Friday, October 07, 2011

Grinding Coffee

Learning is the human activity that least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. ~Ivan Illich (quote via my friend Jenny at Let the Children Play)

I'm not sure why I once thought I'd want to hand grind my own coffee. I don't have a concrete memory of this, but I suspect it had something to do with a desire to start my day with a freshly ground cup without waking my family at 5 a.m. with the sound of a motorized mill. Whatever the case, I own a hand grinder, but have never once ground enough to make even a single cup. It was too much slow work for me.

Which is a round-a-bout of explaining why this small hand crank model wound up as part of our school's collection of gadgets alongside such perennials as the hamster wheel.

I love how the children who are watching are holding their hands in these
pictures. It's clear that they want to get their hands on the thing. They're
 sitting close, but holding back, honoring the turn-taking process that they 
know is necessary to play with it. Oh, they want to touch it, but they've
now, most of them young 3-year-olds, come to understand this 
important social convention.

I didn't make a big deal out of getting it out the other day, but it was only a matter of seconds before I had a gang wanting to try it. Fortunately, we also have a nice stash of "defective" coffee beans donated via a local coffee company (which will remain nameless due to the fact these beans could theoretically be made into a very bad cup of joe that could then reflect poorly on that company's brand name. Business people need to think like that, but I'm thrilled they trusted us enough to send a few pounds our way). We acquired a number green beans from another source, and all mixed together they make a wonderful sensory material, one that makes our parent-teachers wish they could keep a cup close at hand in the classroom.

We figured out how to make it possible for two people to have a turn at
once: one person cranks, while another adds beans to the hopper a few at 
a time.

Turning that crank is hard work. But it's more than hard work: it's tricky. There is a technique one must master to make those large, pre-defined, steady circles, impeded by moments when a bean or two gets lodged in the apparatus, which usually means turning the handle a quarter-turn or so in a counter-clockwise direction, before resuming the regular clockwise motion. 

In between turns, they removed the little drawer from the bottom, checking their progress, conversing with one another about their observations. In the end they ground more coffee in one short session than I ever did at home.

I'm still not convinced by those who will tout the benefits of educational technology (almost always meaning computer-based) for very young children. Most of the examples I've seen so far have been mere "instruction" in which a human being has been replaced by an animated character on a tiny, isolating screen: a movement in the wrong direction it seems to me. There's no real physics. There's nothing sensory about it. There's no real meaningful activity. And more importantly there are no real people with whom one must cooperate. Give me these mechanical gadgets any day. 

I was talking with a parent yesterday as the children were using our old style egg beaters to try to whip up suds in some soapy water. I mentioned that I find a lot of our best gadgets at estate sales in the aftermath of the death of an elderly person: every 80 year-old-woman has one of these egg beaters; every 80-year-old man has a collection of hand tools in his basement. Although, I confessed, I feel a little like a vulture swooping in like that, but it's the only place to find some of these things. 

She answered, "I think they'd feel pretty good knowing that this is where their things wound up."

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The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

Oh! I collect old stuff. Those can-sifters that require you to squeeze the handle to get the spinny thing inside to sift the flour (great for preschoolers' hand strength!)...giant metal (probably handmade) funnels, and of course, the handbeaters...they're all in my own home for my kids to play with, but you've inspired me to bring them into the classroom! Any problems with the kids getting their fingers stuck in the "gears" of the handbeaters?

Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom - you had me at COFFEE. Lovely post on the magical educational reward of engaging with simple machines (and producing freshly, hand-ground coffee!). Cheers to treasures found at garage sales, flea markets and estate sales!

Aunt Annie said...

I SOOO agree with your comments about technology. I've just been doing a uni assignment about child obesity, and the relationship between sitting in front of a screen instead of actually DOING things to learn is clear.

And I'm now having a look around to see what marvellous old things I can take to work... but the thing is, I still use a lot of these myself! Having 100% solar power means that hand-operated is almost always better! Still have my mother's old hand beaters and use them nearly every day...

rosesmama said...

I'm laughing because I still use the antique German hand coffee grinder that I bought on the street in New York for 25cents, oh, about 25 years ago. I've just recently learned that the motorized grinders give an uneven grind, which can make the coffee bitter. When my girl was little, she loved to grind some of my coffee in the morning. Using hand tools is essential when the power goes out. And it may happen more frequently if the economy keeps up the way it is going.

Alissa @ Creative With Kids said...

We have a hand grinder for coffee that we use every day, (and you're right, it's much quieter- we got an electric one for a while and the jet-taking-off quality was too much now that we're used to this quiet one.)
Our kids like to use it to grind the coffee or our one year old likes to...sort of bop to the grinding sound, lol.
Anyhow, I'm tickled to see you using one in a classroom.

pamlovesbooks said...

oh how i love to see their hands ITCHING to put their own hands on that handle!! you inspired me so much i went out and looked for my own grinder, which, unfortunately, did not materialize. oh well.