Sunday, July 31, 2011

the price we pay

Many of my readers, even those from around the world, have no doubt been watching Democracy in America as our "leaders" in Washington, DC wrangle over raising the limits on the national debt. It is a three ring circus of self-centered, selfishly destructive egotism with little regard for the consequences facing the American people who were made stupid enough in their educations to trust them in power. The following is from Dr. Georg Kerschensteiner, 1900, and translated by Howard G. Bennett:
The ultimate goal of all public schools supported by public funds is the education of the pupil so that he may become a useful citizen. A useful citizen is one who through his work directly or indirectly contributes to the fulfillment of the aims of the state as a society of law and culture. The first task of the school is therefore to further as much as possible the pupil's capacity for work and therewith his joy in work. The second task is to accustom the pupil early to place this joy in work and fitness for work in the service of his fellow pupils and fellow beings. The third task is to unite the readiness of service, thoughtfulness, and moral devotion thus gained with the understanding of the ends of the community, in so far as such understanding can be engendered in the pupil, according to his talent and his maturity. Our schools of today are not entirely conscious of this threefold task. Where they are well organized, they seek at most to accomplish the first task--education for personal fitness. But they are not schools for social service.
You will find nothing in Kerschensteiner's view regarding standards for reading or math, but he describes education to foster dignity and education as preparation for democratic process and respectful citizenship. Kerschensteiner was the founder of manual training schools in Munich, Germany. In one of his books, he quoted Goethe as saying, "the only way to true culture lay through practical work, or rather, through vocational training," and also, "Handwork, such as can only be learned in its own narrow field, must precede all life, all action, all art. To know one thing well and to practice it, gives more culture than a half-knowledge of a hundred things."

Obviously the congress in the US is enjoying pushing things down to the wire as this allows them to avoid spending time on other serious concerns and allows them to be the center of attention in a national debate. Where was manual training when we needed it most?

One of Kerschensteiner's contributions was the creation of "continuation-schools" in which skilled artisans volunteered their expertise to further education of others in their trades. He started with just five trades in 1900 and by 1909 there were 54 continuation schools in 54 distinct trades. Imagine a society in which each and every skilled job holder felt compelled to give something back to his society and in which each student would see his or her own role as a lifelong learner responsible to offer lifelong learning opportunities to others in their community.

It could be reasonably stated that the current failings in political discourse are the price we pay for our failure to maintain manual arts for all children in schools, for in the manual arts the foundation of Democracy could be discovered, along with an appreciation for teamwork, an understanding of compromise, skills in creative problem solving, and a sense of the dignity of all labor.

I have been sanding boxes and small inlaid items to fill orders. Today I sign the work and begin applying a Danish oil finish.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Learning from the real world

There are moments when art attains almost to the dignity of manual labor. ~ Oscar Wilde

I want to thank my box making students for a great week.

In Pestalozzi's school, in the early 1800s, a teacher showed his students a picture of a ladder as he was trying to get his students to learn the word. A student asked if wouldn't it be better to go out to the shed where there was a real ladder to examine. The teacher, impatient to proceed through the lesson, was bothered by the interruption. Later, when the teacher tried to teach the word window, the student insisted they should study the real window which could be examined without even leaving the room. Exasperated, the teacher asked Pestalozzi about the child's remarks. Pestalozzi said that the child was right. Whenever possible, lessons should be drawn from reality and the real world experiences offered rather than from pretense and artifice.

This week I told my students about my dog Tappy and her inexplicable powers of extrasensory discernment. As demonstrated by Tappy, the range of available data to be drawn from our actual physical surroundings is profound. These days we watch children and adults glued to their hand-held digital devices, walking through physical reality, missing most of what that reality offers in real world knowledge as they fail to attune their bodies, minds and emotions to the insights available to them.

An article in the Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid describes a narrowing of our range of perception as we become more attentive to what is offered on the internet and less attentive to so many other things. As we walk along, transfixed by our devices, we fail to learn from our surroundings and begin to resemble the zombies that our current media-crazed generation of youth loves so very much.

I have had woodworkers complain to me that I should be sticking to the subject of woodworking in the blog. All this talk about education bores them. And yet, those of us who actually engage in making real things, those of us who attempt to make things of useful beauty, also know the power of our making to transform. While educators are concerned with test scores and other disruptive statistical nonsense, we know that schools can be fundamentally reawakened by looking beyond the statistics to those activities that bring the power of learning to our own real hands. Whether we like it, or know it, or accept it or not, we are called to duty by experience as the front line in a revolution.
"Many, perhaps most, people never get an
opportunity to do dovetailing, but every
human being, man or woman, may acquire
from it the habit of doing well whatever
he/she is called upon to do."—Otto Salomon
Make, fix and create...

