Sunday, July 01, 2012

The cape...

I'm at Falmouth on the elbow of Cape Cod, having rented a car, and having driven from Rockland to visit friends. It is lovely here. I hope to simply plant my feet, get refreshed from my two week class, which itself was refreshing, prepare for my visit to the North Bennet St. School, my talk on Friday night, and my class on Saturday and Sunday.

On last Friday evening at the annual Center for Furniture Craftsmanship open house, I visited with a couple about the integration of the arts and play seamlessly into the work of our lives. They mentioned a playfulness in my box designs. The gentleman pulled a clipping from the New York Times from his wallet that he had kept since 1999 about a small building built on a small vacant lot in Manhattan.
"There is something inherently quiet about the place and the men who designed it. In explaining their philosophy about living and working in one place, Mr. Smith paraphrased a Zen Buddhist saying he once heard in Japan: "The real master in the art of living makes little distinction between his art and his leisure," he said. "He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both."
I asked the gentleman how he had integrated play into his own life. Smiling, he informed me that he had directed theater performances at Bowdoin College for many years. And in that I am reminded that theater plays its part in the Wisdom of the Hands. In fact, it's been proven that when learning lines for a performance, actors memorize their lines more effectively if they use gesture while doing so.

The story of the small building in Manhattan reminded of my visit to Bill Coperthwite's archetypal three story yurt. His ground floor is the working floor, just as work forms the foundation of onne's life. It is filled with materials, benches, tools and various works in progress. The second story is his living level, still replete with tools but also with books and places to write and to prepare meals. The top level is Bill's place to sleep and to dream, and in that sense, the building itself is an integration of self.

I was also reminded of Bill Coperthwaite by an email from a man in Canada planning to start a woodworking program for children k-7 in an indigenous community. He asked about what tools I would recommend to get his program started. Bill had travelled all over the north, Canada, Europe and Alaska, studying the use of the crooked knife. While his PhD from Harvard is in education, it might as well have been in Anthrpology. But then education would be best based on the understanding of real people, how they live, think, learn and develop culture. In educational Sloyd, Otto Saloman began children's lessons with the knife because every Swedish schoolboy, even before school began knew how to safely use the knife, and a central premise of Sloyd was to move gradually from the known to the unknown. I suggested Gustaf Larsson's book Elementary Sloyd and Whittling which can be found free on-line. It offers project ideas, but I suggests that any teacher starting a new program try to keep his children in mind.

Making beautiful and useful objects as a core component in education requires that project plans need to be flexible to meet the interests of the child and engage the support of family and community. Using tools that connect with the culture of a community can be the best place to start but one needs to offer parents and fellow teachers and administrators a clear understanding of the values of such work. In the early days some parents believed that offering hand-skills to children was a way of depriving them of academic advancement.

Bill would agree that spoon making is a thing that can be done with just a straight knife and crooked knife, and as I've said before one cannot successfully whittle a stick without learning the powers of observation that are essential to success in everything else. One can't successfully whittle a stick without forming elementary hypotheses about the nature of material reality and in that way crafts form the foundation of scientific inquiry. I ask on behalf of Bill, "Have you ever used a draw knife and shaving horse?"

Bill had been asked many times how he could move into a community without knowing the language. He would proceed with a crooked knife in one hand a stick with the other. Folks from all cultures would be drawn close by curiosity as was I when I first met Bill. To use a knife to make things that are beautiful and useful breaks all social barriers. And the language spoken by creative hands is universal in its understanding.

My hosts here in Falmouth are old friends, and very effective at integrating art and play into the hard work of their lives. I plan to spend just a bit of time as tourist while I gather my wits.

I had a short meeting this afternoon with the director of NBSS to discuss their hopes of bringing woodworking education back to the children of Boston Public Schools. I Wanted to get a better sens of where their program sits at the moment and to try to learn how I can help.

Make, fix, and create...


