Wednesday, September 30, 2009

quick news items

I received my author copies of Rustic Furniture Basics yesterday and was informed by a reader/friend this morning that his copy ordered from had arrived as well. The book and DVD were great fun to make, so I am sure my readers will find them interesting and useful. The natural textures of rustic work are so engaging to the hand and eye.

My other news is that an article from an earlier edition of Woodwork magazine will be included in a DVD collection that will accompany sales of an annual edition. The article is from number 78, December 2002, "Making Desk Compartments, Techniques for cubbies, drawers, and secret boxes." It will go on sale late November 2009. The photo above is from that article.

installing road signs

Today we installed the kid made signs designed to give the children greater consciousness about their use of the school campus. While some of the signs had no writing or had misspelled words and some were intended just to get others to slow down and enjoy the beauty, each student knew what his or her sign meant, gave careful consideration to its placement and described what it meant as we took a campus tour to see and admire each other's installations. This was a project for students in grades 1, 2 and 3.

What disruptive learning takes to make work

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with Michelle Sullivan, the meerkats and weasels teacher at Clear Spring School, and these are a few things that Michelle offered as to what it takes to keep on your feet in disruptive learning.

First, what might be seen as disruptive in a conventional classroom wasn't seen by her as much of a "disruption" at all. The two boys who started the discussion frequently argue about silly things and redirecting their energy into useful educational material is something she had faced many times before. This particular discussion was lively and exciting enough that other students were joining in. Michelle said that there are four factors that make disruptive learning work for her as a teacher:
1. Small class sizes allow her to know her students very well, and disruptions in a small class are not the big deal that they can be in large classes where the teacher is struggling to maintain order.

2. Clear Spring School is a learning culture in which teachers are given greater freedom of method for reaching classroom goals. There are no harsh judgments made against teachers for teaching outside the box. So the Clear Spring School culture is one in which teachers can be creative and are encouraged to think on their feet.

3. This is where the highly qualified teacher is important. Michelle's clear understanding of the learning goals and curriculum for her grade levels helps her to be watchful for opportunities to integrate student interests with her own teaching responsibilities. Her experience as a teacher make her alert to those opportunities.

4. This may be the most critical. Disruptions at Clear Spring School are never mean spirited or dangerous, and nearly always very minor. The children from pre-school up are schooled in conflict resolution and problem solving. They talk to the teachers and other students to work things out before they become large and disruptive. They are given conflict resolution skills and practice and given teacher assistance as needed. From the conflict resolution program, Clear Spring School has maintained a culture of trust. And that trust exists at all levels, administration, teacher and student.

Here are some of the special things that the kids learn in a disruptive classroom:
1. The teacher cares about their interests and learning needs.

2. Their own interests can bear fruit.

3. They can engage in lively discussions in which what they believe matters.

4. Learning can be fun.
And of course, if learning is fun, you want to do more and more of it. A common question at the close of recess... "Is recess almost over? I want to get back to work."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

today at CSS

The 7th, 8th and 9th grade students, and I are making a big wooden box for our school recycling. So we spent the morning sawing and hammering, first the sides and then the hinged front of the box. We will finish during wood shop time next week.

My week continues to be disrupted (only slightly) by not having the van to transport kids to and from the wood shop. So I am taking advantage of the disruption by working in the playground at school. The weather has been sublime. In the meantime, if you want to know more about disruptive learning, check out this book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Christensen, Johnson and Horn. It seems to take a rather technological view toward innovation and creative disruption, rather than an interpersonal one as followed at Clear Spring School, but it might help in examining the concept. It is one of several books by Christenson on his theory of Disruptive Innovation.

Monday, September 28, 2009

disruptive learning continues

Today in the Clear Spring school yard, we made rock hound hammers to use in the student study of rocks and minerals. Next week we will finish the sieves and make chisels.

We did our work in the school yard this morning because our van is in the shop getting the transmission fixed. It is a disruption. So we shift gears and figure out other ways to keep going and maybe learn just a bit more in the process.

Last week the kids arrived at the wood shop asking me whether I liked meerkats or weasels best. It was a discussion that the kids were very excited about and that they had been engaged in on the van ride from the lower campus to the woodshop. I didn't understand what they were talking about until today and to understand the question, meerkat or weasel, you would have to know just a bit about disruptive learning.

In many schools, they will tell you that they have a "zero tolerance policy" for "disruption." Last week the 4th 5th and 6th were supposed to study charts, analysis and comparison of data during their math time and the teacher was prepared for that lesson. The discussion that the kids started amongst themselves over which they loved most, meerkats or weasels fit right in. While most teachers would be required to follow the prescribed curriculum, at Clear Spring, the teacher is free to make use of the small disruptions that arise, making what the kids learn relevant to their world and world view. Not only did the kids get their lesson in math, utilizing the love of meerkats and weasels to make the lesson relevant to them, they also pursued their interests in the two animals and found that they are distantly related. So what do the kids really learn from all this besides zoology and math? That their own interests matter. That lesson plans are not so sacred as to override individual learning interests and enthusiasm.

The small disruptions that lead to successful learning prevent the large disruptions of kids leaving school uneducated and disinterested. The photo above is of the kids being silly with their rock hound hammers.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

disruptive education

There is a business principle called disruptive innovation, related to disruptive technology and a recent example is when the television networks filed suit against DVR manufacturers to stop production of products they thought would be the death of their industry. Now they are beginning to acknowledge that the DVRs that they fought against may actually be the technology that saves their butts. Changing lifestyles mean that people are no longer glued to their sets for an entire evening and the DVR allows them to follow network series on their own schedules. Had networks been more aware of the principles of disruptive innovation, they might have saved millions of dollars in legal fees as they attempted to forestall the inevitable.

