Friday, August 29, 2014

connect with learning the old fashioned way

NBC news finally did a program on hands-on learning, as though it is new news. Program Encourages Kids to Build, Play the Old-Fashioned Way

Thanks to David for alerting me to news segment. Building things is an important component of hands-on learning. Taking things apart, dissecting, mixing, baking, and music are also important building blocks for engagement. And yet, in American education, educational policy makers insure that students remain bored and complacent, rather than actively learning.

This is the first day of the 14th year of the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School. My students made tree cookies and will use them as a both an exploration of science, and an outline for writing their own stories. It was particularly pleasant to have shop in my new location at the center of the school campus.

These students of mine have unbounded enthusiasm for the wood shop, and went right to work. They kept coming up to me asking me to admire what they had done. I had sanding stations set up to lead them through the various grits. We used plastic nail in feet to make them useful as trivets or coasters.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

new shop

 I have my new wood shop/classroom almost ready to go and will have my first class in the morning. I particularly like my new pegboard tool carts, that allow me to put tools aside when not in use,  and to make the best use of a smaller space. I still have my desk, upper unit, and cabinets to move next week, but had to get things organized to this point first. Moving shops from one space to another is like a trip down memory lane as I rediscover earlier projects hidden in drawers. For instance I have blocks made from maple and walnut that are intended for students to draw. I plan to use them to train my woodworking students in the use of sketchup.

My students are very excited to be back in school and all are particularly excited about wood shop.

I received a copy of the October issue of Wood Magazine in the mail yesterday, including my article on making 4 different styles of lift off lid to fit a box made by their tools editor Bob Hunter. Watch for that magazine at your local book store. It includes my technique for inlaying rocks in a table top or box.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


 Yesterday was a big day for classrooms in the Stowe family. At Clear Spring School, friends and co-workers helped to move the benches and large tools from the old school wood shop to its more central (though smaller) location on the Clear Spring School campus. My shoulders are a bit sore from heavy lifting.

In New York, my daughter was shown her new classroom where she will teach middle school science and math at Booker T. Washington Middle School (MS54) in the upper West Side of Manhattan.

Yesterday, also, in going though comments for the blog, I realized I'd missed a few including one from Teresa, concerning my mother's Kindergarten classroom. You can read her comments in yesterday's blog post, Cookies from down under. If I had a photo to share of my mother's classroom, you would find a stark contrast with the sterile environment made necessary by having up to 33 students in a middle school class. My point is not to criticize, but to simply suggest that the richness of a classroom experience is based in part on the richness of the classroom environment.

When Kindergartens were first introduced in the US, they had a profound effect on the whole of education. Primary school teachers realized that their own classrooms might offer greater warmth for learning, rather than a cold and emotionally chilling environment. As a result, the movement began in which teachers decorated with bulletin boards, classrooms became gaily decorated, and student work was put proudly on display for all to see.

My daughter today is working to bring some visual warmth into her classroom. I will be working from the other direction, attempting to bring some order to the chaos resulting from the move.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

cookies from down under...

olive wood
Richard Bazeley has been cutting tree cookies in his own school in Australia. these small slices of wood are an excellent correlation between wood shop and science classes, and if a kid becomes interested in science as a result of doing something real in wood shop, no harm is done by having such opportunities available.

In fact the greater harm is done by having children learn about science without ever learning to do science. As I've said so many times before, you can't successfully whittle a stick without using scientific method, and so the wood shop is the perfect launch site for the future of scientific engagement.

The other thing that this project demonstrates is the usefulness of the teacher's enthusiasm. Richard plans to offer a plate of cookies for examination by other teaching staff when they have their morning tea. I have some small tack on feet that will go on the underside of our tree cookies that will turn them into small coasters or trivets.

This simple project is also a good demonstration of the appropriate use of technology. Richard and I have been exchanging photos taken with iPhone and iPad, and so while most schools are trying to figure out ways of excluding such devices from the classroom, they are just tools.

