the school, she and her classmates will find a new Make Lab waiting for them when they return to school. My husband is on the committee putting it all together and now knows more about silk screening equipment than he ever thought possible.

Stephanie with some of her students.
Me with my students on the last day of school.

But what about the schools that can’t successfully lobby foundations and businesses for grants? What about the schools that struggle to replace textbooks, let alone purchase equipment for high-tech electives? Those kids are our kids, too. They may not be in our kids’ school, or in our district’s classrooms, but as a community and as a state, we all need to be invested in good education for all. There is a moral obligation to give all kids an opportunity to succeed – which in today’s day and age is very much dependent on the quality of one’s education. Even people who may feel less community-oriented should know that society is better off when more people have the skills and tools to succeed.

The recurring budget debate about school spending is akin to deciding what to spend on back to school shopping. Our students need textbooks and 3D printers – and well-trained teachers, and safe schools, and healthy lunches. When the state underfunds our schools, it’s our kids who pay the price.