Monday, November 27, 2006

This year the Rogers, Arkansas school district received an NEA grant to begin a woodworking program inspired by the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School. Laura Waters, art teacher, and parent of Clear Spring School alumni applied for the grant and I have been able to serve as a consultant. Above and at left are photos of her children at work. One of the girls asked Laura as she grew weary of sawing, "Miss Waters, Is this Art or PE?" Laura reports that her children absolutely love working with wood. My thanks to Laura for the photos and congratulations to her for her confidence in putting tools in the hands of children. They will love her for it.
Feedback...This is something that you can find in your own experience and if there is truth in it, observe for yourself. We are very well conditioned in modern society to rely on expert opinions and have ceased to examine for ourselves, even those matters closely connected to our own hearts. I am asking you to examine your own experience and weigh it for what can be called "common sense."

If you were to raise a child by paying attention to physical needs but ignored his or her needs for social interaction, you know you would be raising one sick child. In prison, the ultimate punishment is solitary confinement. We each need constant feedback from reality, both physical and social in order to feel whole and of good health. This is a very simple concept, and one that no large sociological or psychological words are required to understand. It is not a human thing, but is closely connected with our deeper, more essential animal nature. You can even see it in your pets. Just try ignoring your dog if you have the heart for it.

There is a difference between what an artist or craftsman receives as feedback in the creative process and what the normal person receives as a daily dose of required feedback. The most usual manner of receiving feedback in our modern culture is to go shopping. You walk into the store and look for the things you believe you want or need. As you wheel the cart through the store with your large collection of goods on board, you take note that fellow shoppers see the wonders of your wealth. As you leave the store, you receive the blessings of the sales clerk, parade your packages through the parking lot to your car, and then you take your goods home hoping to receive the delight of your family. This is all made more fulfilling by the smiling faces of the clerks at the store as they display their grattitude for your choosing to spend your time and money in their store.

A friend of mine went to Dillards and was waiting at the perfume counter to buy something for his wife. The sales clerks were all too busy talking about boyfriends and dates to have time for a middle aged man wanting to make a purchase. My friend was so insulted that he swears he will never go back, and he probably won't. Shopping as a feedback mechanism can be disappointing when others don't cooperate in the process. It can also lose effectiveness when the credit limit is reached and you can no longer buy.

Of course, shopping isn't the only modern form of acquiring feedback. Many people become adicted to solitaire, or other more complex computer games. Recently we saw people camped out waiting to get the latest version of PlayStation to fulfill their needs for feedback. Normally we get some form of satisfying feedback from customers or co-workers if we live in the business world, and there are countless examples of the way feedback works in our lives to provide the physical and psychological foundations for our sense of security and feelings of well-being.

The artist, on the other hand, has an other source of feedback available that grows from his or her intent to create: That of observing the transformation of material into more useful or more beautiful form in response his or her direct action. Even taking a piece of sandpaper to a piece of wood provides important feedback, as the texture of the wood goes from coarse to smooth.

The interesting thing about the feedback loop experienced by the artist is that it is not dependent on other people for its usefulness in affecting the emotional state. Woodworkers describe what they do as "sawdust therapy," noting it as a process of personal renewal or transformation. Artists of all kinds rarely have language for what they do without mentioning the "soul," "spirit," or transcendance.

It has been said that "In Bali, they have no art...They do everything as well as they can." Here in the west, we have the term art to describe those objects that reflect something greater or finer in essence than the common objects of everyday life that are made without human care, feeling, or attention. I hope to talk more about all this when I have more time. But for now, I would like to point out that it is possible to live a life in which all objects reflect depth of feeling, soulful attention, human aspiration and even love. Sad to say, you really won't find these objects while shopping on Black Friday at Walmart.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving...This is the day in which retail merchants are supposed to go from the red to the black, making their profit for the year in the next month of holidays, but black is also the color of mourning.

This morning my wife Jean asked me if I would make a quick trip to Walmart to pick up an ink cartridge for her printer. It was very early and the stock personnel were very busy with pallet forks loading the merchandise into the isles. I found the right printer cartridge and noticed a few things. Lexmark combination color printer-scanners were on sale for $29.88, or $5.00 more than the price of the tiny black HP cartridge I had placed in my cart. If we weren't so bargain crazy and were able to look at the hidden costs of getting all our manufactured goods from China instead of making them ourselves, the customers might not have been so excited. I bought the HP cartridge (also made in China) and left the store.

Meanwhile, at 8 AM the carts were filling fast.

I wonder, if all the products on the store shelves at Walmart for one day went into the landfill instead, perhaps by accident, but none-the-less leaving money in our pockets, would our lives be significantly different? Would we be impoverished? I suspect we are already impoverished before we enter the store, our appetites honed for fresh bargains with unseen costs and the squealing delight of falling prices.

Please take a moment and look around your own home. Take a quick assessment. What are the things that hold the most meaning? What things are irreplaceable in your life, and what is the source of their meaning? There may be a few things you made yourself, that record your growth, your learning, your interest and attention. There may be a few things made by friends or family that you treasure as an expression of their love.

