Sunday, April 20, 2014

seling tools we don't need

As a woodworker, I am constantly bombarded by tool catalogs in the mail or offers online that sell new "must have" tools that promise the capacity (if purchased) to make my woodworking life easier, more efficient and my wood shop more cluttered. My shop, in full production can get cluttered on its own pretty fast without he purchase of new tools, and each time I succumb to the acquisition of a new tool, there is a serial effect. Everything in my small shop must be moved to accommodate. So most tool catalogs and emails go immediately into recycling or the trashcan and only rarely is a new tool actually required.

Some new tools are useful and beautifully made and are the kinds of things you would treasure and then pass down to a grandchild. But other than a few basics that are intended to last years and years, most of my tool needs can be met by things I make myself and then throw away or recycle in the scrap bin when their usefulness is past.

Woodworking is not the only field to be bombarded by new tools that promise to be better and faster and to make better cuts. Education is like that. Just as I've learned in my own shop to make my own jigs and simple tools that keep me from spending exorbitant sums and from waiting for the UPS truck to arrive, educators have the capacity to do without the latest standardized tests if only they were trusted to use their own innate abilities to measure their own success. Parents, too, have the means to measure their children's success in school. I can look at my iPhone to see if its raining, but did you know that looking out the window or stepping out the front door gives me a better and more immediate grasp of the weather outside?

And did you know that a teacher looking up from her desk across a classroom and seeing hands raised to answer questions gives that teacher the capacity to assess her students' level of interest in the material and potential for success? If you are a parent, seeing your child arrive home from school excited about something they have learned tells you a thing or two about the school your child attends. If your student goes to school with knots in the stomach and arrives home in a state of angst, you are being providing insight that standardized testing will only tell too late to make a difference.

As a national policy for public schools, we've put all our eggs in top down basket with "school improvement" proposed at the policy level and being forced downward by a battery of standardized testing along with a system of rewards and punishments to enforce their disastrous effects. .. that of further removing teachers and parents from their traditional roles as observers of growth. These standardized tests have been sold to the public by a profit making industry. When I see all the latest tool catalogs, I know that the inventors of the new tools may claim having my happy and successful woodworking in mind as well as their profits. But we have given American education over to the tool huckster selling batteries of standardized tests, and it has given us no joy in the Educational workshop.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, April 19, 2014

that settles it...

In my poll at right the vast majority chose the veneered box with the matching lid over the one that was purposefully mismatched. I should have known that would happen, and I believe you all with the exception of two brave souls gave the more conservative answer. I'll dial back my own adventurous creativity in the hopes that one or both boxes will sell.

Today I applied a second coat of Danish oil on boxes I am preparing to ship to Appalachian Spring on Monday.  And I am preparing additional boxes to sell at a show next weekend in Little Rock.

I am planning to help my high school students make a turned chalice on the lathe for their comparative religions class, and I spent most of today trimming new windows in the house. Because of the irregularities of stuccoed walls, I have to scribe each trim piece to fit and so I've been running back and forth from each window to the work shop, fine tuning each piece. Each piece of trim takes about 5 trips, but once each is completed it should last for 40 years or more. I wonder how many people still have the skills to do such things, or would take pleasure in it?

It seems that many people see understand the failure of Standardized testing to be an effective tool in school reform. There are obvious problems with it. But folks are reluctant to go cold turkey and get rid of the damn things. Some things are easy to measure and we devote school time to those things to the neglect of development in areas that are hard to measure. Standardized testing for reading and math doesn't address student development in the areas of collaboration and creative problem solving and those areas are also important to student success.

I am hoping to do an op ed on the subject of the Beaufort scale and how something like it could be useful to wrest assessment from the cold hands of the standardized testing industry. I can understand looking at your iPhone to learn what the weather is out of doors, but to wait until test scores are announced to get a handle on how well your child is doing in school and how well his or her school compares with other educational opportunities is plain stupid. To used standardized testing to try to guide school reform is even more so.

Today I also finished a small finger jointed box with tray as shown above.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, April 18, 2014

Signing and finishing...

I use  fine line Uniball black pen to sign the undersides of my boxes. Where there is enough room for it, I also write the names of the woods used, and with some of my inlaid boxes, that means writing the names of 5 or 6 different woods. My hand cramps after a time, so I try not to do too many at once. The identification of species of wood is one of the things that the buyers of my boxes appreciate. It also tells that I value the diversity of woods from our local forests.

Writing with legibility is a form of craftsmanship that's endangered in this age. People used to take pride in the form of their letters and the way they would flow from left to right across the page. But writing legibly takes practice, and if a thing takes practice, it also requires effort, an will likely be abandoned by kids who are taught to DO nothing in schooling but sit still and attempt to absorb lessons.