I may not understand the concept completely, but I have an example from education.
Sometime back in the late 1700’s a child in Pestalozzi’s school challenged his teacher, “You want me to learn the word ladder, but you show me a picture. Wouldn’t it be better to go look at the real ladder in the shed?” The teacher was frustrated by the child’s remark and explained that he would rather not take the whole class outside the building just to look at a ladder. Later, the same child was shown the picture of a window and again interrupted the teacher. “Wouldn’t it be better to talk about the window that is right there? We don’t even have to go outside to look at it!” The teacher asked Pestalozzi about the incident and was informed that the child was right. Whenever possible children should learn from the real world and the experiences it offers.
Most teachers are reluctant to change what they are doing in the middle of a lesson plan, allowing for children to express their own learning needs. Children are to sit complaisant, not disrupt. But the idea of disruptive education is that often what one regards as disruptive or interruption presents a learning experience that may have value beyond our expectations. The illustration shows the effect of "disruptive technology". Imagine what can happen when a teacher knows to utilize the child's disruption for its value in supercharging learning. As shown in the cart, you see dramatic growth.

I have witnessed disruptive innovation a number of times at Clear Spring School. In fact, it is an almost every day occurrence. It may start with a simple question when a child asks, "Can we do this?" A teacher sticking to well prepared lesson plans says no... and misses the opportunity to open doors of special interest that lead to lifelong learning.

the tenth myth

Gerald Bracey, author of Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality wrote an article on Huffington post about the Nine Myths of Public Education which I repeat as follows:
1. The schools were to blame for letting the Russians get into space first.
2. Schools alone can close the achievement gap.
3. Money doesn't matter.
4. The United States is losing its competitive edge.
5. The U. S. has a shortage of scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
6. Merit pay for teachers will improve performance.
7. The fastest growing jobs are all high-tech and require postsecondary education.
8. Test scores are related to economic competitiveness.
9. Education itself produces jobs.
To Gerald's list I will add the 10th and it is the biggy. Despite all the wonderful heart felt teachers in the world, their passions for their kids and their diligent lifelong application of heart and soul to their work, public education was never really about education in the first place, but about socialization of the immigrant masses who posed a threat to the industrial economy. Yes, we wanted them to read. Yes we wanted them to write and add, subtract and divide, but most of all, we wanted them to be orderly and complaisant. So we have students sit still. We ask classrooms to be quiet and the teachers are judged by both peers and administration on the quiet they sustain rather than the excitement they engender. We have students fill out worksheets and answer multiple choice questions. Those who don't are subject to discipline. Teachers have classrooms with too many students to become fully engaged with the learning needs of each individual.

And yes, in case you ask, Independent schools like Clear Spring are also involved in socialization as well as education. We do interpersonal problem solving and conflict resolution in which the children themselves learn to be peacemakers with each other. Yes, we work on being orderly and respectful, in the classroom, on the playground and in the community. In fact, when the kids travel or go camping, adults are always drawn to comment. As one park ranger told me during a camping trip, "This is the most orderly and inquisitive group of kids I've ever seen!" But we pretend public education is about education while its structure diminishes the students, forcing them to tow the line, and damaging teachers and students alike. Reducing class sizes by at least 50% would be a good starting point. Allowing teachers time to really attend to the socialization needs of each child would be both a revolution in American education and one in society as well.

And so, is this about the hands? Am I boring you or leading you astray? I hope we are walking hand in hand. It is a slippery slope, covered in wet leaves, but I think I do know the way to the top.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

bridle joints

Today I've been doing prep work for next week's Clear Spring School classes, getting ready for small show and demonstration of my work at the Eureka Springs School of the Arts tomorrow and I have been finishing up the bridle joints for making Green and Green inspired drawer fronts for a friend's home. The wood is cherry. You can see the grooves cut to house tongue and groove pieces that will fill between the borders. It is a simple joint, fairly easy to cut using a table saw and tenoning jig. And it will last many years.

A beautiful box

Leonard James, a student of mine from Marc Adams School sent me photos of a box he had recently completed and had given to his local Rotary fund raising auction. It is a beautiful box as you can see. The hinges used are Brusso brass hinges that cost about $30.00. Only someone who who has had the experience of making something beautiful from wood could really understand what goes into making such a thing.

Leonard informed me that the box sold for $100.00. Can you see what is happening here? Another friend of mine had sold a box with hand cut dovetails at a charity auction for a small fraction of its value in terms of time and materials, and the buyer asked if she could get another at the same price, not realizing that asking someone to work for such a low wage would be an insult.

There is a complete disconnect in people's minds concerning the value of hand made things. Sometimes when I show my work at public events, people want to know, "How long did it take to make that?" They want a way to calculate my hourly rate in a world that is largely incomprehensible to them. In all likelihood, and in complete innocence they've never actually made anything themselves and have no clear way of understanding the value of hand-crafted work.

But, where is the real value of the crafted object? Otto Salomon, founder of Educational Sloyd said that the value of the carpenter's work is in the object, but in contrast, the value of the student's work is in the student. It can be sad to let evidence of learning go so cheap, but the passage clears the way for the next, even more beautiful expression of growth.

My heartfelt congratulations to Leonard for his generosity and beautiful craftsmanship. My congratulations as well to the lucky person who purchased a bargain heirloom of lasting value. Those small objects made with love have ways of influencing things, bringing qualities unexpected into the home, unanticipated sparks of transformation. I am looking forward to seeing Leonard's next project.

Friday, September 25, 2009

knife sets

I have nearly finished the storage boxes for my school knife sets. By having each knife fit into the storage box, it is easy to check and see that all the knives are gathered at the end of class. You will notice the spoon knives are in both left and right hand versions. With these two knives, spoon knife and sloyd knife, a kid can whittle just about anything. I will probably finish the knife boxes with Danish oil after a bit of sanding and routing of edges.

smaller class size leads to child success

Yesterday there as an interview article on NPR about class size and success. Those of us who teach know that small classes are more effective, but in times of recession, administrators will cut budgets and cram students into classrooms beyond the capacity of teachers to know their students and their needs. The interview is with Dr. Jeremy Finn, State University of New York, Buffalo. Listen or read the transcript: Professor: Smaller Class Sizes Optimal For Kids.
BRAND: How is student behavior different in small class sizes?

