I have a good deal of experience reading the writings of mature students who have graduated from universities around this country.
That is because every week, for up to 18 weeks, 20 to 40 young people write answers to brewing questions and submit them to me for assessment. Each of these answers requires an essay that should take up to 30 minutes to write. With some exceptions, it is a sad landscape: much of the time the penmanship is barely legible, the construction of the answers is often opaque, spelling is haphazard and the ability to martial relevant facts and state them clearly struggles to be mediocre.
I am convinced these students, when they challenge the Institute of Brewing Diploma Examinations (for which all this teaching and leaning and writing and reading is about) struggle to pass all three Diploma examinations not for lack of knowledge but for lack of ability to write down what they know. There are exceptions: We just learned that one of our students, Ben Smith, won the J.S. Ford Prize for the best set of papers submitted this year. Ben writes well.
We must catch students while young to teach them to think clearly and then write clearly what they think about. It takes a lot of effort over a long time. The intense writing and feedback work that I (and my colleagues) do with our brewing students, all of whom have first degrees, is not enough to help them with this elemental communication skill, mostly, I suppose, because it comes too late in their lives.
Therefore, in The Davis Enterprise of Friday, Sept. 6, I was delighted to read about a writing program called Writing Buddies that will debut Sept. 20 at Montgomery Elementary School in South Davis. It will run for six weeks on Friday mornings to Oct. 25. The program is co-directed by Robbie and Tony Fanning who have experience of such a program in the Bay Area. Anyone interested in working with the program can contact them at [email protected] or at 530-231-5388 before 9 p.m.
The newspaper headline was: “Volunteers help kids with writing.” This is splendid news. What an opportunity for the children and the adults who participate. I assume most volunteers will be retired adults who can spare the time and make the necessary commitment.
For many years I have known that there is extraordinary intellectual capacity in the retired folk of this town, perhaps any town, but this one in particular, given our great tradition here of education and the life of the intellect. I have often asked myself why this intellectual horsepower is not harnessed for the benefit of our schools and the children in them.
There is no lack of talent. Is it lack of leadership or lack of an appropriate mechanism or some regulatory prohibition or what? Some of my own rewarding moments have come while talking to young people in their schools, e.g., as a docent for the Mondavi Center, or at my grandchildren’s special Grandparent Days.
That is surely the way children have learned for millennia: by being in the company of an older, wiser person who cares about them as individuals and provides help, support and guidance.
So I’m delighted that Writing Buddies has come town. Unfortunately, I cannot do three of the six Fridays of the program otherwise I would chance my arm; perhaps other opportunities will arise.
In fact, my own imagination goes well beyond writing. Beyond writing, there are many in this town who could mentor mathematics and physics, many who could mentor chemistry and biology, many who could mentor history and social science, and many who could mentor not just English but other languages too.
There could be a huge cadre of Buddies available not just to elementary students but to students of all grades, and not just for writing, but to those who need and want and can benefit from rubbing shoulders with a knowledgeable older person who wants to help.
And so I ask myself what retired brewers, as a special class, can bring to the table for students in grade school. Well the whole thing, of course! Brewers know everything! The brewing profession draws directly on an unusually broad range of scientific skills but also provides interesting take-off points from which brewers could introduce many additional topics that could illuminate the lives of young people.
Let us go through the list above:
* Mathematics and physics: essential to brewers for calculating inter alia tank and pipe sizes, flow rates and pumping, cooling and heating, beer formulation and raw materials, blending and mixing, statistical quality control.
* Chemistry and biology: essential to brewers for inter alia selecting raw materials, understanding and controlling enzyme reactions, cleaning and sanitizing, pasteurization, making and evaluating analyses, beer quality, sensory science and process safety.
* History and social sciences: as an entry point for instruction: our founding fathers were brewers and distillers, the history of brewing is the history of science and rationality and the age of reason, and explains how inter alia practical things such as understanding the microbial world or the germ theory of disease or electricity arise. Prohibition(s), beer marketing, advertising, promotion, commerce, transportation and regulation are social sciences in action.
I think brewers could bring a lot to classrooms; however, there are not many brewers available to do such volunteer work. Perhaps it is just as well. Perhaps these teaching occasions should be left to those with a more focused, recognizable and identifiable talent and an unimpeachable fund of information. You, for example.
At the end of the day a brewer must be a practical jack-of-all-trades; but it would be very cool if, in the future, volunteers with Writing Buddies could deliver some brewing students who can write well!
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com