Sunday, January 19, 2014


Thomas Friedman's column in today's New York Times,  Obama's Homework Assignment, cites a 7th grade teacher frustrated by students and parents' low standards.  Friedman uses the teacher's experience to make his point that we Americans are going to lose the global competition against those in other countries --he gives the example of Korea-- who expect and demand so much more of their schools and teachers.  Friedman writes:
After complaining about the “superficial curriculum that encouraged mindless conformity,” she wrote: “I decided that if I was going to teach this nonsense, I was at least going to teach it well. I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. ... I quickly rose through the ranks of ‘favorite teacher,’ kept open communication channels with parents and had many students with solid A’s. It was about this time that I was called down to the principal’s office. ... She handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. At the time, I only had about 120 students, so I was relatively on par with a standard bell curve. As she brought up each one, I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work — a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further. 
“Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: ‘They are not allowed to fail.’ ‘If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.’ What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline. ... Teachers are held to impossible standards, and students are accountable for hardly any part of their own education and are incapable of failing.”

Friedman is using this teacher's account to illustrate the lowering of standards.  Yet he passes over the most important point.   The teacher describes what she was teaching as a "superficial curriculum that encouraged mindless conformity." It's a wonder, then, that more students didn't refuse to participate.  The solution is not, as Friedman suggests, to get our students to do more.  We must give them meaningful work.

We have thrown the industrial arts out of most public education, we (in California) have insisted that all students take the courses required by the University of California for admissions, we have narrowed the teaching of those courses so that they conform to the national standards, we have allowed the college-prep classes to push out the rest of the curriculum, we have raised the cost of higher education so that it is increasingly difficult for those without the means to obtain a college degree and we have ensured that those who won't get a college degree have no useful training.

It's as if education were an already-used lemon and we've been squeezing and squeezing it to get out a few more drops --more kids in college-- and now policy makers will find the answer to this education crisis is in asking us to squeeze even harder.  Longer school days.  Less vacation.  Higher test scores.

If you ask students and teachers, of any age, in any subject, what are the moments that make them love learning and teaching, they will speak of "aha" moments, when they grasped or conveyed an idea, learned or taught something they would be able to use for the rest of their lives, or broke through a mental barrier and understood, implicitly, that there were then others out there that could also be broken.

Recently at my shop I reminisced with Nacho, who has been an employee for well over a decade.  He came to my shop speaking Spanish, not English, had no discernible skills and very limited prior education.  We were in the process of moving to a new shop.  I told him to run copper pipe around the perimeter of the shop, for compressed air lines.  He said that he didn't know how to sweat copper.  Rather than tell him how, I told him, "Learn."  This, he told me, these many years later, inspired him.  He didn't just learn to sweat copper.  He learned that he could learn to sweat copper.  He has been learning ever since and has collected such a vast collection of skills that he's one of the most important people in my shop.

Nacho came to the United States after age 18, so he missed our education system.  Had he come a few years earlier and found himself at the back of the track, trying to fullfill the Califonria A-G requirements, he would likely today be in a monotonous low-level job.  This is something to consider.  He may have done better by escaping our education system than he would have done from within it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Project H

January 28th, I will go to the screening of If You Build It in San Francisco.  More on that once I've seen the film.  The back story is told pretty clearly here by Project H founder, Emily Pilloton.

Project H (Design initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health and Happiness) uses design as a tool to empower and inspire middle and high school students.  This isn't just about designing cool stuff, it's about shifting the education paradigm from students as passive knowledge recipients to students as active agents and building real projects to meet their community's needs.  The most famous project, that which the film describes, is Pilloton and her partner and co-founder Mathew Miller's sojourn from Berkeley to Bertie County, North Carolina, where they taught High School for a year.  The course: design and fabrication.  The final exam: cutting the ribbon on a farmer's market for the struggling rural community.

If the film is true to the trailer, the story goes something like this:  Young, idealistic and talented designers decide to use design as an education tool.  To prove their concept they choose a place of rural poverty, hard swept by the winds that have scoured our country in recent decades.  They take a small group of high school students and with them design and build a large-scale community project: a farmer's market.  Against all odds, their moment of inevitable defeat passes.  By reaching within themselves and outside the classroom to the community they're trying to impact, they succeed.