Friday, July 29, 2011

active side

Dewey's fourfold interests of the child fall into two ranges with the four interests being on either the idle or active side. Of course inquiry can be either idle or active. Conversation can actually lead to results, and yet in most school activities inquiry and conversation are controlled to go nowhere, as schools have become negligent of making and artistic expression, thus failing to powerfully engage student interest.

In 1903, the principle of the Rindge Manual Training High School in Cambridge, MA noted that that those entering the school had dramatically increased, and the quality had steadily improved. He said,
"There used to be an idea that manual training was for the stupid boys; this was now completely dead and the most vigorous and enterprising boys chose the Manual Training School with the result that in the English High School the girls outnumbered the boys by three to one."
The really stupid thing is that we fail to realize that all children (boys and girls) prefer to learn through their active side... That their interests in conversation and inquiry are best grounded in making and artistic expression, and yet we turn their conversations and inquiries to naught, make the "idle" when they could lead to so much more.

Today was my final day of Creative Box Making at ESSA. My students returned home carrying boxes and skills they have made and earned. As you can see in the photos above, some fine boxes were made and skills were acquired.

Make, fix and please create...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

fourfold interests...

In the theory of Educational Sloyd Otto Saloman had stated that education should start with the interests of the child, and John Dewey had described these interests as "fourfold":
interest in conversation or communication.
interest in inquiry or finding out things.
interest in making things or construction.
interest in artistic expression.
These are what Dewey described as "the natural resources, the uninvested capital, upon exercise of which depends the active growth of the child."

If you were had visited our ESSA box making class in my Clear Spring School woodworking laboratory today you would have seen that the same fourfold interests are what drive adults as well, as we share conversation, make inquiries, while making boxes that express artistic inclinations. What you would have found on your visit is a model for the ideal school if we only had sufficient wisdom to make necessary change.
Today in the CSS woodworking laboratory, students continued making boxes. I began a demonstration making inlay and made a box which I can use to demonstrate installing hinges. While my students explored new designs from their own imaginations, others began practice in hand-cut dovetails.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

box making at ESSA--third day

This is our third day of box making class with the Eureka Springs School of the Arts, held in my Clear Spring School woodworking laboratory. I am learning to call it a laboratory rather than simply a wood shop in recognition that much of what students learn can be directly applied to math, science and design. So, in the third day, we are showing results, and still having fun. Students are almost finished with their first boxes and as shown below are beginning to make boxes with finger joints cut on the table saw. My students are all amazed at how well the joints fit.
So far, the strategy of recognizing the value of forgiveness in the wood shop has been paying dividends. We are making mistakes, welcoming them as design opportunities and learning from them, no dark cloud in sight. And so, the class is living up to its name, Creative Box Making. Hanging out with people having so much fun and are so enthusiastic about learning is a special privilege. And I like my new proposed definition of forgiveness... "the ability to act creatively under difficult circumstances." We've had plan A, plan B and sometimes plan C in effect, and the boxes just become more interesting as a result.
There is one particular problem that I see in math education that understanding wood shop as laboratory can help to answer. It is the matter of assumed relevance, versus established or proven relevance. Educators assume math is relevant, students assume it is not, and there's the rub.(a phrase from Shakespeare's Hamlet*) Students will learn that which enables them to do what they want to do. But assuming math is irrelevant blocks the doors to their success. Bringing in engineers, carpenters, mechanics, or better yet, sending the students out in the field to meet all those who use math makes sense as a means of establishing relevance. And where relevance is established, students pay attention and learn. It is like Pestalozzi's student asking, Can we go out and look at the real ladder instead of just looking at pictures in a book?

On another subject, I found an article about small business in America that was illustrated with a photo some of my readers will relate to. Small business in America is often defined as having under 500 employees and somewhere under some millions of dollars, but it is more often like what you see in the photo above, someone working in a wood shop. This misunderstanding is one of the reasons that folks in Washington, DC are so out of touch. And we've learned the sad lesson that when politicians are busy talking about helping small business, they most certainly don't mean us.

Make, Fix and Create...

*from Hamlet's Soliloquy:
To die — to sleep.
To sleep — perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

mechanical perfection vs. craftsmanship

Again, it is the old John Henry, but the matter is not only which, man or machine can drive the spikes at the fastest rate, but which can hit true every hammer strike. And of course we, as human craftsmen just can't keep up the pace, but we can strike true. And so briefly, we had a conversation in class yesterday about striving for mechanical perfection. Lila, a professional jeweler strives to make everything she makes as perfectly as if it were made by a machine. It is a tremendous aspiration.

