Sunday, June 24, 2012


Bill's yurts are a 1 1/2 mile walk through the woods.
An article in the New York Times, describes a new standardized test to measure "grit" or stick-to-it-a-tive-ness as a matter of character. Wouldn't you know that when faced with the irrelevance and inaccuracy of standardized testing, that a standardized test-crazed educational culture would come up with one more test to add to school systems already overburdened by irrelevance and educational contrivance?
The New York Times article, What if the Secret to Success is Failure?, points out at the very least that character is as much a contributing factor in success as intelligence.
On the other hand, when it comes to the opportunity to actually observe real (and "true") grit, I drove three hours north along the coast to visit Bill Coperthwaite who at 83 lives off the grid by himself in a three story yurt of his own design and making. The bottom layer of Bill's yurt is his work shop where he makes tools, chairs, spoons and bowls, not to sell, but to demonstrate, satisfy his own curiosity about how they can be made and used to teach.

Bill's mill pond at Machiasport
In the 1960s, with a PhD in education from Harvard, knowing civilization was going to hell in a hand basket, and that clean energy was one of the important issues to resolve, Bill looked up and down the Maine coast for a tidal basin that could take advantage of the high tides of northern Maine to supply power. A mill pond at Machiasport captured his interest and he managed to acquire 500 acres of land, both sides of the tidal race and the right to potential use of the twice daily power of 16 ft. tides. But as Bill worked in the development of his property, he discovered even greater power that made development of the tidal pool completely unnecessary... The power of his own body. He harvested by hand the white pine that had been allowed to grow for over a generation, built more than one yurt, became an advocate for a more simple, more direct life. He travelled all over the world studying indigenous cultures and their tools and discovered something about grit.

The first layer of a man's life is his work. Same with Bill's 3 story yurt
Bill demonstrates the use of the block knife
In our search for ease (even seeking an easy way to determine grit) we are too often left diminished in character and intellect as a result.

I took enough photos of Bill, his tools, his tidal pool, and his yurts that I could bother you for days. I will suggest his book, A Hand-Made Life. Through-out, Bill has been true to his interest in education and inside his guest yurt you can find quotations that encapsulate his philosophy of education and of life. Even today at 83 he teaches workshops to students, in making tools, crafting spoons and bowls and building yurts.

A note left on the wall of Bill's guest yurt
I want to thank Peter Follensby, who, writing in his blog had described his visit with Bill. His blog post reminded me that I could arrange to renew my friendship with Bill while I've been in Maine. He does not suffer fools gladly, and his home is a mile and a half off the closest beaten path. In any case there are some things to learn about character, and there are things children can do about the development of true grit and inner resources when they are tested in real life by the making of beautiful and useful things.

David Henry Feldman in his study of gifted and talented kids had noticed some of what had also been noticed by early advocates of the manual arts. Children a have a natural inclination to distinguish themselves through displays of earned excellence. They need not be driven toward it but simply allowed and encouraged to proceed. By making our children's learning contrived, narrow and unlovely, we diminish their opportunities and our own human culture at the same time.

And so as a whole culture, we wring our hands and wonder what to do to improve education. The whole matter is simple. Stop wringing our hands and put them to use doing some real stuff.

Today I will be at CFC helping a few students make boxes.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Please bother us for days with more pics of Mr. Coperthwaite! I would love to see more of his yurt design and how he integrates the circular structure with our rectilinear furniture and design. He is an inspiring figure to be sure.

  2. Please bore us for days on end of more pics of Mr. Coperthwaite! What an inspiring person!