Just as one would learn the appropriate care and use of the hammer or saw, children must learn the appropriate use of more advanced technologies.

Tree cookies of various species are beautiful!
I received a wonderful remembrance of my Mother as a Kindergarten teacher, which may explain why I find Kindergarten to be the most wonderful age in schooling. Each and every year should be as memorable as Kindergarten, and Teresa wrote:
I came across your blog after talking to my own kids this morning about my wonderful kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Stowe. I was in her afternoon class in the fall of 1973. At 46, I still have so many memories of being in her class. I was telling my children about the tee-pee that we had in our class and the clay pots we made like Native Americans. There was an alphabet rug on the floor and everyone sat in a circle on the letters. We learned a lot about letters! I remember a time we had a full carnival in our classroom, just for our class. She passed out popcorn and we had a great time! We got naps back in those days and every day I would lay so still, so quiet because the kid who was the quietest, got to use the clown puppet to walk around the room and wake everyone up, one by one. What a privilege that was! Your mom was a special woman that leaves behind a legacy of excellence in teaching. 

Make, fix and create...


Monday, August 25, 2014

tree cookies...

This is the first week of school at Clear Spring School. The kids are returning for goal setting conferences today and tomorrow, and will begin classes on Wednesday. Tomorrow we move the benches and large equipment into the new Clear Spring School wood shop (its temporary location). All the students and parents are excited that the wood shop will be at the exact center of the school campus, and I am excited about the extra collaboration my new location will offer.

Our first project in the upper elementary/middle school will be to make what one teacher called "tree cookies." By counting along the rings on a piece of wood, you can create an outline of your own life, noting important years, seasons and events.

I tried making large cookies from old walnut, but found that the wood was so old and had been so slow growing that it was hard to count the tiny rings and there were far too many of them to be relevant to the students' own story lines without delving deep into the history of their town.

So I cut into a piece of hackberry that was cut last winter, and found that it has enough annual rings to go back to the birth of each student. To make cuts like this on the bandsaw takes great care, a tight grip and a sled to hold the round stock square through the cut. The tendency is for the round stock to twist, jamming the blade and ruining it. The sled gives a surface against which the round stock can be tightly gripped.

Wood and human beings are both narrative forms. While we tell our stories in the form of words, either written or spoken, trees record their growth in the form of annual rings. Where there's a knot, there had been a branch, and if there had been a drought or season of wet weather, the rings of the tree remember and can be read, just as one might read a book. Our upper elementary school teacher plans to use the tree cookies to get the children to outline their own lives and the important events that took place within them and then to use that outline as the basis for autobiography.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

poverty of mind and hand and spirit...

One of the primary determining factors in whether or not a child will graduate from high school or college is the number of years that child has lived in poverty. Young mothers and fathers working two jobs to enable their children to be clothed and fed sets a noble example for children to follow in their own lives if they are able. But for most, the challenges of poverty are enormous and insurmountable.

Americans, on the other hand, could awaken to what the statistics tell... if we want to fix education, we must also work to alleviate poverty, allow parents to earn a living wage, and resolve the remaining problems in providing health insurance for all.

And yet, Americans refuse to understand the role that poverty plays in the lives of our kids. The US has 21 percent of children living in poverty. Finland, one of the world's leaders in education has less than 5 percent.

Where children have safe homes and parents who have the time and opportunity to invest in their intellectual growth from day one, children are thus moved toward greater capacity in school, but also in life.

There is this strange notion that by giving our children expensive high tech devices to occupy their hands, minds and spirits, we have given them our best, while we ourselves are distracted by our own hand held digital devices. There is a double whammy to that. Children are losing the attention of their parents, and children themselves are losing their engagement in the real world. I've certainly said this before, and will say it again: What we learn, hands-on, by doing real things, has greater lasting effect than that which is learned second hand.