Working with wood gives another angle. Japanese craftsmen, as well as the Amish in our own country, have a belief that our task is not to attain absolute perfection but to simply strive for it, as it is unattainable. The Amish quilter would leave one stitch undone, in reflection on divine perfection. As I say, woodworking is almost another thing entirely. Unlike jewelry, where when the components are placed, they stay that way, woodworking is an invitation to the simple matter of human forgiveness. Wood, as a material continues to be alive, and to move, and the woodworker in his work must not only make the object, but also anticipate where it will go in the course of its life, and the changes in circumstance and moisture conditions it will face. And so as in all things, the craftsman in wood strives not only for quality work, but also for the quality of forgiveness... of materials, circumstances, and self.

Comenius said that the craftsman shapes himself and his materials at the same time. Otto Salomon said that while the value of the carpenter's work is in the object he creates, the value of the student's work is in the student, and so while we are busy making boxes this week, we are really intent on even finer things. And some of that, as we work together in a small space and with limited tools is the most divine of human principles. Forgiveness-- the ability to act creatively under difficult circumstances.

I have been largely negligent in my role as photographer for my ESSA box making class. But in this photo Charles is cutting grooves in box sides for the top and bottom to fit.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, July 25, 2011

What about knots?

In my class today, as we discussed aesthetics, we talked about how one woodworker might be drawn to knots and another avoid them at all costs. This is not to say that one side or another is right in his or her approach, but it makes me wonder how you feel. Like em, or avoid them, you get to choose in the poll at right.

tools and intellect

The following is from Charles H. Ham, 1880, though it is something you might have easily observed for yourself.
Nothing stimulates and quickens the intellect more than the use of mechanical tools. The boy who begins to construct things is compelled at once to begin to think, deliberate, reason, and conclude. As he proceeds he is brought in contact with powerful natural forces. If he would control, direct, and apply these forces he must first master the laws by which they are governed; he must investigate the causes of the phenomena of matter, and it will be strange if from this he is not also led to a study of the phenomena of mind. At the very threshold of practical mechanics a thirst for wisdom is engendered, and the student is irresistibly impelled to investigate the mysteries of philosophy. Thus the training of the eye and hand reacts upon the brain, stimulating it to excursions into the realm of scientific discovery in search of facts to be applied in practical forms at the bench and the anvil.
Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, (woodworking laboratory) I have a class of Creative Box Making with the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. We will explore techniques in the use of tools that will lead to our individual creative expression. The photo above is from my 2009 class. Photos of this year's class will come later.

Make, fix and create.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

outdoor kindergarten

This short documentary is about Kindergarten and pre-school in Norway. Outdoor Preschool - Norway. It is quite informative and reminds me of the outdoor hikes I've taken with the first, second and third grade students at CSS and also of our wonderful forest playground that surrounds our school buildings. Many parents, educators and environmentalists have had a growing concern that we are failing our children and failing our collective future by neglecting to teach children an appreciation of nature and the outdoors. In addition, we have been teaching them to avoid risk and creative problem solving when children really need to understand risk and to stand responsibly on their own feet. Outdoor kindergarten is an interesting option. At Clear Spring School, we do not have an outdoor kindergarten program, but all children grades pre-school through 12th grades have supervised outdoor play-time each day. We also have our have our first through 6th grade camping program, and outdoor studies of geology, botany and biology in high school.

Because they are fun to watch here's another:

And another:

The ideal school, 2

This is from Charles H. Ham, Mind and Hand, 1880:
The Ideal School is an institution which develops and trains to usefulness the moral, physical, and intellectual powers of man. It is what Comenius called Humanity's workshop, and in America it is becoming the natural center of the Public School system. The building, well-designed for its occupancy, is large, airy, open to the light on every side, amply provided with all appliances, requisite for instruction in the arts and sciences, and finished interiorly and exteriorly in the highest style of use and beautiful architectural effects. The distinguishing characteristic of the Ideal School Building is its chimney, which rises far above the roof, from whose tall stack, a column of smoke issues, and the hum and whir of machinery is heard, and the heavy thud of the sledge hammer resounding on the anvil, smites the ear.

It is then, a factory rather than a school?

No. It is a school; the school of the future; the school that is to dignify labor; the school that is to generate power; the school where every sound contributes to the harmony of development, where the brain informs the muscle, where thought directs every blow, where the mind, the eye, and the hand constitute an invincible triple alliance. This is the school that Locke dreamed of , that Bacon wished for, that Rousseau described, and that Comenius, Pestalozzi, and Froebel struggled in vain to establish.

It is then, science and the arts in apotheosis. For it be, as claimed, the Ideal School, it is destined to lift the veil from the face of Nature, to reveal her most precious secrets, and to divert to man's use all her treasures.

