Education Opinion

Don’t Be Too Quick to Label Me!

By Susan Graham — May 07, 2008 3 min read
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Eighth graders cluster around the world map, peeling off their little sticky tags and moving them.

Ashley: China—Again???

Amritpal: Oh yeah! I’m Belarus! Nobody’s ever been Belarus!

LeMaj: Yeah, but now you have to find it!

Ryan: I’m Greenland!

Kristen: Not! No way you are Greenland, Ryan! You made that up!

Geography? No, this is my eighth grade Family and Consumer Science class. For the last week, they’ve been checking the permanent-care labels in their clothes and “claiming” their shirts’ country of origin. It’s an eye-opening activity. While China may have produced the majority of today’s clothes, students huddled around the map are complaining that Honduras and El Salvador are so crowded with markers that some are oozing over into Nicaragua and Guatemala.

“No wonder China make so much stuff,” says one student. “They’ve got more land and more people. But Honduras is tiny and look how much comes from there.”

A quick look at the stickie-infested map makes it clear that clothing construction is concentrated in China and surrounding nations and in Central America. Why? Because clothing construction is low tech, requires minimal infrastructure, and the work force is usually women and children. A quick Internet search indicates that the average wage in many of these countries is less than $5,000 a year and that, in many cases, children younger than my students are working six-day weeks to produce those clothes.

Katie is outraged. “It’s not fair!” Should we boycott? What happens if we do? Do the child laborers go to school instead? Or do they starve? If a country begins with low wage jobs, will its economy grow, resulting in better jobs in the future? Or will it continue to exploit the weakest members of its society?

The social justice issues are only part of the picture. Our conversation soon begins to veer off toward practical economic concerns closer to home. Outsourcing of textile manufacturing and clothing production contributes to the national trade deficit and has been devastating to the economy in southwest Virginia, where we live. What is the real cost of the lost jobs here and the flow of money out of the country? How much more would we be willing to pay for clothing produced locally? What would that do to the retail marketplace, if the price of clothing reflected American wages?

The discussion gets fierce at times, but tomorrow we will move from the theoretical to the practical. We will begin their sweatshirt sewing projects, and they can hardly wait. Will most of these students ever sew again? Maybe not, but they may develop a greater appreciation in the future for the people who will construct the clothing they wear. They will be better consumers—more likely to look at quality of construction. But the most important thing they will learn is to manage their own time, set their own standards, assess their own work, live with their own mistakes. These are Career and Technical Education skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

Do we stitch things and stir things in my room? You bet! We also do a lot of thinking, and use learning strategies like the world map activity (which a geography teacher in our school is incorporating into his own course) to build 21st Century knowledge and know-how.

What really matters is this: In Family and Consumer Science class, we validate academic concepts by connecting them to how we meet our own basic needs and improve the quality of our own lives. Laquisha put it this way: “This is my favorite class because instead of telling us a bunch of stuff, you let us do stuff that makes us figure out why we need to know stuff.”

Just a FACS teacher? You bet.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.