The idea of making students active agents rather than passive recipients, of having them engage in real-world projects rather than endless assignments that are practice for a day so remote it seems it will never come, of taking learning outside the classroom, of using the creativity and energy of students to address our communities' unmet needs  --these are not new.  But they are in decline.  We've gone from the idealism of the sixties and seventies, where there were lots of Emilys and Matts out there, trying novel approaches to education, building communes, envisioning a better world and then giving it a go, to today, where we test students, teachers and administrators into submission.  The drill inside most schools that I've seen lately, is first cover all the stuff that you have to so that the students will test well, then do some real teaching/learning --kind of like the party-- at the end.

Emily begins her TED talk by saying that she and Matt have moved to Bertie, North Carolina.  And throughout the talk she makes clear that she does not want to be an outsider who comes through with big ideas, erects a farmers market, makes a film and then leaves.  The question of what happens now in Bertie and with Emily, Matt and Project H, is worth asking.

I'm not questioning the value of project H's contribution.  I find project H inspiring.  It's the kind of project I could get excited about getting involved in.  I'm asking because I'm trying to figure out where to put my energy.  And if you're also interested in bringing back some form of hands-on learning, of where we should put our energy.

Could project H or something like it be a model for the resurgence of shop class?
I think the answer is a very qualified YES.  This is definitely the hard way to go.

Think of it like this.  To bring back shop class or the modern equivalent of what used to be shop class, we would need a consensus that we made a huge collective mistake in under-appreciating and eliminating the manual arts --wood shop, autoshop, home-ec and the rest.  We would need to recognize that both for our students and our society we need to bring them back.  We would need the political will and funding to bring the manual arts into the schools again.  We would need a new vision of what the appropriate early 21st century content of these programs should be.  We would need to articulate the context of these programs, that is how they would relate to jobs, careers, self-sufficiency and future learning.  We would need teacher training, community buy-in, partnership with industry.  In other words, it would comparatively easy.

It would be easy because in essence the solution would be a re-establishment.  It would happen within our existing structures: government taxing and spending, policy and implementation.  North Salem High School's woods manufacturing program is an excellent example of what such a program might look like.

Project H would be very hard to replicate on a large scale.  I have only seen the trailer, not yet the movie, but from the trailer it seems that the very thing that makes the movie good will make replication of a project H type program hard: it almost failed.  Two extremely bright and talented individuals worked with ten students for a year and still almost didn't realize their project.  That's a student-teacher ration of 5 to 1.  The teachers are young, very bright, energetic and fully in.  I imagine that they lived and breathed this project for the year they were engaged in it.  It's hard to replicate that kind of excitement, enthusiasm, dedication, perseverance and talent.  Yet sometimes, the hard way is the only way.

The promise of project H is that it goes deep.  It doesn't try to serve all students.  It doesn't pretend to be a grand solution.  My sense thus far is that what it does,  it does well.  This appeals to a cabinet maker.

Monday, January 6, 2014

North Salem High School Woods Manufacturing Program

Evan Anderson, a friend, past employee and owner of Near West, an east bay cabinetry company, sent This Article about a great woodworking education program in Salem, Oregon.  The North Salem High School Woods Manufacturing Program serves 400 students annually.  The program does a number of things worth emulating:
* It has a clear focus.  The purpose is to train students to make them ready for the woodworking industry to hire.  This is not a program where students make a step stool to give to their grandmother (like my middle school shop class).  Students participate in real-world cabinetry projects that generate income for the program.  Upon graduation (4 years), if they're qualified, they have the opportunity to work for a local manufacturer that pays them $12-15 per hour to start and as much as $50,000 annually including benefits after 5 years.  This is a real-world skills/jobs program providing students a school to work path.
* It partners with industry.  The program has received $600,000 in donations from what reads like a who's who of the woodworking industry, from major equipment suppliers like Stiles to Besse, a manufacturer of very nice clamps.  That Dean Mattson, the current program head has been so incredibly successful at garnering industry support makes me think that what I suspect might actually be true: that the very human beings within the woodworking industry are eager to participate in education in the way they know best, by giving their products and expertise.  There may be an element of promotion and self interest in their partnering with schools, but there's also, I imagine, tremendous pride that they can be an important part of the resurgence of woodworking education, coupled with altruism.
* It integrates woodworking with other disciplines.  Students are enrolled in a four year program that includes other subjects.  In math, they learn the kinds of math they need for woodworking.  That would be geometry, some algebra and (when they get their cnc machine), I imagine a good deal of math related to programming.
* It gives students a path they can believe in.  Instructor Dean Mattson talks about his student-centric approach to woodworking education.  It's all about getting the students to buy in, to believe that what the program offers is of real value, and then following through with training that leads to employment.
* It stays focused on the big picture and the small picture.  As a teacher, Mattson is focused on the student.  From reading the article one gets the sense that he sees the program through his students' eyes.  He's down at their level and that's likely why he's successful.  But he also keeps his eye on the big picture --getting to know the companies that donate equipment, thinking about who will replace him when he retires, serving on AWFS (Association of Woodworking and Furnishings Suppliers) education committee.