Yes; it is to other schools what the diamond is to other precious stones--the last analysis of educational thought. It is the philosopher's stone in education; the incarnated dream of the alchemist, which dissolved earth, air, and water into their original elements, and recombined them to compass man's immortality.
The illustration above is from Ham's book, showing the Carpenter's "Laboratory." Laboratory c.1600, "building set apart for scientific experiments," from M.L. laboratorium "a place for labor or work," from L. laboratus, pp. of laborare "to work" and the like. And so you can see that in the ideal school, work, and the exploration of physical reality are united.

Tomorrow my ESSA class on Creative Box Making starts in the Clear Spring School Woodworking "Laboratory," meaning a place where you engage the real world through hands on learning. My class is full at 8 craftsmen, and I will be posting photos in the coming week of what I hope will be learning at its very best.

Make, fix and create

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Builder's Craft

The Sept/Oct 2009 issue of Preservation Magazine featured an article about the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, SC, and a copy was given me by a friend who owns a number of important historic properties. One of the things that is happening is that we are losing hand skills at an alarming rate, and that our ability to sustain the historic treasures from our past is in decline.

Besides telling about the school, founded in 1999, the article presents some interesting observations related to the Wisdom of the Hands, like the following from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Whitehill Report, 1968:
"Technology has displaced the traditional building craftsmen. Not only has prefabricated and disposable construction destroyed the general need for such craftsmen, but artificial materials have replaced many of the natural materials used in earlier buildings whose properties are part of the craftsmen's lore."
The whole of the Witehill Report can be found here, and the portion of the Whitehill Report specific to the building trades can be found here.

Even the great Universities are having difficulty finding skilled craftsmen to retain their buildings crafted in the 1800's. What a profoundly informative irony is that!

Make, fix and create.

Friday, July 22, 2011

a new vision of education

If you wait around long enough and keep your mind open to the past you can see new things on the horizon like Charles H. Ham's 1880's vision of the ideal school:
“In laying the foundation of education in labor it is dignified and education is ennobled. In such a union there is honor and strength, and long life to our institutions. For the permanence of the civil compact in this country, as in other countries, depends less upon a wide diffusion of unassimilated and undigested intelligence than upon such a thorough, practical education of the masses in the arts and science as shall enable them to secure and qualify them to store up, a fair share of the aggregate produce of labor.

“If this school shall appear like a hive of industry, let the reader not be deceived. Its main purpose, intellectual development, is never lost sight of for a moment. It is founded on labor, which, being the most sacred of human functions, is the most useful of educational methods. It is a system of object-teaching—teaching through things instead of signs of things. It is the embodiment of Bacon’s aphorism—“Education is the cultivation of a just and legitimate familiarity betwixt the mind and things.” The students draw pictures of things, and then fashion them into things at the forge, the bench, and the turning-lathe; not mainly that they may enter machine-shops, and with greater facility make similar things, but that they may become stronger intellectually and morally; that they may attain a wider range of mental vision, a more varied expression and be better able to solve the problems of life when they shall enter upon the stage of practical activity.”
 Today, I continue making small boxes. I am ready to hinge and assemble. I will also be preparing materials for my upcoming ESSA class on Creative Box Making.

My copy of Make Magazine containing my article on spoon carving knives arrived in today's mail. Look for it in your local news stand or book store. It is full of interesting and inventive things you can make and making something with your hands will make your life far more interesting than it would be if sitting on your useless paws as you watch television.

Make, fix and create.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

make magazine

Blog readers might want to look for Make Magazine. It's not all woodworking like the magazines I usually write for, but it gets people making and gets their hands busy learning as they must be if we are to survive and prosper as a nation. My article about making spoon carving knives is in issue #27 which is coming out this month. Blog readers can find the article on-line through this guest link.

Richard Bazeley sent a note describing a student's response to completing a set of dovetailed joints...
“Dovetails from Heaven” exclaimed a student who had been working intently on a small drawer for some time and had just experienced the pleasure of the tails and pins fitting snugly together. He was proudly showing the freshly cut dovetails to the other members of the class.
Richard says the student had been diagnosed with ADHD and that, "Creative energy is such a positive force. Moments like this which make it feel worthwhile and I believe you will understand."
“Many, perhaps most, people never get an opportunity to do dovetailing, but every human being, man or woman, may acquire from it the habit of doing well whatever he/she is called upon to do.”—Otto Salomon
On another subject, here is an article suggesting negative effects of MBA degrees on American business. One would think that with the number of MBA graduates in the US, we would be a manufacturing leader and be able to balance our nation's budget. Instead, business is in arrears, profits and productivity are in a slump. Is the current debt ceiling debacle in the US government an example of what MBAs have done? Upper Mismanagement Why can't Americans make things? Two words: business school.
After World War II, large corporations went on acquisition binges and turned themselves into massive conglomerates. In their landmark Harvard Business Review article from 1980, “Managing Our Way to Economic Decline,” Robert Hayes and William Abernathy pointed out that the conglomerate structure forced managers to think of their firms as a collection of financial assets, where the goal was to allocate capital efficiently, rather than as makers of specific products, where the goal was to maximize quality and long-term* market share.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

gesture the long neglected sister of language

This article describes the relationship between gesture and language and illustrates its use in increasing learning effectiveness. Do You See What I'm Saying? The Role of Gestures in Learning July 2000 by Sara Latta

