Wednesday, April 25, 2018


We know that the most natural inclination for children is to learn through active engagement in all that surrounds them. They see what interests them and the next impulse is to touch, and explore. And yet, when it comes to American classrooms too many students are required to put all at arms length. Classrooms have become sterile and disengaging as though the child's senses do not matter, and we thus fail to utilize our children's most natural inclinations. No wonder American education is more expensive and less effective than in many other nations.

Kindergarten was truly a revolution in early childhood education, with classrooms designed to inspire, and objects designed to systematically incite curiosity and touch. Inspired by Froebel's Kindergarten, Educational Sloyd was devised by Uno Cygnaeus in Finland, and promoted throughout the world by Otto Salomon to extend that revolution of sensory engagement in learning throughout the upper grades of education.

We think of wood shop in school as being a means to direct children into mind numbing industrial occupation, whereas Educational Sloyd was intended to propel children into life as intelligent, responsible citizens with their natural curiosity and propensity for learning intact.

When I went to Sweden for a Sloyd conference in 2006, one of my objectives was to visit Nääs, the school established by Otto Salomon to promote Educational Sloyd. I wanted to get fully immersed in a system of education that clearly recognized the relationship between the hands and learning, the use of the hands and the development of intellect. And what I found, like a shade lifting from my eyes, was so much more than I had allowed myself to expect. Sloyd, I discovered was not just the making of objects for the development of skill, but a complete foundation for a better way of addressing the overall educational needs of children.

When teachers from around the world arrived at Nääs for summer classes, it was not just to learn how to teach woodworking, but to learn a complete theory of learning that encompassed and advanced the needs of the whole child. When I arrived, I was surprised to learn that gymnastics was also a part of Sloyd, that Salomon lectured each day on educational theory (in four languages), and that the Sloyd movement was closely connected to the Kindergarten movement which was at that time taking the world by storm in the lowest grades. In other words, Educational Sloyd represented nearly all that we have come to systematically neglect in American education.

There are matters we can take into our own hands, and there is compelling evidence that we must do so. I cannot spell all this out in a single blog post, but I hope you will continue reading and test what you've read here in your own hands.

Yesterday we had a minor catastrophe in the middle school class as I was attempting to help with their hydroponic window garden. As the upper manifold filled with water from the pump, it broke free from the hooks holding it to the top of the window. Parts, and water flew.  Don't we learn better when things do not go according to script and when the realities of life enter into the fabric of education?

Make, fix, create, and help others understand the value of learning lifewise.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

the use of the vise.

One of the absolute keys in keeping children safe in the wood shop is to train them in the use of the vise. We think of kids being either left or right handed, but they actually use both in most tasks. One hand is typically used to hold the tool, and the other the work.  In writing, the dominant hand holds the pen, and the other steadies the paper, and if you want to test this, take a pen and paper and try things for yourself. What you will discover is that one hand works best with the collaboration of its mate.

The non-dominant hand is the one that is typically injured as tools slip. The vise is not to relieve the non-dominant hand from its work, but just to keep it safe from being hammered, sawn or sliced with  chisel or knife. It is also useful in most cases to have a third hand, which a vise or clamp can provide.

Woodworking as my publishers are careful to point out at the beginning of my books, holds inherent risks. Those risks are minimized by the proper use of tools, and some way to hold wood safely and securely as it is worked.

At Clear Spring School we have a room full of benches with vises sized for both child and adult use. The vises are objects of fascination. Every classroom should be equipped with a work bench with a vise or two, and at one time many elementary school classrooms were so equipped with the recognition that kids need to be doing real things.

Today in the wood shop at Clear Spring School I will help our middle school students work on their hydroponic gardening window farm. They have been collecting bottles of a particular size. We have been drilling holes for them to fit together, cutting out sections for the planters to fit, and assembling them into long strings, following information both from online sources and from a hydroponic gardening store. It is an exercise in problem solving.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, April 23, 2018


At the local UU church yesterday, besides it being Earthday, it was my wife's and my day to supply snacks, do after service kitchen clean up, supply flowers, and offer a meditation during the service. With dogwood trees on our property blooming in abundance, the flowers were easy. For the meditation, I wanted to draw from my own experience with regard to Earthday. I attempted to juxtapose three things.

On the first Earthday, 47 years ago, I stood with 5 or 6 friends in a field near Hastings College (in Nebraska) and shared words about how it had finally come to pass that folks were beginning to understand the importance of the environment. We shared a sense of hope, even though there were so few of us from campus at the event.

Secondly, I noted that this is the one hundred and eleventh year of  plastic. Plastic began with the invention of Bakelite, which was composed of formaldehyde, derived from wood alcohol, phenol derived from coal tar and wood flour, derived from wood.  (They made other versions of the stuff using fillers of a more toxic variety.) Nowadays, plastic from even harsher petrochemical ingredients is everywhere and I noted that as I mopped the floor in the morning, the bucket was made of plastic, parts of the mop were made of plastic, cleaning supplies were in plastic bottles and plastic, everywhere in excess, is imposing a huge burden on all life and even enters the cells of our bodies.

 I noted that with plastics having had a fifty year head start, Earthday has a long ways to go to catch up. We need much larger numbers of people to recognize the needs of the planet.

My  third point was that in this month's Wooden Boat Magazine, it tells how to make your own wooden bucket. Would that not be a better alternative to the plastic ones we buy so cheap and that along with so much plastic crap causes undue burden on the earth and all life? In making our own buckets, the development of skill and integrity would take place.The effort would lead us out of the depression and anxiety that ail modern life. I finished with a poem by Langston Hughes, "In Time of Silver Rain."

So what's a man (or woman) to do? We carry on and make the best of things. We attempt to remember those things that are most important.