Dr. FINN: It's because every student is on what I would call the firing line. You can't hide in the back corner of the room. Students are better behaved. They pay more attention. They support each other in learning more, and their - definitely, their achievement scores go up. Furthermore, it's been shown that for children who were in small classes for three or four years, graduation from high school is more likely. Taking college entrance exams is more likely. So these early grades of small classes have long-lasting effects.
If we really cared about our children we would invest more in them. If we really cared about American society and culture, we would readily invest more in our children by having much smaller class sizes and hands-on craft centered learning. After all,
"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy." - John Dewey

Thursday, September 24, 2009

in stock at

My new book, Rustic Furniture Basics and DVD of the same title are in stock and available now from If you live in the following places you can find the book in your local library: King County Washington Public Library, Northeast Wisconsin Public Library System, South Central Wisconsin Public Library System, Upper Hutt City Library in New Zealand, and the British Library. If your library isn't in this list, ask them to order it for you. If you want a copy of your own to take the wood shop, use the links above and order from Amazon. My copies to donate to the Eureka Springs area public libraries will be arriving soon.

return of the chestnut?

In Arkansas, our local variation of the chestnut is called the chinkapin. But it, like nearly all the rest of were killed by chestnut blight. You will still find a few chinkapin leaves growing in the forest here from old root systems. Stalks with leaves grow to a certain small size and then die.This article sent by reader John Deal describes the efforts to restore this important species to the American forest.

In touch with soul

There is something very special about being engaged through hand and eye with the tactile qualities of the universe. It is hard for me to believe that this would be hard for anyone else to understand. Perhaps there is no need to explain, but as I watch children and young adults hunched tightly over their hand-held electronic devices I wonder. Surely we are all engaged somewhat joyfully in the physicality of the universe, but we should take great care that none slip through the cracks.

I have been mourning the loss of our dog Tappy. There is an ad in the newspaper today and perhaps we will learn something about her whereabouts if she is still among the living. She was 125 years old, reckoned in dog years and had a pretty good life.

There are things about working with the tactile qualities of the universe that can set a nervous soul at rest. Today I have been planing lumber and cutting it to size to make drawer fronts for a friend's hand-crafted home. I cut the parts to rough dimension, then pass one surface over the jointer to make certain it is flat before planing. It is a whole mind and body experience something akin to tai-chi. I stand with my body low in a crouch, my legs out slightly in a manner you would see used as tai chi practitioners gather in the park. My hands are carefully placed. The movement is fluid as I shift weight slightly from one foot to the other and twist slightly in my torso, allowing my arms and hands to bring the board through the cut.

You may not not have found soul's solace in the wood shop as have I. You may not find it in the garden or in the kitchen, or in the care of others. But I would challenge you to look. And look carefully. For me, at any time of stress, or sadness to engage hand, eye, and body in creation gives profound comfort.

science and the arts

Writing a blog is kind of a challenge. I know I don't really need to write everyday. I could let things slide, and you my dear readers could go mining into the over 1800 posts from days past. There are a number of things worth mining for and I've made it easy by providing links

The topic of is pure gold. Educational Sloyd was built upon the theoretical foundation of Froebel's Kindergarten, so it illustrated a very clear and distinct method based on the seamless connection between hand and mind... that each is reliant on the exploration and discoveries of the other. Search also for Froebel whose doctrine of self-activity is something that should interest all teachers.

The intersection between the arts and science were clearly illustrated through Froebel's "gifts" and "occupations." According to Froebel, education was a two way street. Knowledge was received by students through the exploration and manipulation of "gifts" which were objects designed for intellectual stimulation. And knowledge wasn't complete until it could be expressed through occupations... the making of things. As described by Charles A. Bennett in the History of Manual and Industrial Education up to 1870
The gifts were playthings consisting of typical geometric forms which were intended to give the children "new universal aspects of the external world." These were given to the child to be played with, built with, but without change in their forms. The occupations consisted of material, like clay or paper, which could be readily changed in form to suit the whim or fancy of the little builder. The gifts stood for law; the occupations for freedom.
The following is from Froebel's the Education of Man: "The gift invites only arranging activities; The occupation invites also controlling modifying, transforming, creating activities. The gift leads to discovery; the occupation, to invention. The gift gives insight; the occupation, power." Can you see how the manipulation of materials is the means through which we formulate our scientific understanding of physical reality, and also the means through which we shape it to fit our needs and create beauty? Can you see how the hands themselves are the means through which we awaken educational interest and human power? Froebel was the educator that placed crafts at the very center of education. And now we have schools in which arts, crafts and music and even recess are completely abandoned so they can place greater emphasis on "standards."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Red Grange

A goodfriend of mine, George Lundeen just finished the installation of his sculpture of Red Grange on the University of Illinois campus. It is a monumental expression of the Wisdom of the Hands.

Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, the 1st grade students finished painting and assembly of their traffic signs for the school campus. They don't read and write yet, but they love to sand and paint.

The effect of the handle

Through archeological research we know that the basic traditions of making stone tools can be traced back 500,000 years and according to Rudolph J. Drillis Folk Norms and Biomechanics a major development occurred 35,000 years ago when tools were first fitted with handles which "increased the radius of action and the speed of the stroke."

This same pattern is mirrored by a child's first play with a hammer. He or she will first hold it close to the head so its action closely approximates that of the hand itself, and then as strength of arm and accuracy of use develop, the hand travels in increments down the length of the handle providing greater range and striking force. You may remember this from your first use of a hammer, provided you are from a generation that did such things. You may have observed this from your own introduction of your children or grandchildren to tool use, if you are one of those inclined to pass on human intelligence to future generations.

Many animals have been noted for their tool use. But man is the animal that extends the accuracy, utility, sensitivity and power of his tools through the use of handles and the handles continue to evolve, becoming more powerful and complex. Get a grip. It is not the tool that sets us apart from other animals, but the handle.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

book review

I was asked by a magazine to write a 500 word review of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Unedited, this is what I've written:

One morning I followed a link sent to me by a friend and found that I had been quoted in the New York Times. That’s not a thing that happens often to wood shop teachers. I found out later that the opening lines, chapter one in Matthew Crawford’s best selling book from which the article was drawn, Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work were my own words as follows:
In Schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged. --Wisdom of the Hands blog post of October 16, 2006
Such a statement could have been made by any of the remaining wood shop teachers in America. We all know in our hearts, through our own soulcraft, that our students learn best when their hands are engaged in real problem solving.

