For an hour every week, sixth-graders at Burleigh Manor Middle School set aside reading, writing and arithmetic and take up homemade knitting needles and skeins of yarn.
The 11- and 12-year-olds at the Ellicott City School have been creating squares for afghans since November. The lap-sized warmers will be given to Howard County's retirement home residents to fulfill the community service requirement for graduation from a Maryland middle school.
The knitting itself takes place during their "discovery period." Every day for an hour, students try new things. Sometimes they learn about aerodynamics and build paper or plastic airplanes. They try calligraphy. They talk about interpersonal relationships.
Mondays, though, are for knitting.
When sixth-grade teachers proposed the project in the fall, almost all of them -- including English teacher Roxann Ford, who suggested the project -- were skeptical about the response they would get from students, especially the boys.
Funding was also a concern. At $3 a pair for knitting needles and 120 knitters, the project looked too expensive. The teachers found a solution: knitting needles fashioned from hardwood dowels, cut into 8-inch pieces, sharpened in a pencil sharpener and sanded down. The final cost for a pair was 18 cents. They even found a yarn donor, Coats & Clark.
"It kind of evolved," said Mrs. Ford, who is one of eight teachers who leads a sixth-grade knitting period on Mondays.
The first students to get excited about the hobby were those children with mothers and grandmothers who are knitters or who sew. Many pupils took their knitting home and found a lot of support. "Julija Sajauskas came in with her grandmother's old 15-cent crochet hook. The original price had been stamped into it. She was very pleased," Mrs. Ford said.
Not as many boys as girls took to knitting, but most have made an effort. And several have acquired a new hobby. Alex Sehman, for example, has become a good crocheter.
Others concentrate on speed. "I can go the fastest," Shawn Butani said. His claim was instantly challenged: "No! Joel can knit a patch in half an hour!" said Alex Peri, delighted to be able to best his friend.
Mrs. Ford has held out a carrot of sorts to get her students to complete the project. "We can't talk unless we knit," Alex said.
And knit and talk they do. They chatter and joke among themselves, and never miss a chance to say, as one young knitter said to her friend: "You're doing it wrong, you need three more rows. . . . Look!"
Science teacher John Fansler hasn't tried to push his students into knitting. Only six of the 16 -- three boys and three girls -- still are making their squares. The other 10 do their homework during knitting period, but they aren't getting credit toward the service requirement.
"The kids are aware that community service is important," he said, "and knitting is an interesting proposition, but middle school kids are very concerned about status and peer identification."
Now the girls are buying their own knitting needles and yarn. And some of the boys -- instead of confining their talents to making squares for the afghans -- are making headbands, Mrs. Ford said with a grin.
LeAnn Turbyfill said her son, Jason, still is working on his first square. "Jason only knits in class on Mondays," she said. "But we went to the sheep and wool festival at the Howard County fairgrounds. He was pretty interested in where the wool came from and the possibilities of what he could make."
She praised the community service program. "It exposes him to activities that he wouldn't have tried otherwise," she said.
Mary Jane Rudnicki said she saw the effects of the project during daughter Jill Ellen's slumber party. All the girls, "who are usually very giddy," sat, knitting and talking, Mrs. Rudnicki said. "They're 12-year-olds! Last year they were dying their hair with yellow Jell-O and Kool-Aid.
"Mrs. Ford gave them the sense that they can make a difference and have fun. I think the program is outstanding."