The point is that even without going so far as to start woodworking programs again in schools, we can begin testing the strategic implementation of the hands in simple ways. When teachers use gesture, when students use gesture in response, learning effectiveness grows. When the role of the hands proves itself, the rationale for so many other things becomes clear. Wood shop, the arts, physical education, laboratory science, outdoor studies, and music are each important means through which to purposefully engage the hands and hearts of learners. And what is there in that not to like, unless you've spent your whole life counting beans and have lost track of the essential qualities of human culture.

Today in the wood shop, I'm installing inlay in business card holders and boxes. This afternoon, I'm making enchiladas for a potluck ESSA board meeting.

An interesting thing I discovered on my visit to Vikingsholm at Lake Tahoe last week was that Native Americans and Scandinavians shared some design motifs. On the beam, you can see a basketry motif painted on hand hewn beams in the main living room. You will find the same design used as an inlay on my boxes. It is a small world and after all, I AM half Norwegian. But for many years I thought I was using an American Indian motif, not one so universal in origins. You will have to study the beam closely above the dragon to see it. The pattern in the photo is applied, whereas the pattern I use in my boxes is composed of small pieces of American hardwood.

Make, fix and create.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

driven off the road

An essay from Time Magazine by Dana Foroohar, Driven off the Road by M.B.A.s, describes how the rise of MBAs paralleled the decline of American manufacturing. Another article on CNN describes how social networking has created the laziest of generations. What do you think? Through our neglect of hands-on learning, hands-on making, have we have set a path toward relentless decline?

Blog reader John Grossbohlin had described how IBM's former CEO Tom Watson, Jr. had gathered his tool and die makers in a meeting and informed them that THEY were the future of IBM. My, how times have changed. Some American companies have not done so well with the MBAs in charge.

Today in the wood shop, I continue making boxes, and will begin inlaying lids. I will also begin preparing for next week's box making class with the Eureka Springs School of the Arts.

Make, fix and create.

Monday, July 18, 2011

on books

The following is from Emerson, Society and Solitude:
THAT book is good Which puts me in a working mood. Unless to Thought be added Will Apollo is an imbecile.

It is easy to accuse books, and bad ones are easily found; and the best are but records, and not the things recorded; and certainly there is dilettanteism enough, and books that are merely neutral and do nothing for us. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates says: "The ship-master walks in a modest garb near the sea, after bringing his passengers from Ægina or from Pontus; not thinking he has done anything extraordinary, and certainly knowing that his passengers are the same and in no respect better than when he took them on board." So is it with books, for the most part: they work no redemption in us. The bookseller might certainly know that his customers are in no respect better for the purchase and consumption of his wares.
And so, there have been explosions in the volume of our reading material, but how many of these explosions over naught bring changes to our lives or even to our thoughts? Emerson's observations apply in double measure to what we read on the internet. My hopes are that this blog sets you to action, or leads you in your observations toward deeper thought to guide your hands in crafting more meaningful lives. But all this truly resides in your own hands. I hope to put you in a working mood. I can merely tell you to "go for it." There are rewards, but you must harvest them yourself. Today, I am making small boxes to fill an order at Appalachian Spring Galleries in Washington, DC.

Make, Fix and Create...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

getting a grip...

I am back home in Arkansas following my family reunion in Lake Tahoe. It was a pleasant break from the hot time of the year in Arkansas. And so now it is time to get back in the shop and to prepare for the following week's class with the Eureka Springs School of the Arts... subject, creative box making, July 25-29.

Some of my students will be beginners and some have informed me that they've already read some of my box making books. I always have fun in the ESSA classes. The class is full with eight students, so it is a smaller class than I teach in some of the larger schools, and each student will receive some personal attention in their box making.

David McNeill, director of the McNeill Laboratory for Gesture Research at the University of Chicago, sent this from an upcoming book, "How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution,"
"The hands are special because of their agility and instantiation in all spatial and temporal dimensions, but the feature that made them indispensible for the origin of language lies in the brain; the proximity, in the layout of the motor cortex, of the manual and oral centers, and the role of Broca’s area and mirror neurons in organizing actions of both centers."
As you know, when one of our senses is impaired, the hands step forward to take up the slack. Just think of Helen Keller and how the hands in her case were able to serve as both eyes and ears providing her with a meaningful life. Our flights to and from Reno had many blind travelers, with white canes and seeing eye dogs. The woman next to me on the flight to Reno was blind. It is a marvel that the hands can serve so well in the loss of other senses and yet be so completely ignored in American schools. The blind travelers were there to attend a conference for the blind, and there were assistants available to guide them through the confusion of the Reno airport terminal where the corridors between gates are lined with slot machines which loudly proclaim "WHEEL OF FORTUNE!"