Certainly, Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft isn’t the first book to look at the values of work and the absurdities of the blue collar/white collar divide, though all of us hand-guys and shop teachers revel in its success. As a wood shop teacher and hands-on learning enthusiast, I welcome all the help I can get in explaining the value of my program. Crawford’s well-written exploration is a much-valued addition to others on the subject. Mike Rose’s Mind at Work and Richard Sennett’s the Craftsman are recent books that come to mind that inquired intelligently about the values of work.

Soulcraft’s great appeal is that it is an engaging story well told from personal experience by someone measured successful on both sides of the white collar/blue collar divide who chose the blue and provides eloquent defense of his decision. It illuminates our misperceptions of the values of each and presents a strong case for rethinking the educational goals we might reasonably demand of our children. I was one of those whose parental aspirations were that I might become a lawyer before my own hands and heart got in the way of their ambitions for me. So I am particularly pleased to see anyone make the case that a craftsman or tradesman can find not only pleasure in work, but success and meaning as well. Crawford is a Ph.D. philosopher, turned motorcycle mechanic, and his tale I hope informs us all that our ideal of university education for all may for some be a waste of time and for some a great disservice when many might find greater pleasure and deeper meaning in direct hands-on problem solving that a life in the trades might provide. As suggested by another book, The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, a life in the trades might even end up making more money.

Perhaps most pleasing is that Crawford demonstrates his chops as both a mechanic and philosopher, through thoughtful and coherent discourse… Motorcycle mechanics and philosophy? That for some of us is not necessarily a surprise. Years ago we had Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and readers will sense a connection. But long before that Jean Jacques Rousseau had said in Emelius and Sophia, 1763: “If instead of making a child stick to his books I employ him in a workshop, his hands labor to the profit of his mind, he becomes a philosopher but fancies he is only a workman.” Shop Class as Soulcraft. Read it.

spending enough time in school?

There is discussion in America that kids aren't spending enough time in school. We let them out for the summers and recess and holidays. The kids work short days in comparison to adults. And surely, the reasoning goes, in order to be competitive in the global marketplace where working bodies connected by internet compete for paychecks with hundreds of millions of other highly trained professionals on other continents, we need to have our children educated to the maximum that their time in schools allow.

But does more time in boring school fill the bill? As a child, I would have found it even more excruciating. According to Commenius (1592-1670)
Boys ever delight in being occupied in something for the youthful blood does not allow them to be at rest. Now as this is very useful, it ought not to be restrained, but provision made that they may always have something to do. Let them be like ants, continually occupied in doing something, carrying, drawing, construction ad transporting, provided always that whatever they do be done prudently. They ought to be assisted by showing them the forms of all things, even of playthings; for they cannot yet be occupied in real work, and we should play with them.
That may sound more like recess than classroom activity. It bothers me that in these times the words of the "father of pedagogy" would be so thoroughly ignored. It makes me wonder whether even teachers learn anything in their schooling.

I have been asked by an organization in Michigan working on educational reform to present a "webinar." It will be my first and be presented on December 14. I have a lot to prepare and my readers will be invited. As it was explained to me, Michigan schools are at a point of crisis. Poor management and corruption in the years leading up to our current recession have left some schools in desperate condition. But crisis and opportunity can be the same thing in the right hands. Can students be taught more in less time, more fully engaged in classroom activities? The engagement of the hands is the key. Jean Jacques Rousseau (another near forgotten early educational theorist) in his book about ideal education, wrote that Emile "will learn more by one hour of manual labor, than he will retain from a whole day's verbal instructions." This is something you can test for yourself. Pick up a tool and see what you can do with it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

a nation of craftspeople?

In Richard Sennett's interview in American Craft, he is asked by Suzanne Ramljak, editor of Metalsmith Magazine: When you speak about building a nation of craftspeople, do you have an ideal cultural model or movement in mind, either historical or contemporary?
RS: There are lots of small examples, but nothing that represents a huge alternative. In the beginning of the Craftsman I describe the community of Linux programmers and their chat rooms, which involve highly focused work on a concrete project. It is very interactive and very cooperative. Another small example in the U.K. is the organic farm movement, which is also quite cooperative, and where people are always discussing the skills of actually growing food. Now that isn't going to shake the powers of the supermarket, but it is a strong movement. So there are lots of small initiatives like this. And in traditional crafts the same sort of thing is going on, with the return of people doing skilled physical work like weaving, knitting and sewing, for example. Parts of those economic sectors are coming back to life and they are much more collaborative. The idea of this is twofold: one is small-scale and face-to-face, and the other is web-based. I think the web is a fantastic medium for craftsmen. It is a means for mutual support, skill sharing and problem solving. There is something inherently workshop-like that dwells on the web; it is a great technology for craft.
The internet allows us more than ever before to think globally. We have the opportunity like never before to know what others throughout the world are doing, feeling and thinking. We have the opportunity to share our thoughts, feeling and ideas with others in ways unprecedented. Now, the question arises, can we bring production of the goods, foodstuffs and services home to our own communities where we can observe real craftsman-like growth in each other? It is a noteworthy ambition. When a young man or woman is offered the opportunity to create an object of useful beauty, he or she is self-reshaped in finer form.

Ironically this month's American Craft magazine's lead article and cover photo are about a young woman who uses her own body for the display of and experimentation with rather shocking self-made adornment. Some may find the article offensive. But the deeper truth is that when we make, it is truly ourselves that are made. And if we desire a society of wealth, environmental responsibility, peace and social justice it will arrive through our own hands in the remaking of ourselves. We have been made numb to our creative capacities, lulled by ease of excessive consumption. But it is not enough to think globally as the internet allows without concurrent local application of knowledge gained. Make, craft, cook, sew, weave, create, fix, nurse, plant, harvest, care. What the craftspeople most truly make are themselves.

Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, the fourth, 5th and 6th grade students worked on their mineral collection boxes and sieves for use in rock and mineral mining, which will take place during their Arkansas travels. The high school students continued work on their spalted maple furniture and now have progressed from working on their lumber to design.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I know I am a traitor

I know I am a traitor to the consumer economy, particularly in light of the George W. Bush 9-11-2001 advocacy of mindless consumption as a patriotic act in times of national duress. I went to Office Max last night and bought a new fax machine which I then returned this afternoon. I am thankful that they had a liberal return policy to allow me to rectify my mistake. I couldn't stand the thing. It displaced everything on my desktop because it was so large. It didn't have the same features as my old one that was no longer working. It was cheap and much too expensive in that it wasn't what I wanted. And it required me to learn how to use the darned thing when I was already quite comfortable in the use of the old one.