Another factor in all this is that as our shifted the intellectual requirements of most jobs onto digital devices, we have left less dignity and value in skilled human endeavors, and made human beings second fiddle to the machine.

There is no better way of learning than by making beautiful and useful things... be it music, art, or a finely crafted wooden box. The photo above is of cutting a groove for a sliding lid to fit a box for a sphere, a cylinder and a cube.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, August 22, 2014

percival keene

I am in the midst of reading one of Frederick Marryat's books Percival Keene in which he describes the exploits of a young man growing up at the end of the 18th century in England. His books, being out of copyright protection are free on Google play. His character, Percival is a mischievous boy, full of pranks, and his grandmother, to get even for his escapades, made certain he was sent to a school in which he would suffer from corporal punishment. You may remember the old saying, "spare the rod, spoil the child" and Percival's grandmother and the teacher shared that line of thought.The teacher in Percival's first school had three ways of inflicting pain. One was the ruler, which would be hurled across the room at whomever he thought was deserving of it at the moment. Once hurled, the teacher would demand that it be returned so that it could be hurled again. If a teacher were to try that these days, safety glasses would be required for the object at the time was for the child to be hit in the head. The second tool of enforcement was a stick with a hole at one end and this was used to slap hands and rap knuckles. The third tool of inflicting pain and embarrassment was the birch rod, which would be used to whip bare bottoms of the children the teacher felt most anger toward.

Percival learned quickly that the 3rd, the birch rod, considered worst punishment was best, for by being beaten regularly, it was lessened in effect. Once the butt became hardened and if the child hollered convincingly, it was almost the same as getting off scot free. Not one to simply allow himself to be hurt without consequence, Percival devised ways of punishing the teacher as well. In one incident, he stopped the teacher from taking his sandwiches at lunchtime by putting poison in them along with the extra mustard the teacher demanded. As a final prank, he put the teacher out of business by blowing him up. The teacher had confiscated all the boy's' fireworks on Guy Fawkes day, and put them safely under the crate that served as his dais. Percival added half a pound of gunpowder to the mix and a trail that he could light. The result was that the professor was blown to the ceiling and the tenement in which the school was housed was burned to the ground.

In any case, Marryat, the author, had some interesting things to say about education, based on his own personal experience of such:
"Commence with one child at three years and with another at seven years old, and in ten years, the one whose brain was left fallow even till seven years old, will be quite as far, if not further advanced, than the child whose intellect was prematurely forced at the earlier age; this is a fact which I have since seen proved in many instances, and it certainly was corroborated in mine."
I am always astounded that those who have practical experience in the world may have a different view of education than so many who have taken a purely academic approach to learning. In the US, educational  policy makers assume that if kids are not reading by the time they reach first grade, they need to force them to read in Kindergarten. Then if children aren't reading by Kindergarten, they want to force them to learn reading in pre-school. All this is made interesting when we compare the US to Finland, where by starting children to read in school at age 8, they far surpass American children (according to PISA testing) in 30 percent less time, while also learning English in addition to their two national languages.  It is noteworthy that our own that over 21% of American children live in poverty compared to under 5% in Finland.  But Americans seem to regard other Americans living in poverty not being a concern for national interest, whereas forcing students to achieve in schools is.

Those who have been chained to desks are thus the least cognizant of what it takes to learn in the world. Marryat, as a young man had run away from home three times in his efforts to go to sea. His parents, exasperated, finally allowed him to become a midshipman in the British Navy, where he distinguished himself through a variety of daring exploits, finally retiring as a Captain, and making a number of important contributions including a code for communication between ships.

The point I would make is that there is no such thing as a brain being "left fallow." In Percival's case, he was a mischievous child, one who prior to schooling carefully navigated means through which to have fun. Fun and play are the true source of most effective learning.

Today I did a bit of woodturning at my old school shop, perhaps my last creative act in that space, and I am continuing to move tools from the old school wood shop to the new. I turned the ball and cylinder for the book on Making Froebel's gifts.

Make, fix and create...