Saturday, August 25, 2012

how things work...

Walnut and spalted pecan
A reader asked in a private email, how things work with the Clear Spring School wood shop, how we plan projects to correlate with what students are studying in their classes. Applying our model to much larger schools would be difficult, as our Clear Spring School is small and unique. The answer to how we do what, however, is simple. To understand it, you have to first understand the basic structure of classes.

Our classes are small and our teaching staff is small. Students are arranged in grade groupings as used in some Montessori schools and schools in Finland, where a single teacher has children in 3 grade levels, having the same students for 3 years. In other words, classrooms/grade levels are grouped 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12.

It is easy for me to keep track of what students are studying through conversations with individual teachers. In grades 1-6 we use integrated thematic instruction, a system of study in which a theme is chosen that allows for integration of reading, math, science, the arts, music, wood shop and social studies. A theme like volcanoes, the weather, the oceans, dinosaurs, transportation, or a particular continent is selected and students explore and develop an understanding of that theme in depth. Students are assigned or select areas of deeper investigation, either as individuals or in teams.

When I'm told that the area of study is continents, or sea life, or the animals of Arkansas, I discuss with the core teacher various projects that would enhance learning and bring studies to greater interest and life. Because I only have 4 classes to consider, it is fairly easy for me to customize class projects to particular student investigations, particularly at the elementary levels.

A unit of thematic study can last 4 to 6 weeks or even longer if there is sufficient student interest. Not all of my woodworking projects are thematically correlated. I have the opportunity to also do projects that have specific benefit to math, or to overall skill building. And we also do some projects at all grade levels that are intended to have effect within the community, for example, our annual toy making project for the local food bank.

At the middle school and high school levels things naturally become a bit more complex. Grades 7-12 operate on a block system with classes coming more into line with what their specific studies would be in conventional public school. The conventional naming of courses, and areas of study is important for transcripts and for students transferring to or from public school. Instead of having semester long classes through which students rotate hour by hour through various subjects, our block system allows students to be more deeply immersed in specific subjects all day, each and every day for a 4-6 week period. In some cases, we use the wood shop just as we do in the lower grades, but the projects are increased in difficulty to correspond with the more advanced skills students at upper levels can express. I also try to follow student interests, and at times start projects simply because students have expressed an interest. An example of that would be the bread boards that several students made last year because they wanted ones like that used by their teacher in making pizza and pretzels.

Textured cherry with mitered box joints.
One of the things I want to do this year will be making cigar box guitars, confidence for which came this summer while I was teaching at Marc Adams School and had the opportunity to observe students (adult) making cut-away guitars in one week. But my motivation for this project is that I have several students who have already expressed an interest in making a guitar. A principle of educational Sloyd and all progressive education is starting with the interests of the child. Where interests are clearly defined, following those interests can override other educational matters... a thing completely forgotten in conventional mainstream American education.

Even though Clear Spring School is unique, the principles that guide our work can be applied in other schools. First the importance of the wood shop and the arts must be widely shared and understood. Core teaching staff must be comfortable coming out of their educational silos to engage in discussions concerning how wood shop can increase interest in learning through the purposeful engagement of the hands.

Cherry with maple keys and lift tabs.
In any case, I hope this answers some of the questions readers may have about how CSS works. My reader had asked whether we have specialist teachers in science and history. A major point I would like to make concerns woodworking and every other subject. You need not be an expert in something to teach. You do need to be an enthusiastic learner, an avid investigator, a caring mentor and a firm advocate of a caring, respectful classroom culture. And in that, all those who would like to teach woodworking to their own kids (or grandchildren), should take heart, and get started.

The boxes in the photos above are demonstration boxes from classes at Marc Adams School, finished today so they can be given as wedding gifts or sold.

make, fix and create...

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