So I got out some alcohol lens cleaning swipes that I use on my glasses and camera lenses and went to work on my old one which you can see in the photo above. I had tried this trick before. It wouldn't load paper properly. But this time, I turned the machine on its back and found a roller deep inside that I had never been able to reach before. I cleaned it and now it works. I saved $100.00. Using five cents worth of cleaning wipes I saved my old fax machine from a premature trip to the garbage can! I can now receive and send faxes at will and not worry that when I receive an order it might be lost.

But of even greater importance is that I found just a bit more satisfaction as a fixer rather than helpless consumer. To apply just a few moments of time in careful observation can save hours of time shopping, hours of time earning money thence wasted, and hours of time being frustrated by buying things I really didn't like in the first place. So before giving up on old stuff, be brave. Try to fix. You really can't make matters worse, so there are no risks and you may discover new and wonderful things about yourself.

So, I am a traitor to the consumer economy and an even greater one now that I've attempted to persuade you to join me. I'm very sorry if anyone was counting on me to bring them new jobs in the same sorry old way of doing business. But things are changing. We who make, cook, garden, sew, create and fix are the new masters of the universe.

From the Talmud

"As it is your duty to teach your son the law, teach him a trade. Disobedience to this ordinance exposes one to just contempt, for thereby the social conditions of all are endangered." "He who does not have his son taught a trade prepares him to be a robber." "He who applies himself to study alone is like him who has no God."

Can you see perhaps how those who are not taught the value of working with their hands might become robber barons of Wall Street instead of useful servants of society?

John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch says that in hindsight he would have decorated and furnished his office from Ikea instead of with the million dollars worth of antiques. But perhaps if he had been taught a trade he might have understood the values of the hand made approach and even made a few things himself. He would have thereby been more in touch with craftsmanship and the important values it can impart. He might also have learned something practical that he could fall back on. Though I doubt that he would have the skills necessary to be a professional woodworker, he would at least have had a meaningful retirement to look forward to.

We have swept the ideas of skill and craftsmanship into the corners for too long. Our current economic and political situation is the result.

According to Henry M. Leipziger in Education of the Jews, Teachers College 1890, "Nearly all the great teachers of Talmudic times were workmen. Hillel earned money enough to attend the academy by wood-cutting. Rabbi Joshua was a blacksmith, others were tanners, carpenters, millers." Compare this with the legions of politicians, pundits, and religious zealots attempting to manipulate the American people. We would have a more honest and civil nation if we returned to skill and craftsmanship as our core values.

More from the Talmud: "Great is the dignity of labor; it honors man." "The laborer is allowed to shorten his prayers." "It is well to add a trade to your studies; you will then be free from sin." "Beautiful is the intellectual occupation if combined with some practical work." "He who derives his livelihood from the labor of his hands is as great as he who fears God." "He who lives on the toil of his hands is greater than he who indulges in idle piety."

According to Charles A. Bennett, "Evidence seem to be lacking that the Jews appreciated as do modern educators the intimate relationship between training in manual skill and intellectual development, but they did in a more or less general way recognize that a boy who worked with his hands was better than a boy who did not, and that study in school and labor at a manual occupation go well together, and are effective in producing useful members of society." Bennett wrote this in the 1920's about the earliest origins of the manual training movement. Otto Salomon and Felix Adler were two later Jews who brought a stronger sense of the connection between hand and mind and perhaps the Talmud was influential in formulation of their thoughts. Since that time the intimate relationship between hand and mind has been largely forgotten in American schooling.

Not from the Talmud, but perhaps it could have been:
Truth is most clearly expressed when through hand, eye and heart, an object of useful beauty is created.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Richard Sennett in American Craft Magazine

There is an interview in American Craft this month with Richard Sennett, author of the Craftsman. He is asked his prescription for our modern culture:
RS: "I'd ban all multiple choice questions in tests, which encourage people to the the quickest answer possible rather than to dwell on the problem. This may sound frivolous, but it is quite serious. On a more practical matter, I think that craftsmanship flourishes in small-scale business and I'd like to see our government, like the British government, invest more in small-production businesses. That's an absolute necessity. To support craftsmanship you have to support enterprise on the small-scale level.

Also, in the United States we don't put enough money into mentoring and have very poor mentor programs. We don't pay master craftsmen to take on and train young craftsmen. we don't see that as a social good. This is the single policy we could do in the U. S. to get people engaged in the transfer of physical knowledge from master to apprentice. So they can learn skills directly from those actually practicing their craft. I would really like to see this happen."
Me, too. Years ago I was given an apprentice for training through the CETA program. I was paid a token amount as the teacher and my apprentice was given pay for his help in my work, a small amount to buy tools for his own use, and at the end of his apprenticeship he became a professional cabinet maker for a number of years. But that was during the Carter administration and government was working to sustain a clear relationship with reality and seemed to have a sense of the potential of very small businesses.

rhythm and work

Last week as the first graders were at work sanding it seemed that they began to work together in a rhythmic sense. When does work end and music begin? Is there a fine line separating the two? According to Drillis in his article Folk Norms and Biomechanics, the size and weight of the work load controls the rhythm with the speed of the action adjusted to maximize the muscular efficiency of the worker. Change the size of the hammer and the rhythm of the operator changes for maximum muscular efficiency. When two or more workers are involved, a rhythmization of the work can take place. And so, we wonder if the rhythm component of music is the natural consequence of the body and real work?

I can see why many educators would prefer an object free classroom. Objects present the irresistible opportunity to manipulate and make noise. My students walk into the wood shop and things start clinking. The handles on our vises are irresistible. the kids walk in, and the fiddling and clinking begins. But then as most teachers know, even a ball point pen becomes the source of rhythm in the classroom and where there is rhythm, there is also suspicion of disruption. The teacher thinks "You're not listening."

By restriction of rhythm we make an effort to control children and subject them to the needs of the institution. But what if we were to utilize their innate needs for participation in rhythmic processes? Would we better engage the willing participation of the whole child?