In a sense, we've become blind in American education through neglect of the hands. Finnish brain researcher Matti Bergström has called the syndrome "finger blindness," a topic I've covered in previous posts. As administrators and politicians scan spread sheets, looking for the rise or fall of standards and statistics, real things have gotten out of hand. Can the situation be fixed? I suggest the strategic, purposeful engagement of the hands. It works. Try it in your own life. The photo above is of one of George Wurtzel's blind woodworking students. George hasn't actually seen her work, as he, too is blind. She had been told all her life that she could never do anything of this kind, but you can too.

Make, fix and create.

Friday, July 15, 2011

last day at Lake Tahoe

I am ready to go home to Arkansas in the morning, and it will be good to get back to work in my own wood shop. This morning my wife and I went to Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay, a small Scandinavian styled castle built on a fiord-like setting. It was all hand crafted in the late 1920's and is preserved with some of its owner's hand crafted furniture still in place. If you are in the Lake Tahoe area, if you love wood, admire craftsmanship, or the beauty of such idyllic settings, Vikingsholm is worth the walk down a very long path from the top. As an added reward, you will find the base of Eagle Falls.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Calocedrus decurrens

 I have been puzzled a few days by the identity of a tree living on the shores of Lake Tahoe that is new to me. I've finally determined its species as Calocedrus decurrens, or California incense cedar. It is a tall, straight tree with deeply furrowed bark. Now I can turn my attention to others and attempt to learn them as well. An example of the Incense Cedar  stands in the midst of forest companions in the image above and the deeply furrowed bark is shown in the photo below.

Woodworkers will know this wood as a traditional source for the wood for making wooden pencils, though to take a tree of this size and make pencils seems absurd.

Make, fix and create.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Lake Tahoe

My wife and I are at the biennial Stowe family reunion, which is being held this year at Lake Tahoe. The setting is beautiful, and our lives are marked and enriched by this every other year event. Conversations with my cousins whom I've known for my whole life, are always intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging. One of the things that came up in a conversation last night is the way our tools are accumulations of human knowledge, relieving a human being of the need for development of particular skills. A simple example is the calculator. When was the last time you added a long collumn of numbers and do you still remember how? The downside of having such smart tools  is that tools become so specific in their capabilities as to narrow our our range of perceived solutions to problems that arise. As Maslow stated, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. What if our only tools are laptops and as powerful as they may be, do they narrow the range of human capacity? Without a doubt, we are experiencing  an explosion of human creativity with new devices making things easier each day, but narrowing our range of potential actions as we ourselves begin to have less and less actual skills invested in our hands and bodies. Is that a good thing?

This morning my wife and I rented a sit-upon plastic kayak, and arranged to take some of our youngest relations on their first trips onto the lake. Being on the water, whether on a plastic boat, or on something larger is a gift. This afternoon the wind should blow the lake into white caps, so it was good to get the paddling done early.

Make, fix and create

Friday, July 08, 2011

our hands, left and right...

Our hands, left and right, perform an amazing array of no less than ten thousand discrete actions each day while requiring and receiving little attention unless a nail is torn or a slight splinter or cut is inadvertently acquired. And yet, the whole of human life, culture, intelligence, and shared understanding is the work of human hands. For those of us who are still making things or growing things, or playing music it can be said that the use of the hands brings satisfaction and even joy.

It can be safely said that the hands touch every facet of human existence, even to the point of giving shape to those things far beyond our own intellectual grasp. And yet we ignore the role of the hands in the design of our lives. We seek ease in which hand skills need be neither demonstrated nor acquired. We choose to avoid the labors through which the greatest physical, emotional and mental satisfactions are derived.

It's not easy to fix things. But it's possible to re-think our own lives with our hands in mind! We can re-engineer our expectations to include activities through which we can become more consciously engaged. Embark on an adventure. This year as a small adventure my wife and I added a container garden to our back deck. It's a small step. Won't seem like much. Exaggerating, we call it the "back 40." Even something as simple tomatoes growing in a pot can bring new energy to our lives. The deer wandered onto the deck and ate things we never dreamed they would eat, and so with new hopes I've planted anew. When you do things that command the attention of your hands, wonderful worlds are brought forth to open your eyes and heart, and the your passions for learning and life are awakened. Have you ever eaten something you grew yourself? Can a store-bought tomato taste so sweet?

Make, fix and create.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

last grasp for cursive in schools...