Make, fix, create and adjust your existence to learn lifewise.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

routing drawer guides

Yesterday I got a chance to work in my own shop, routing drawer guides in the sides of  jewelry chests. The drawer guides consist of two parts. A 1/8 in. x 1/4 in. strip of wood is glued in grooves cut in the drawer sides, and grooves in the box sides are routed twice to be widened for the strips to slide within.

The first routing is done between stops with a thin cereal box cardboard spacer between the work piece and fence. By removing the spacer for a second routing, the groove is widened just enough to allow smooth movement of the drawer in the groove. Is that something you can understand from words alone? Perhaps not. In all likelihood I might just as well be speaking French unless you are already a woodworker with extensive experience of your own. Even then the meaning of the words may escape you.

Words are like that. They are generally insufficient, except when some prior experience is involved and even then may lead the reader astray.The routed grooves shown in the photo were but the first. Each jewelry box side required 5 carefully routed grooves for the drawer guides to fit. The process required careful measurement and careful planning. This may help to explain why education based on language is not enough and why schools must provide various means through which students become usefully engaged in the real world.

Otto Salomon, proponent of Educational Sloyd, said that the idea of a class of students was a challenging one in that students come into a classroom with varying degrees of experience in the subject, some knowing some things and some knowing others, but rarely on the same page with readiness for understanding the same information at the same time. What's known by one is not known by another. What's easy for one is not easy for another. What's simple to one is not to another, and What's concrete to one is not to another. Even student interest will vary from one student to another.

This makes education much more of an art form than a routine process and it requires that the teacher's relationship to each student be strong enough that little stands in the way of learning.

Make, fix, create and assist others in knowing the necessity of learning lifewise.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

paint and tangles...

Yesterday my high school students applied more paint to our Bevins Skiffs, and my elementary school students ran with their kites until their strings were tangled in knots. Some of the kites will need new paper skins and to be rebuilt from the sticks up. Having exhausted themselves in play the students may not have energy for that.

I'm hoping that we all learned a few things. Not everything can be put in words. We form catalogs of ideas from which solutions are drawn. If you've been engaged doing things in the real world, you may actually have a leg up in discerning the truth from that which is false. In multiple choice tests, one may be able to intuit the right answer by being able to recognize the answers that are discernibly false, so those who have been brought up in the real world, doing real things have an advantage that has been measured and proven by educational research.

German Field Marshal Rommel was said to have fingerspitzengefuhl, which means knowledge even in his fingertips. It was said that he had an intimate grasp of the full field of battle in his head because his knowledge came from a deep engagement in real life. His advantage came from having both Wissenshaft (book knowledge) and Kentniss (knowledge derived from actual experience). And so it is on the latter side of things that modern education fails to produce effective learning.

Early advocates of manual arts training insisted that taking time for manual arts refreshed the mind, making it more ready for books, whereas those who insisted schools were only for the basics of reading and writing, insisted there was no time for such luxurious things as music, the arts and woodshop.

We learn best when our hands are engaged and not quite so much of the mouth is used. "Chronic diarrhea of exhortation" was Jonathan Baldwin Turner's description of the classic form of education where the teacher stands at the head of the class and spews words for all he's worth. He stated in his Griggsville address, May, 1850:
There are, moreover, probably, few men who do not already talk more, in proportion to what they really know, than they ought to. This chronic diarrhea of exhortation, which the social atmosphere of the age tends to engender, tends far less to public health than many suppose."
Turner was considered the father of the land grant college, and all the great, large state schools in the US are indebted to him for promoting the legislation that created them.

Make, fix, create and increase the likelihood that others learn lifewise.

Friday, April 20, 2018

this day...

This day promises to be lovely for painting boats, so first thing, I'll get the sanding blocks ready and paint stirred. A donor is supplying water testing kits that she will deliver to school today. Those will be used to test the water in local lakes.

A question came up whether to use student labor in wood shop to do fundraising projects. In the past, we've made some things to sell and raise money for our travel school program. But we must not wander far from student interest, and student learning. To use the wood shop as a fund raising tool must be based on a strong expression of interest from the students and my fellow teachers. Otherwise I'm put in the position of task master, quality controller, and cajoler, while students drag feet and miss opportunities for more effective, joyful learning.

If student interest is not present, learning will not be at full force. Joy is the measure. It's what you see when interest and learning are present in equal measure. We saw that on our first kite testing day.  (see photo) We'll see it again today as our students return to the field with longer kite strings attached.

Make, fix, and create... Insist that others gain the opportunity to learn lifewise.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

kite flying day

Yesterday during wood shop time, we attached tails to kites and short strings and took them to the field adjoining the school to give them a test flight. The kids loved the experience. Some ran with their kites until nearly worn out. We have some repair work to do on some of the kites. Torn paper must be either taped or replaced.

Mainly, however, despite some abuse (one was stepped on), the kites held up to fly another day. The children will be asked to give some thought to how they performed and what changes they would make to improve flying performance.

For the 4th, 5th and 6th grade students, this project started out with a teacher's proposal that students design their own kites and then evaluate why they did or did not work. We found that students may need concrete examples to get them started in the design process.

Diesterwegg's precepts as described by Educational Sloyd were that you start with the known and then move toward the unknown, from the easy to the more difficult, from the simple to the complex and from the concrete to the abstract.

Students will now have a better chance of designing their own kites, having started with easy, from the known, from the simple, and from the concrete. It is extremely difficult to start out designing something from the mind alone.

The formula for success is easy, and was described by Otto Salomon in the Teacher's Guide to Educational Sloyd, much more than a hundred years ago. Who would suspect that education at large would learn anything at all from Manual Arts? But the manual arts suggest the way we all learn, and the way that education could best be planned.

Make, fix, create, and adjust education so that all students learn lifewise.