If you don't find those things, I am sorry. If you would like greater meaning in your life than you will find in an endless stream of meaningless objects, you might want to learn how to make a few things for yourself. It is better than shopping and tomorrow I will tell you why. The photo above was taken behind the castle at Nääs. A much more pleasant place than the Black Friday action isle at any big box store.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Through the Wisdom of the Hands Program in 2005, Clear Spring School established a sister school relationship with Shinrin Takumi Juku in Japan. Clear Spring High School students folded over 1000 paper cranes as an overture of introduction, then built a box to hold them that unfolds on wood hinges into a decorative screen or "byobu." One side displayed the colorful milk paint handprints of our students and staff and the other haiku written in humanities class, and further decorated with dried leaves from the botany class. Shown in the photos above and below are students and staff at Shinrin Takumi Juku with the byobu, paper cranes and gifts from Clear Spring School. The school in Japan shares Clear Spring School's committment to enviromental responsibility, our love of wood, and our use of woodworking as a integrative school program. This year we continue our international engagement in education through hosting 6 foreign exchange students while one of our students spends a year in Argentina as a Rotary Exchange Scholar.
The "Columbus egg" of education... Otto Salomon, who led the international movement in Educational Sloyd, made reference in letters to his discovery of the "Columbus egg." While some educators might be watching for a mystical philosopher's stone to bring pieces of the puzzle together, the "Columbus egg" has its roots in the practical rather than the mystical. The original story of the Columbus egg was as follows:

Many, many years ago, Christopher Columbus was sitting in a tavern with some other sea captains who where joking and making light of his discovery. “Anyone could have discovered that!” they said. “No big deal!" (The quotes here are not exact, as I don’t speak Portuguese or Italian.) Columbus grabbed an egg off the table and said, ”I can balance this egg on end.“ The other sea captains tried and then proclaimed, “Impossible!” "You are a fool!" they said. Columbus tapped the egg on its end, cracking it slightly and set it down, perfectly balanced. “That’s cheating!" The captains complained, “Anyone can do that!” “Yes," Columbus said, “now that I’ve shown you how.”

I asked Hans Thorbjörnsson of Sweden about Salomon's discovery-- "Otto Salomon had the opinion that building the Nääs system on exercises was his own invention, his Columbus egg. Salomon was proud that he had analysed sloydwork, finding out that it could be divided into 70-80 different exercises – exercises that could be put together in different combinations – each such combination ending with a complete sloyd model."

Perhaps a greater Columbus egg that Salomon and many others knew but took for granted is the connection between the hand and brain in learning. The use of the hands pulls the heart into the matter of education. You can see it each day in woodshop. You can see it when Clear Spring School students go outdoors to study botany. We saw it clearly when Clear Spring students went to New Orleans, before and after Katrina, first immersing in culture and then working in service of restoration. Where the hands lead, the heart follows, and the attentions of the mind will be dilligently applied in learning.

Putting our students' hands in service of their education is as simple and as practical as as a Columbus egg. Crack the end, it will stand. Some, like the captains who taunted Columbus will claim that our discovery is of no consequence, but our children will grow and prosper beyond measure.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

You may remember being small and noticing all the big kids at school. It is pretty easy to feel insignificant. At Clear Spring School, all children are important and all are empowered to make a difference. The first and second graders had noticed that all the big kids were constantly running past the window in the front of their classroom. It was distracting and they were concerned for the danger. They wanted a way to encourage the other students to walk. They decided that one thing that might help would be signs asking the students from other classes to "please walk," and they asked if we could make them in woodshop. The photos above and at left are the results of their efforts. The students drew the signs on paper. We helped by transferring the drawings to wood and cutting out their drawn shapes with the scroll saw. The students sawed and sharpened the sticks, nailed the signs in place, painted them and did the lettering. Noah, at the top, believes the signs are working.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Practice with planes...Last week I received 6 planes from Lee Valley Tool Company. I had helped Rob Lee and the Veritas engineers in the design of a new plane for kids, and as a thank you from the company, we got samples to put to work in the Clear Spring woodshop as you will see in the photo above.

Today in the woodshop, we put the new planes to use. We had a discussion of proper stance, care of the tools, and how to check stock for straight and square. While some of the 5th and 6th Graders were practicing, the others wrote and illustrated thank you notes to Mr. Rob Lee. Then jobs were traded, giving all the students a chance to practice planing wood. It was a surprise to some that they could have so much fun without actually making anything but piles and piles of very thin shavings.

Another surpise for some of our students is how much fun they have turning on the lathe. Wood turning at Clear Spring School starts in the 7th and 8th grades, but is also a favorite activity for our high school students. Gab, shown turning rings below is a senior exchange student from Thailand.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

In "The Sloyd System of Wood Working" (1892) by B.B. Hoffman, Superintendent of the Baron De Hirsch Fund Trade Schools in New York City, Hoffman quoted an unidentified writer’s view,

“As the development of the motor centers in the brain hinges, in a great degree upon the movements and exercises of youth, it will be readily understood how important is the nature of the part played by the early exercise of the hand. There can be no doubt that the most active epoch in the development of these motor centers is from the fourth to fifteenth year, after which they become comparatively fixed and stubborn. Hence it can be understood that boys and girls whose hands have been left altogether untrained up to the fifteenth year are practically incapable of high manual efficiency thereafter.”