Schools could be described as grasping for air, or gasping for straws? Either mixed metaphor will do. Keyboard skills have become essential in American life, and we are losing the skill of writing beautiful letters and notes. In the continuing decline of American culture, local Indiana Schools will be allowed by the state school board to end the teaching of cursive. This article, Typing Beats Scribbling: Indiana Schools Can Stop Teaching Cursive equates writing cursive with over the hill skills like hitching a wagon and churning butter, but also wonders how children will learn to sign their own names. Many people have already developed illegible scribbles as their common signatures, so that may not be a problem.

At one time, people took care with their hand writing as an artistic expression of self. Beautiful, expressive handwriting is a thing I think we've already started to miss. The photo above shows cursive writing at the Clear Spring School and the photo below is carving the pen that is used in their lessons. Ozric, asked me, "Where can I get some of this ink? I want to practice my cursive at home!"

My first post on is available for viewing here.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

A sea change

position one, thinking about it
 A "sea change" refers to a radical, and apparently mystical, change.
It comes from from Shakespeare's The Tempest, 1610:

ARIEL [sings]:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

And so what is called for is a "sea change" in education that starts with our own lives as we investigate the relationship between hand and mind. While we have neglected the role the hands play in our own lives, the richness they offer to human culture is profound. While we can do ten thousand things each day never giving notice to our hands unless a nail is torn, the interrelationship between the hand and brain is also profound. The texture of human life is discerned and created through these seemingly simple instruments.

position two, on the other hand
The profound "sea change" comes as we re-frame our own understanding to a more a hands inclusive view.

There are things we learn about the hand and mind by observing how the hands gesture when we are engaged in thought. Position one shown above reflects the hand position when you are thinking about known things, delineating a starting point in your own observations. Position 2 is what could be called, "on the other hand." You will note that the position of the thumb is not decisive as in "thumbs up, or thumbs down" and the hand is not clenched but held open minded as though "grasping". The two gestures are made in quick relation to each other as one mentally explores the choice between two alternatives. Do a quick test. Position your hand as shown above and then rotate it to position two. Observe. Does this simple gesture bring observable shifts within your mind? Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago Goldin-Meadow Lab for Gesture Studies believes that these simple human gestures are what we use to frame, direct and evaluate our thoughts. If so, how can we be as smart as we need to be if our hands are stilled as they are in too much of modern schooling. According to a recent study, the hands are integral to the process of thought. Gesturing while talking helps change your thoughts, study finds According to the study,
"Sometimes it’s almost impossible to talk without using your hands. These gestures seem to provide a visual clue to our thoughts, and a new theory suggests they may even change our thoughts by grounding them in action."
Make, fix and create.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

sometimes a great notion...

John Grossbohlin and his son Jesse are leaving on a bike adventure they describe here. Twenty five years ago, John had taken a bike adventure riding solo from Florida to New York, and in keeping with that tradition, he and Jesse are taking this one together. You can follow along on their website, though when they'll have time to update in the midst of all that pedaling, I don't know. A much younger John is shown with map in the photo at left. Click on the photo to make it a larger size. Good luck to John and Jesse. Experiential learning is a wonderful gift for father and son to share with each other.

This is one of those days when I've been out of the wood shop, writing and working on designing a new website for my business. The old one was created in 1997, so is very far out of date.

Working with real wood is a lot more fun than drupal, joomla or wordpress.

Make, fix and create.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

listening to a teachable moment

I met the lovely new bride of a dear friend last night. Caitlin works as a teacher in Dallas, and recalling her last days of college, she and her classmates had been asked to recall their best and most memorable learning experience. Would it be any surprise to my regular readers that all of those experiences could best be described as "hands-on?" I'm not sure if the point was observed by anyone but Caitlin, but that was a teachable moment about learning.

The strategic implementation of the hands, its usefulness in devising more effective learning experiences, is a very simple, but revolutionary concept. We all learn best and to most lasting effect when we learn from experience, and the most certain way to guarantee experiential learning is to purposefully provide for the engagement of the hands. Even simple things like doodling, or objects like silly putty (suggested by Caitlin), can turn a conventional teaching experience into a learning one... a creative moment.

Knowing the value of the hands in learning, creates a clear role for the arts including music and for laboratory science and PE! Instead of discounting and marginalizing the arts, they should be promoted to the position of greatest importance within schools. That would eliminate the problem we currently face with students dropping out from high school and college.

We know that this strategy is inexplicable to some. There are a few knuckleheads in high places who may be hard to convince.  The situation we face may call for a sneak attack. Call it the surreptitious strategic implementation of the hands. In some cases it may be best that one hand not know what the other is up to, but it can make children smarter anyway, and contribute to growth of character at the same time. As Caitlin can tell you,  this strategy is not only for those not going to college!