I recently learned that at the Eureka Springs public elementary school, vocal music is no longer available. No time, no money. I am not sure if this is a national trend, but perhaps wood shops would be a great way to bring participatory music (and rhythm) back into the lives of our children. Perhaps we need vises in every classroom and at every desk. We could thus humanize the educational experience.

Friday, September 18, 2009

dogs have a way of knowing things

Our much loved canine companion of nearly 18 years went missing on Tuesday while I was out of town. Tapoica, or Tappy for short was a one of a kind dog whose heritage might have been from Brittany Spaniel and some kind of herding dog. She had slowed considerably in the last month and I had wondered how long she would last.

Years ago, I had planned to give her a bath, so got out the towels and dog shampoo and began running the tub with water. Then I went looking for her. I checked in the wood shop where my assistant Bob was sanding boxes and listening to NPR. "Have you seen Tappy?" I asked. "She came running in here a minute ago and is hiding beneath the radial arm saw and behind that lumber," Bob replied. "How could she have known I was going to give her a bath?" I asked. And at that point a woman's voice came over NPR. "Dogs have a way of knowing things," it said in a British accent. The report from the UK was about dogs being used to anticipate the onset of medical conditions like epileptic seizures.

And so, we know our gentle companion was wise in ways we will never fully comprehend. I have scoured the woods thoroughly around our home and checked with neighbors. No doubt she is curled up in a soft nest in the woods and her soul is in heaven, for surely if there is such a place, dogs may be more deserving of it than some of the humans that angrily share our small planet.

From the vantage point of a dog, take just a minute to examine why the verbal linguistic framework is so important in modern culture. Could it be that its true importance is its use in the management and control of others whether in the workplace where things need to be explained, and actions of others rigidly controlled or in the marketplace where others need to be convinced to buy the things we hope to sell them? Perhaps there is something we should all celebrate in the life of a dog... something simple, unpretentious, uneducated but wise beyond our knowing.

I am reminded that despite our cultural emphasis on language, not all that is of great meaning can be placed in the context of words, either spoken or written, and most assuredly, dogs have a way of knowing things.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

new book

Today my advance copy of Rustic Furniture Basics arrived in the mail. I have also been asked to do a review of Matthew Crawford's book, Shop Class as Soulcraft for a magazine. It is an awkward situation. I love Matthew's book, and highly recommend it. but I would like to point out the difference between an intellectual inquiry and a good how-to book. With the inquiry, you, the reader may remain unmoved, except to chalk it off on the "books I've read list" and the writer may never be actually tested on the accuracy and significance of his intellectual position.

When you make something from a how-to book, you are dependent on the actual experience and accuracy of portrayal of the author. If I give you the wrong information, something unworkable, then I've really screwed up. What would have made Matthew's Book better would have been for it to offer specific concrete solutions to what ails us as a culture and economy. An action plan... but then I guess that's why you would come here. Cook, garden, sew, make, care, care for, nourish and by all means pay greater attention to your hands.

analogy, metaphor, allegory

I was away for a couple days, visiting in Little Rock and Fort Smith on arts business and driving through some of the worst rain I've seen in my life. In the meantime I am wanting to pick up on an earlier part of my process of describing the corporate value of crafts and the value of corporate employees having an extended relationship with physical creative activity. This is in relation to an extended conversation, "How do we get corporations to "buy in" to support crafts programming in schools, museums, craft schools like ESSA, and to invest in the personal creative time for their employees.

Stuart Rosenfeld
at last year's CODA conference had suggested that while we know that crafts have personal therapeutic benefits, having to do with mental health and "recreation", that in itself would not be enough to make the sell. But if we could present a clear case that participation in crafts has effect on creativity and performance, we would be in a better position to receive the benefits of corporate support. Conversations over the last couple days have shown me that the circumstances for non-profits in the current recession are dire. Galleries are folding and arts organizations and other non-profits are facing tremendous challenges, so to develop a clear rationale for corporate support of arts organizations is extremely important.

Some of this has led me to consider our use of metaphor, analogy and allegory. I will ask you to consider these on your own and reflect on their meaning. When formulating a hypothesis through which to test and extend physical understanding, the known forms the launch pad for exploration of the unknown. To think outside the box, to be creative does not mean discovery from completely out of the blue, but is most often accomplished by utilizing known relationships between things... The kind of relationships we discover through the use of our own hands. We use metaphor, analogy and allegory in formulating the hypotheses through which human knowledge is extended and new working methodologies are discovered and tested. Participation in crafts and other forms of physical activity produce a catalog of metaphorical and analogical models useful in extending the breadth of human knowledge.

You are welcome to participate in my own expansion of intellect though the comments function. Discuss, please.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hand skills and mental capacity

Development of hand skills and mental capacity are concurrent and mutually reinforcing.

Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, the 4th, 5th and 6th grade students worked on their rock and mineral collection boxes, and this afternoon the high school students will resume work on their spalted maple boards.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


It was a beautiful day in Arkansas and the leaves are just beginning to take on their fall colors. The leaves shown are dogwood.

Neglect of the arts

Several Eureka Springs artists participated this weekend in the annual Pinnacle Hills Art Show in Bentonville, Arkansas, and according to the report in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, sales were poor. It is what one might expect in a difficult economy. Who needs art when your walls are in danger of being foreclosed?

The simple drawing above may help even those who are culturally impaired to understand an essential relationship that we often neglect.

On Friday I delivered my recently made cherry tables to their new home, and am reminded that work can create bonds of friendship and community that give us all strength. You can see how this works in the drawing above. When you invest in an artist's work, you are also investing in his or her growth as an artist and member of your community. But I am not just talking about visual arts, the decorative arts that hang on walls of sit on pedestals and look pretty, but practical things as well, and getting back in touch with practical useful work is my advice to those artists hoping to survive recession.

Also in Today's Democrat Gazette is an article, Putting Art in Arkansas by Tom Dillard about my old and dear friends, Louis and Elsie Freund (pronounced "friend"). They, as artists, founded a summer art school here in 1939 and led the historic preservation movement and are thus responsible for Eureka's two distinctive qualities, as a home for the arts, and a destination promising architectural delight.