I teach adults during the summer month at various woodworking schools and occasionally for clubs and Woodcraft Stores. The quote above is one that I would find difficult to share. Who wants to really acknowledge the challenge we face in overcoming what have become "fixed and stubborn"? Those of us beyond our youth take solace in the terms "comparatively," and "practically," and struggle on to develop hand skills through which we make the world a better place, and our lives deeper, richer, and more meaningful.

Greater than the difficulty of teaching old hands new tricks, is the challenge of reawakening an old brain to renewed creativity.

Let's change our schools. Let's let the hands learn in their best time for learning. Let's do all that we can to keep the spark of childish, playful creativity alive from cradle to grave.

The photo above is from a Shaker tables class I taught for adults last year at Clear Spring School. The amount of loving attention each table received was enough that each will be treasured for many years to come.

Friday, November 10, 2006

As I mentioned earlier, the periodical Hand & Eye was written for an audience of practitioners of Sloyd and the followers of Friedrich Froebel. Froebel was the "inventor of Kindergarten" and established schools in Germany, which for a while were outlawed by the Kaiser for being associated with progressive ideas that were thought to threaten the state.

If you are interested in progressive education, Froebel was a major advocate of learning through play, and one of the best ways to learn about Froebel is a book called "Inventing Kindergarten" by Norman Brosterman. It happens that this book is available inexpensively through It is profusely and beautifully illustrated, showing Froebel's "gifts" which were instructional devices used to stimulate the child's understanding of the world and foster creative involvement in learning.

You will find links to more information about Froebel though for which there is a link at right. It is extremely important that we begin thinking of education in qualitative rather than quantitative terms. Our modern culture seems intent on measuring the life out of our children rather than providing them the time, tools and encouragement to develop artistically and creatively. I think you will find a key to the right course for our children's future in the gifts of Froebel and the tools in the Wisdom of the Hands woodshop. The photo above is from Brosterman's "Inventing Kindergarten" and shows Froebel's 19th gift, Peas Work. The study of Froebel's 19th gift by nearly blind Buckminster Fuller led him as a child to a fascination with the strength of triangular forms and inspired his adult discovery of the geodesic dome. "Inventing Kindergarten" is a great book if you are interested in knowing what children would be learning in school if we were smart enough to understand their needs.

The image at left is of students and teachers with tools and projects on the steps in front of the Sloyd building in the late 1800's. The gentleman at right in white hat and with cane is Otto Salomon. If you look carefully at the photo below, you will find me at the door of the same building, standing on the same steps in May 2006.

My apologies, please, to anyone who may have been wondering where I've been for over a week or so. I've been attempting to catch up on my inventory of small boxes to fill orders to galleries before the holidays. The life of a craftsman has its seasons.

There were several reasons that I planned to make my trip to Nääs, Sweden. One was to see some of the original sloyd models preserved at the Sloyd Seminarium. The second was to further my growing friendship with Hans Thorbjörnsson, who has offered a wealth of information and encouragement in my investigation of Sloyd. The third was to see copies of an obscure educational journal published in England from about 1890-1902. "Hand & Eye" was a small periodical whose contributors were either practitioners of eductional sloyd, or involved in promoting the educational theories of Friedrich Froebel. Copies of Hand & Eye are nearly impossible to find outside the Brittish Library archives, but are included in the original library of Otto Salomon and preserved in a room at Nääs.

My actual visit to Nääs brought much more to my awareness than I could have imagined, and it will take some time to reflect on the experience.

I don't have time at the moment to relate all the many details of my visit. I did meet my objectives. I spent hours among the workbenches in the original sloyd work rooms. I took many pictures of the models and original teaching materials. I took a photo of an original marking gauge which was made by and used by Alfred Johannson, one of the primary and best known teachers of the Sloyd School in 1890.

I spent time in the library, reading copies of Hand & Eye, and as the photo above shows. I spent time in the company of Hans Thorbjörnsson and Etsuo Yokoyama, a sloyd friend and scholar visiting from Japan. The photo above was taken in the field where Otto Salomon would lecture to his students each day. He spoke Swedish, German, French and English and lectured in each language on alternate days.

The photo below was taken at the gravesite of August Abrahamson and Otto Salomon. August Abrahamson, the wealthy Swedish businessman (and Salomon's uncle) who paid nearly all the expenses for students from around the world to study at Nääs, had picked up a stone at the grave of Pestalozzi, which he kept on his desk throughout his life. At the foot of the grave is engraved in Swedish, the saying that Abrahamson had carried from Pestalozzi's grave. "Good can be done even from the grave." He left a foundation to preserve Nääs into the future. Perhaps greater good will come when people begin to understand the significance of engaging the hands in education, and when August Abrahamson's and Otto Salomon's gifts to education become more widely understood.