Make, fix and create.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

a gym that raises test scores...

Amidst the firing of teachers and the refusal to tax millionaires and corporations to finance education, a bit of hands-on common sense shows up on occasion. A school nurse in Colorado converted unused classrooms into learning gyms, in which physical activities are connected with reading, geography and math. What should be rocking the core of the educational establishment is that the addition of the gyms dramatically increased test scores. According to the article, A gym that raises test scores,
"taking time away, or rather time out, from being in a classroom led to students’ state standardized test scores increasing, from 55 percent to 68.5 percent."
Researchers state:
“These data indicate that when carefully designed physical education programs are put into place, children’s academic achievement does not suffer.”

“There is growing substantial evidence that this kind of physical activity may help improve academic behavior, cognitive skills and attitudes.”
In a nation of nincompoops and during budgetary crises, physical education, the arts and libraries are the first to be cut. Parents and teachers as a last line of defense should know that those cuts are the clear path to stupidity.

Let's aim instead for the following:Mens sana in corpore sano, “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”

Make, fix and create.

Friday, July 01, 2011

killing the beast

For years, conservative politicians have used the metaphor, "starving the beast" to address what they have seen as the wrongful intrusion by government forming a safety net for American society. Social security, medicare, food stamps, and all those programs that were designed to lift the general level of human decency and express compassion through government action were seen as wrongful elements which must be starved and killed.

They have had two effective strategies that have brought us to a point of fiscal crisis (starving the beast), and some take pride in what they've done. The first was to lower taxes. If tax revenues are reduced, there is less money to spend on programs for the poor. The second strategy involves the opportunity costs of waging war. If you've spent all your resources on armament and warfare (which are seen by conservatives as the only legitimate government expenses), there will be little left for social programs like care for the elderly and healthcare for the poor that conservatives find offensive in the first place. This helps to explain why conservatives were happy to run up huge deficits to wage unnecessary war in Iraq, as those expenses pushed us toward the point at which budgetary crisis would force us curtail spending on the social programs they so strongly oppose. In other words, they would rather spend our children's future on war than secure our collective futures through health care and education.

If you review the 8 years of the George W. Bush presidency besides the destructive No Child Left Behind legislation, you see these two deliberate strategies in effect. First cut taxes, and then go to unnecessary war as a means through which to starve your own government to its knees. Get it? If the government shuts down as some hope, and as state government did this morning in Minnesota, you'd better be prepared to

make, fix and create.

In the photos above, you can see my finished white oak display cabinet, and Les Brandt demonstrating turning a hollow form in the ESSA summer workshops.

The relationship between hand, language and mind

Richard Bazeley, wood shop teacher in Australia, has been working with his school’s literacy program which is part an effort to "raise the literacy standards of the students so that they can cope better with schooling and improve their performance in the Federal literacy tests." He notes,
"We took the students into the school’s library for their reading session and I was surprised to see some of the students walking around as though they were lost. The librarian said that this is because many of them do not go to the library during normal class time as most of the research work they do for classes is done on computers in class rooms. For some of the students being in a library and reading a book is something they are not accustomed to doing."
Richard was also amazed at how some of the students in their 8th year of schooling still struggled to read the simplest of words.
"If a student is struggling with simple words how can they cope with the waves of text they receive on a daily basis in their regular classrooms? It is good to get out of the workshop and spend some time with these students doing other work, seeing what they have to deal with and what other learning skills they bring or don’t bring to the workshop."
I am interested in the relationship between the concrete and the abstract. It has been demonstrated that children who are encouraged to count on fingers at an early age, outgrow the need to count numbers on fingers earlier in their development, while those who do not count on fingers, or are discouraged from doing so, may never internalize counting skills. Just as with fingers and internalized counting skills, early educators observed that learning naturally moved from the concrete to the abstract. Charles H. Ham discussed the relationship between hand, mind and language skills in his book, Mind and Hand, as follows:
"It may be claimed that the power of speech depends almost entirely upon the endless succession of fresh objects presented to the mind by the hand. These form the subject as well as the occasion of speech. If the hand should cease to make new things, new words would cease to be required. The principle changes in language arise out of new discoveries in science and new inventions in art, each fresh discovery of science giving rise to many new things in art. Art and science react upon each other."

"If the hands should cease to labor in the arts, should cease to make things, should cease to plant and gather, the scope of speech would be still further restricted, would be confined to an expression of the wants of savages subsisting on the native fruits of field and forest. It comes to this, that progress can find expression only in the concrete."
This point should be made: that if we want children to read and gain in literacy, regardless of whether we want that reading to be in books, or through the internet, we need to give them cause to read. Making beautiful and useful objects should begin at a very early age if we want to give kids the physical and intellectual tools that they will need to master in order to find success.

Make, fix and create.