It takes a village to make a craftsman. It takes craftsmen and the arts to make a true community. Louis Freund called his own often rambling discourse "a shaggy dog story" in which, however the story might wander, it will find its way home. And so, while this particular post may require you, my dear reader to do some assembly on your own. You would have to be graphically and culturally impaired to miss my point.

Arkansas writer John Gould Fletcher had noted in a letter to Louis, "not much happening in Eureka Springs, but it sure is laid out pretty." Louis and Elsie's involvement in the arts and historic preservation led to a whole lot happening here. And a returning Fletcher would be surprised. As one of the top 25 Arts destinations in the US, and one of the smallest, there is a lot happening here now for which Louis and Elsie deserve credit.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

finished sloyd knives

Today I finished my set of Sloyd knives as shown in the photo above. The blades are now sharp and ready for use and as soon as the Danish oil gets sticky, I'll rub them out and put them away until time to set the children at work.

When manual training was first offered to American students, some parents of poor children were concerned that it would cause further separation between classes. Ultimately it did, when schools began to routinely separate those students planning to go to college from those who were not, and thus began de facto class separation at the high school level. The following is from the prospectus of the manual training school at Washington University established by Dr. Calvin Woodward:
"One great object of the school is to foster a higher appreciation of the value and dignity of intelligent labor, and the worth and respectability of laboring men. A boy who sees nothing in manual labor but the mere brute force despises both labor and the laborer. With the acquisition of skill in himself comes the ability and willingness to recognize skill in his fellows. When once he appreciates skill in handicraft, he regards the workman with sympathy and respect."
At that time, manual training was seen as having purpose in the education of all students. Now we have a system of education that sustains cultural bias against the hands and the labor of the hands, and isolates millions of students from the discovery that they might find greater meaning through expression of skill in the creation of useful beauty. It sucks, don't you think?

Friday, September 11, 2009

finished but for sharpening

The sloyd knives are now finished and ready to sharpen. I have applied a Danish oil finish and will rub it out with a dry cloth.

near finished knife

My sloyd knives are almost complete as you can see from the photo. I have many more to shape on the belt sander and this is an operation that requires care. So I will do a few at a time when my mind is fresh and my hands are alert, or vice-versa. I use both the flat surface of the sander, and the drum at the top to develop the smooth contours of the knife handle.

James Krenov 1920-2009

James Krenov passed away yesterday, September 10, 2009. He was an inspiration to woodworkers throughout the world through his books and teaching at the College of the Redwoods.

He was a particular influence in my own life though we had never met. When I discovered his book, A Cabinet Maker's Notebook I realized that three of my particular interests, woodworking, philosophy and writing could be combined in my own quest for greater meaning. Woodworking was s subject that could be the core of intelligent discussion of life and greater meaning.

I had the small honor of sharing a page with him in Fine Woodworking No. 117 March/April 1996. Of three articles on the page, one was about Krenov's 75th anniversary. Another was own first time to have a piece of work in the magazine, and I hoped at the time that Krenov's photo on the page would lead him to take note of my own simple work.

Richard Bazeley sent me the following quote and note this morning.
"The first attempt with a plane that succeeded may have been the turning point of my life." -James Krenov

"I was sad to hear the news of his passing but then I saw the photo of the students in your class planing the maple and this quote came to mind. The writings of James Krenov were a turning point in my life and through simple woodworking practices like planing I hope to keep that spirit alive."
While the course of world culture was toward regarding craftsmanship as inconsequential, and as American furniture makers came to regard design and the potential for manufacturing as being of greater importance than the details of hand and heart, Krenov's voice was that of wilderness and nobility. His simple work and his stories about that work showed some of us that not all that we do as human beings can be found reflected in the bottom line.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Today in the Clear Spring School Wood Shop

I have finished assembly of the sloyd knives as you can see in the first photo. All I've yet to do on them is shape the handles so they are comfortable to hold and sharpen the edges so they are ready for use. While some schools may not be able to imagine children working with sharp knives, we know that knives have been important tools through which wood can be shaped towards useful beauty, and that hands-on engagement in physical reality is the foundation of science.

Today, the Clear Spring High School students began making furniture from spalted fiddle back maple that I supplied from my storage barn. Just in case they wondered how something so ugly could become beautiful, I invited them to check the price of spalted maple on eBay. I think it was fun for some of them to get so physical in their work.
"Let the youth once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick level in its mortar, and he has learned a multitude of other matters which no lips of man could ever teach him" --John Ruskin, "Time and Tide", 1883.
The 4th 5th and 6th grade students began work on their rock and mineral collection trays. So it was a busy day in the Clear Spring School wood shop.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

sanding and sloyd knives

Today the first, second and third grade students continued work on their "road" signs for our campus. Sanding was fun. They brought pieces to me and noted, "Feel this. Isn't it smooth?" And they noted how warm the wood got from their work. Long forgotten it seems in American education is the relationship between crafts and scientific observation.

You can see my progress on the sloyd knives in the photos below. I drill through the blade so that the holes for the brass pins pass through the scale and I then apply glue so the other scale can be glued in place. I am using epoxy glue and will leave the clamps on overnight. Tomorrow I will be able to glue the brass pins in place, sand them down and begin shaping the handles so they feel comfortable in the hand.

next step

Today at Clear Spring School the first, second and third grade students will continue making their road signs for the school campus. You can see that I am making progress on my sloyd knives. I glue the knife blade in a rabbet cut on one side of the handle and glue a filler piece in the end. Next, I will drill through to complete the holes for the brass pins and then sand the half handle flush to the blade so the other side can be glued on in the same manner. I keep track of matching parts so that when the sides of the handle are glued together they appear seamless in the way they surround the blade.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Is the consumer economy dead?

Is the consumer economy dead? Americans are saving and paying down debt. Perhaps we can turn from an economy where we consume to one in which we make. When we cook for ourselves, make the things we need, fix things ourselves and make them last, and begin raising our own food, we are not in the economy, nor do we suffer. In fact, we may actually feel better as a result. Neurohormones that lead to feelings of joy are increased by these simple activities. For those of you that may find pleasure in shopping and are reluctant to quit, just think of making as shopping on steroids. It is a novel idea that takes us out of the corporate economy and leads to greater personal security. Hands-on!

