Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

August 30, 2010

Shims Are No Sham

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 2:19 am
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It’s that time of year. School supply commercials fill the airwaves, well-rested teachers are decorating their classrooms, and eager and anxious students await the return of school days.  For me, the beginning of this school year is coinciding with some house construction, and watching the carpenter’s tricks of the trade made me wonder about the toolboxes of teachers, parents and students

Along with the new lumber and materials delivered when our construction began came packets of what appeared to be scraps of mediocre quality wood in various shapes and sizes.  Over weeks of work, I have learned the incredible usefulness of these mysterious and seemingly unimportant remnants – called shims.  When hanging a door or replacing a window, to level it and have it lay just right, various shims were wedged into the frames.  When cabinets seemed a bit too close, shims hidden under or between them provided the needed space.  The shims work behind the scenes, their unfinished nature eventually hidden by molding or other decorative finishes.  Shims, I realized, are a carpenter’s guilty little cheat!

From the first day of school, children are going to be asked to fit in.  They will be told to sit just right, and stand nice and level.  Even in the most progressive and permissive of school environments, they will be expected to use specific skills to learn to read, write, compute and think in particular ways about particular sets of materials.  Are we more forgiving of doors that cannot fit without the assistance of a shim, than we are of children who need some “wedge” to get them to where they need or want to be?

The educational equivalent of a shim is often called an accommodation.  There are state and federal mandates for providing educational supports and accommodations for formally evaluated and legally determined “special needs” students.  But students don’t need to have “special needs” to need and benefit from small, shim-like accommodations.  As adults, don’t we do better when we work in our comfortable place, or with music in the background, or when walking around to think?  Granted, schools could barely function if everyone did their own thing all the time, and children might well disturb others’ learning if they blared music or roamed the room to facilitate their own concentration. 

I think the largest barrier to any shim-like supports for children, however, are adult beliefs that shims, accommodations of any kind, are too much like cheating.  Comments like “you don’t prepare them for the real world if you let them . . .”  or “if they use that support now, they’ll become dependent on it forever. . .” and “it’s not fair to let some use that tool and not others” make it unlikely such shims will be offered.  Last I checked, however, the real world works exactly because we each find and continually use our personal shims.  I’d be lost without an electronic planner . . . for my husband, it’s his old-style pen and paper date book.  I have scholarly colleagues who have devised ingenious shims for everything from managing their research, to publishing books, to keeping up with past students.  I bet if you peeled the decorative molding off any top exec, professional, artist, scientist, parent . . . you’d find some shims – hidden tools that allow them to succeed.  As for the unfairness concern – education and parenting should never be about everyone getting the same treatment or doing the same thing.  It should be about everyone getting and doing what they need to succeed.

Educators and parents have the chance to give children a September gift.  Let’s start the school year with a new attitude towards the little accommodating shims that work for our children.  Let’s go even further and encourage students to discover and use those tools that can make the difference for them.  Maybe it will be color-coding their notebooks or highlighters, or munching on a snack during homework, or making up songs to remember important facts, or standing instead of sitting for certain tasks. 

As I’ve watched the rooms get built around me, I hate to think what my project would look like if I had tied my carpenter’s hands and said every angle needs to be naturally perfect, make everything fit with no help from the little wedges of wood, no cheating!  I hope this school year we’ll let students truly build themselves – using whatever tools and shims they need.  Successful students, like successful carpenters, understand that improvising, accommodating and using whatever is at hand is not cheating . . . its mastery.


1 Comment »

  1. Will be using these thoughts(citing you as the author) for my teachers meeting this coming Monday. Also perfect for student orientation-Needed an idea and here it is.


    Comment by Lynda Zentman — September 3, 2010 @ 2:45 am |Reply

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