  1. If more woodworking is to be done in schools at the upper elementary/middle school level, there is a great shortage of suitable curriculum material. The best I have seen yet is Richard Sharpe's Woodworking for Kids, published in 1982. While this is an excellent book, centered around hand tools, many of the projects require a number of highly specialized rabbeting and molding planes which are expensive to purchase in adequate quantity for a class of 18.

    Most projects published in books, in Fine Woodworking, or in woodworking programs on TV have sveral major problems for use with younger students-

    1) They require a level of expertise the students simply don't have;

    2) They are centered around the table saw, which is unsafe for 12-year olds to use independently in a typical class of 18-20 students. or other power tools such as the jointer( also unsafe in large classes).

    3) If a project is teachable, it requires excessive supervision/determination by the teacher. Projects require some input by the student in their design if the student is to feel ownership.

    While woodworking is very popular with most students, it has (1) far higher operational costs than drawing, digital imaging, and other arts offerings;(2) far higher per-pupil costs for salaries than classes which can accomodate 24-30 students per section;(3) greater space and equipment needs; and (4) far higher liability issues.

    In addition, there is a general perception of woodworking as more of a quaint 19th-century skill than as one for the 21st century. Perhaps projects should incorporate tools such as laser cutters, 3D printers and other digital fabrication tools- see MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, .

    Perhaps North Bennett Street School could (1) post their curriculum and specific designs on their website, whose reputation would lend it an imprimatur of quality, and (2) team up with technologists from MIT and elsewhere.

  2. Jonathan, I accidentally deleted yor second comment which I am inserting here:

    Jonathan Dietz has left a new comment on your post "The cape...":

    I realize that my previous post completely missed the overall point of your blog, "The Wisdom of the Hands".

    Given that even the making of things has gone almost completely digital, how do we convince school administrators that spending valuable class time, as well as considerable expense, should be spent doing hand-work?

    Most students have had very little experience doing hand-work--even hand-writing- are don't understand that good woodworking can't be rushed- sanding takes time, a beautiful finish takes time, cutting a hinge mortise by hand takes time and much practice.

    There are some professional occupations that still require hand-work, such as surgery and dentistry, and I often try make connections for my students between woodworking and such occupations.

  3. Jonathan, the engagement of the hands can have a profound effect on the engagement of children's minds in schooling. Woodworking is of course only one way to do that. But we have chosen in all but the best private schools to keep our student's hands idle.

    We learn most thoroughly and to greatest lasting effect when we learn hands on. In American education we have chosen the inefficiency of idle hands over the true intellectual and moral growth of kids. And so we lose their interest, we lose their minds and have a 30 percent dropout rate. The societal cost is so very much more than that of offering woodworking to kids.

  4. Thanks for your suggestion regarding the book Gustaf Larsson's book Elementary Sloyd and Whittling. I have downloaded the pdf and find in quite interesting -- as I do with the other references you have supplied in the past regarding sloyd.

    I am not planning on starting a woodworking program that is associated with any school, but rather I am planning on making wooden toys and involving my children in the process. This book will be helpful with my children learning to work with wood.

    While this book I am sure adequately addresses the question or advice that was being sought, is it not both interesting in one sense and disturbing in another -- that a book over a hundred years ago was referenced? That we couldn't conveniently refer to a more recently published book? Don't get me wrong, I have seen a few more recent books pertaining to woodshop for schools that I consider very helpful, but not all that many -- and none that mention the sloyd practice. Does this not speak volumes in itself -- matching the overarching message that your blog makes constantly?

  5. Joe, Most publishers are so focused on the bottom line that they are less willing than ever to take chances. I' tried over the years to get the various publishers I've worked with interested. The first things a publisher considers are which shelf it fits, what are its comparables and how did they sell?

    At some point, I hope folks learn that there is really nothing wrong with something being over a hundred years old. Boats for instance. Children and adults these days may have new toys and new distractions, and less patience for developing skill, but are at the heart the same. Harry at Gannon and Benjamin said that folks just walk in, smell the wood, get carried away. The process itself is transformative.