Beginning to make sloyd knives

Today in the wood shop, the 7th, 8th and 9th grade students continued making their coat hangers from tree limbs. We discussed the relationship between art and science. Before and after class I began making sloyd knives to replace the set lost last year when our woodshop was burglarized. You can see the beginning steps in the photos below. The first photo shows the use of the prototype to mark for the next steps. The second photo shows grinding the knife blade to shape. The third photo shows the first steps in sharpening the blade, and the fourth photo shows drilling the blank for brass pins which will hold the scales on the sides of the blade.

Next will come heat treating (shown in the photo below) and making scales (handles). These are not intended to be exact replicas of the sloyd knives made in Mora, Sweden, but are intended to use what I know how to do to supply the Clear Spring School children with knives for doing sloyd. I am making the blades shorter than a usual sloyd knife so they can be used more easily and safely by younger children.

Monday, September 07, 2009

so glad to have tools.

I am so glad to have tools and to know how to use them. Tonight after dinner when I turned on the kitchen faucet to wash the dishes, I noticed water running out of the cabinet door onto the floor. A bit of time with the mop, a few minutes more to find the right wrench and the leak is fixed. The drain pipe had worked its way loose over time and now with a small amount of experience, a mind trained in problem solving and a pipe wrench I bought at the old Perkins Mill in 1976, I avoided what many home owners might have faced... a late night high priced emergency plumbing call. Where's Joe when you need him? Never mind, I don't.

I don't know how many these days have the opportunity to face down minor household emergencies and feel the better as a result. While I'm not hoping for any more leaks tonight, I wish this feeling of self-satisfaction for all my readers.

Unfortunately, children raised with gameboys, and other forms of electronic entertainment and distraction may fall through the cracks and be left unfamiliar with the operation of common tools and thus never experience the sense of lasting mastery and self-confidence that their use provides.

let's fix the thing!

Time magazine has an article this week about the challenges and strategies of Education Secretary Arne Duncan for fixing our nation's schools. He says,
"It's obvious the system's broken. Let's admit it's broken, let's admit it's dysfunctional, and let's do something dramatically different, and let's do it now. But don't just tinker around the edges. Don't just play with it. Let's fix the thing."
So he has a big pot of cash to throw at teachers and systems that can measurably demonstrate they are doing a better job.

I can say quite clearly and with a huge body of evidence to back me up, that the problem with American education is that it has largely ignored and forgotten the education of the hands and the essential relationship between hand, mind and heart. Last year when I was at the University of Helsinki, I visited the wood shop in the education department where kindergarten teachers were being taught woodworking skills so they could teach woodworking to their children. Would it be any surprise that Finland would lead the world in 8th grade student achievement in reading and math? Engage the hands in learning and the whole student follows. Ignore the hands and you lose the child's emotional and physical engagement in education. So, I agree with Arne. Let's fix the thing. But it may be a bit harder than some would expect. Very few teachers have had education of their own hands or in the relationship between hand and mind, and there is a strong academic bias against hand skills except those that fall into the narrowly defined category, "art".

It was a pleasure starting back to school last week and discovering how excited our Clear Spring School children were to have summer vacation over and structured learning commence again. Cyrano had told his mother that he couldn't wait to get back to his two favorite things, wood shop and math. Get the picture?

creeping out from corners

Here in Eureka Springs, art is a big deal and yesterday we had the unveiling of new paintings at the Artery with well over a hundred local residents and tourists in attendance. Several years ago, local artists did art on 4x8' panels to hide an unsightly wall in downtown Eureka Springs and now this was the 4th set of panels to go up. I congratulate this year's participants for their inspired and skilled work.

I hope that at some point, craftsmanship can be celebrated in the same way. In Bali, at one time, they said they had no art. They did everything as well as they could. Who needs art if everything in your life fulfills its purpose? Now we have art as a form of ornamentation, pushed into a corner as a separate category of human endeavor. So much of what fills our lives is often bland and meaningless and was produced without human passion, so art is remedy, something to remind us that we are indeed, and despite apparent circumstances, human. I wish for a day in which craft comes out from the corners to fill the breadth of our existence. In such a case, who would need art?

I got a call the other day from a woodworker who had gone to a local university to ask about teaching his craft in the art department. "Woodworking is not art," he was told. So we will keep it creeping out from corners, erase the boundaries and scrape away at the misperceptions. Can you imagine a life in which all the objects of your daily use were objects created with love and aspiration by those people you know and whose growth you encourage in your own community? Pottery, furniture, clothing, cooking utensils, and the food you eat? The artist in the photo is Betty Johnson, at work on one of my favorite panels in this year's Artery.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Poetry in the making

Poetry has its roots in the Greek word poein: "to make". -poeia, -poie, -peia, -poiesis, -poesis, -poeic, -poetic, -poietic, -poetical, -poietical
(Greek: making, producing, creating, creative, forming, formation)

In medical terminology, the "creation" or "production" of that which is named by the combining root.
Check out all 74 words.

We think of writing of all kinds as being different from making, but when you realize that text and texture are from the same root, texere: to weave, and that poetry comes from the act of making, you begin to see that the creative use of the hands, in exploring and shaping physical reality is essential to human development and the foundation of culture. If you want children to be literate, you begin the process by encouraging them "to make."

Rudolph J. Drillis

As you can see from the drawing above by R.J. Drillis, the basic motions of the hands provided the model for all the forms of machine tools currently in use. What we do with our advanced tools and machines are replications and refinements of what the hands have always done. As written by Charles H. Ham in 1886, “the axe, the saw, the plane, the hammer, the square, the chisel, and the file. These are the universal tools of the arts, and the modern machine shop is an aggregation of these rendered automatic and driven by steam.”

In addition, you will find that with the exception of the metric system, human measure- ment was derived from the human scale built into our own hands and body. The drawing at left is also by R.J. Drillis and was published in his article, "Folk Norms and Biomechanics" in the Occupational Ergonomics Handbook.

An example of the use of the hands in measuring is shown at left from Craftsman of the Cumberlands, on the work of chairmaker, Chester Cornett. Click on the image at left to enlarge the text so it can be read.