Now that my boxes are sanded, signing comes next. This exercise provides one more opportunity to check on surface quality before the Danish oil is applied.

Yesterday, a friend, Buz Peine came to school to do a demonstration for my high school students, and several students took the opportunity to try their hands at the lathe. Buz turned a green piece of black walnut into a lovely form. This type of turning frightens me just a bit for kids because for much of the turning, there is no clear edge to work the tool against and the gouge is cutting in empty space for about half the time or more during rotation. If you get your hand in the wrong place, you can get whacked hard. So great care is required.

In the photo at bottom is the lens for a pin hole camera. It needs to be tiny. The directions called for using a tin can. I had some copper pieces the right size. The directions call for piercing the tin can with a needle. Try it and see how that works for you. Since I really don't have the strength to poke a needle through the side of a tin can, I sharpened a nail, put the copper on an anvil, and struck the nail at the center of the copper with a hammer.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Down for the count.

Sanding, music, dance, math and the power of attention...

 This morning, I am sanding boxes, and am in the third course, having gone from the stationary belt sander to 120 grit and 180 grit sand papers on the orbital sander. I now have two grits 240 and 320 to go.

I have heard sanding referred to as a mindless exercise, but done well, it is not. Each edge and every flat plane requires scrutiny and multiple examinations during the progression from coarse to fine. It is a tactile as well as visual progression as tool markings and small abrasions from coarse sanding are eliminated by subsequent grits. The surface quality may seem OK until the final finish is applied, as sanding dust can obscure defects that may be revealed later, so there are no short-cuts to be taken if a high level of finish is expected. When a person knows that other craftsmen may examine the work and make judgements of craftsmanship and quality of character based on what they see, and touch and if you are one of those encumbered by self-respect, you begin to realize that the quest for improvements in craftsmanship can be relentless.

Counting helps to keep the mind engaged and to direct the course of sanding just as the count is important in music and ballet. The count one, two, three,  four is useful for more than just the waltz. It can help in controlling  the length of time the edge of a box is engaged on the surface of a power sander. Or it can count the number of strokes with a hand plane or sanding block to approach perfect uniformity. Counting engages the attention and helps direct the motions of the hands. It keeps the mind and body at a state of awareness and complete engagement.

In any case, while someone watching from outside might think that sanding is a mindless task, please let me assure you that sanding is no more mindless than ballet. And yet there are idiots afoot in the world that would assume ballet is mindless because it is based on extensive practice and control of the body.

And how are we to have successful education in the US while policy makers are focused exclusively on standardized tests to measure our effectiveness? Instead, we should be focused on the things that really count in the lives of kids... things that make schooling real. The arts, dance, music, wood shop, laboratory science and other things that allow children to express what they've learned and make it relevant to their own lives.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


"When something is palpable, you can touch or handle it, even though the word is often used to describe things that usually can't be handled or touched, such as emotions or sensations. You probably won't see palpable used to describe, say, an egg or a doorknob or a motorcycle. Palpable is usually reserved for situations in which something invisible becomes so intense that it feels as though it has substance or weight."
The word palpable comes from Latin palpare "touch gently, stroke." On the other hand, children who get their hands on electronic devices too soon are losing the capacity to do other things. Parents have been in a mad rush to get digital devices into their children's hands as early as possible due to concerns that they will be left out of the digital age. They've been made to feel guilty if they've been unable to afford these devices for their kids. Those children too soon given the powers of digital manipulation may be left out of real human creative capacity. Even the ability to play with blocks is being lost to a new generation of children that have been given early access to iPads and other touch screen devices. Can that be a good thing?

This article in the New York Times offers insight into building the moral character of the child. Raising a Moral Child.

Yesterday I began sanding a mountain of small boxes. As you can see in the photo there is a lot of sanding to do after the boxes are first assembled. I use the band saw to even the ends of the boxes with the angle of the lids, and then sand the ends flush on the top, bottom front and back of each box. After rough sanding on the stationary belt sander, I routed the edges, and front edge of the underside of the lid and I am now moving through grits on my inverted half sheet orbital sander, paying careful attention to each surface.

For just a moment, I want you to reflect on your own learning with the recognition that you are not unusual or outside the norm. You may have noticed that those things that you have use for are easy to learn and long remembered but those things that are no longer useful to you are quickly discarded. Those things that you have no use for are often difficult to learn, as your interest has not arisen to the point at which they matter to you. A wandering mind gathers no moss. So it is. The brain cleanses itself of useless clutter.

The Common Core Curriculum being foisted upon children in schooling throughout the US will likely not have the effect that is hoped for. While offered with the best of intentions, the Common Core trivializes and de-contextualizes learning, turning the schools into bastions of artificiality. Emphasis on the Common Core may raise standardized test scores in the short term and at the expense of other learning, but it will be on the order of miraculous for it to have any long term positive effect. The pendulum swings. joyless classrooms will prevail for only a short time before parents and students (the best and brightest of them) launch into full rebellion. That's when wood shop will pop in again. When students do real things in school: art, music, athletics, laboratory science and wood shop, they embrace learning and their enthusiasm is palpable. It can be felt.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

growth of mind...

When I first conceived forming a wood shop at the Clear Spring School, it was because woodworking in schools had become wrongfully understood to be irrelevant to education. Wood shops had closed in high schools all across the US and with the exception of a few Waldorf Schools, and a small number of independent schools on the east coast, woodworking in middle schools and elementary schools were a thing of the past.

In my own shop, woodworking appeared as a nexus, interconnecting all things. You cannot DO real things without trespassing beyond the bound of the artificially contrived disciplines. Just as you cannot do Chemistry without math. You cannot do woodworking without some observation of the basic laws of physics, and if you begin to extract one thing from the other for the sake of convenience of instruction, the relevance of all things is sacrificed on the altar of expedience.

Froebel had in mind the education of the whole child, and to meet that goal, he suggested that education must consider the interconnectedness of all things. The following is from H. Courtwright Bowen's book Froebel:
" the young child, as to primitive humanity, all knowledge does, as a matter of fact, come as one whole, and that the subdivision into subjects and departments is a very gradually evolved plan, for the most part wholly artificial, and only adopted for the sake of convenience. Moreover, the very nature of knowledge itself teaches the necessity for connectedness."
This "connectedness" is the object of the reintegration of woodworking into education. Woodworking offers the opportunity to test what is learned in other more artificially contrived learning within the school, making real and of real interest learning that may have remained lifeless to the interests of the child. Our schools suffer from artificiality and disconnection from real life, as we suffer from the delusion that schooling will provide the necessary tools for our kids to prosper when graduated from their confinement.

Today, our Clear Spring School Students are at Heifer International, participating in their Global Village. I will be in my wood shop making a small mountain of boxes from a huge number of carefully machined parts.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, April 14, 2014

Make your soul grow...

Kurt Vonnegut's last writing assignment, written to a high school  in New York.

Make Your Soul Grow from Dogtooth Films on Vimeo.

What we need most now is the growth of the souls of educational policy makers so that they might see things as they truly are. Human beings are creative. We are expressive. Lacking interference by the humdrum, we follow leaps of learning into the making of useful beauty in the forms of music, art, and science. The only thing that can prevent those leaps appears to be the rigidity of our schooling.

There is a growing reaction to standardized testing and the core curriculum described in an article this week in Time Magazine. With all the pressures being put on children to all perform according to certain standards, when will children be exposed to great literature, the chance to write poetry, or to make a beautiful box?

For the coming months I'll be rooted in the subject of Kindergarten. I am starting on a new book, Making Kindergarten's Gifts, that I hope will stir young fathers and mothers and grandparents to take a greater interest in the progressive education of their own children.

When I went to Sweden and Otto Salomon's international school for teachers of Sloyd in 2006, one of the things that surprised me was the deep historic connection between Educational Sloyd and Kindergarten. The two movements were deeply entwined both in origins and philosophy. Both were firmly rooted in Froebel's thoughts. While the Russian system of manual training was concerned with giving students industrial and economic capacity (nothing wrong with that), Educational Sloyd was intended to grow the whole child, in physical strength, emotional balance, intellect and connectedness to greater purpose, and was intended as a continuation of Kindergarten methods throughout schooling.

The following is from Froebel's The Education of Man,
"Thus we find the human being, even in the earlier stages of boyhood fitted for the highest and most important business  of life--the fulfillment of his destiny and vocation, which is the representation (or outer active manifestation) of the divine nature within him. To lead this capability forward tot he acquirement of skill and certainly, to lift it into full consciousness, to give it insight and clearness, and to exalt it into a life of creative freedom by fitting stages of development and cultivation, is the business of the years which are not to follow. To demonstrating the ways and means for this, and of bringing them into the actual practice of life, a continuation of this treatise will be devoted, as will also the author's own life."
Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, my upper elementary school students will be working on their robot ramp walkers. This is a testing time in which we will learn whether or not they will work. They can be frustrating to tune just right and I'm hoping there are no great disappointments.

Make, fix and create...