A few thoughts:
The program is definitely taking the old-school heavy-equipment approach to shop class.  Back before most of them were torn out, school shop classes had serious heavy-duty equipment.  I question whether the new shop classes (assuming there is the resurgence I anticipate) will need or want such heavy equipment.  Portable hand tools have gotten very good.  At great loss of efficiency and at much lower cost, I could produce most of what we make at my shop without the major equipment, but using just small power tools.  This might be a good way to go for future shop classes.  After all, it's not so imporant that students have high productivity while in class as it is that they learn to think as woodworkers.  A woodworker's skill is knowledge, creative problem solving backed by lots of experience.  The start down the road toward knowledge could occur with simple tools as well as with the very best of what the industry partners can provide.  This might prove a practical approach as woodshop catches on again and there are many, many programs.  The industry will not be able to donate $600,000 to each of them.  At that point, other sources of funding will have to be found, or equipment will have to be simpler, or both.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

SF3D leads

I posted my interest in woodworking education on, which is an excellent group serving the Bay Area design community.  It includes architects and designers as well as lots of fabricators of all kinds.

I've gotten lots of leads thus far from SF3D.  It will take some time to follow up on them, but here they are:

This from Tom Powers at
Hi Ken, everybody,
I helped to start an early childhood art education project in Santa Barbara. I put tools in the hand of six to ten year old children in order to teach hand woodwork. No one bled, probably just good luck, and the program is still going strong today. We began as a volunteer staffed nonprofit with funding from the community and eventually a grant from the National Education Fund. We drew teachers from the professional arts and crafts community; people who made a living with their work and were willing to teach their skills part time. It has now been incorporated into the County School system. Kathy Koury, an early teacher, now works as the director.

We worked with very young kids but the same direct contact would easily adapt to older people. It is very rewarding work. One learns to talk to a student in terms adapted to their level of understanding without the pressure of having a completion deadline.

Good luck,

This from Bill Callahan at

Hello Ken, I believe all will agree we've lost something special and important over the last few decades closing high school wood and metal shops. I attended a vocational school when I was in high school in the 60's where all trades was taught, including brick laying to type setting to name a few. For me, like others academics was not necessarily my strength but important, especially math. In addition to my pursuit today of design and construction of sustainable furniture I've recently launched a non-profit called OHIAS (Our Health Is At Stake) who's mission is to end waste as we know it today by putting it to work, putting people and community to work for the benefit of all people, community and planet. Our first project will be the creation of a (Marin) community benefit cooperative were people of all ages (especially those with the least opportunity - homeless and disabled) will be provided work transforming so called waste into high value materials and products. One example will be our urban forest yard where fallen trees from streets and yards will be transformed into certified lumber for woodworkers and builders. In addition to transformation, the center will provide all types of repair services like rebuilding small motors and appliances. Education will play a major roll, teaching people of all ages safe and proper tool use so they can do more independently. I figure there's upward of $82 million dollars of (circular) economic opportunity annually here in Marin alone, with most coming from construction waste (new and old). This project may not exactly fit what you're thinking about but I thought I would share it. 

Bill Callahan

Interim Director
OHIAS "Our Health Is At Stake"
1115 Third Street
San Rafael, CA 94901

This from Brian Schmitt at


Studio H is an in-school design/build class for 8th-11th grade students. First launched in Bertie County, NC and now based at Realm Charter School in Berkeley, CA, Studio H students apply their core subject learning to design and build audacious and socially transformative projects. 

Brian Schmitt

This from Patrick Hayes at

Ken and Community:  I am not sure how to plug into this project, though I will make myself available when boots in the shop are needed.

Great to see this discussion and to learn of Tom’s efforts.  Seems we are coming full circle are we not?  Wood and metal shops were available in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s in most public schools along with drafting.  Then seems to have left the education system.

Here is one regressive policy that I strongly support!  Trade training for all!

Patrick Michael Hayes, LEED® A.P. , DFD
Recycling Specialist, Environmental Services Division
City of Oakland  |  Public Works Agency  |  APWA Accredited Agency
250 Frank H Ogawa Plaza, Ste. 5301 |  Oakland, CA  94612

This from Ron Goldman at
Ken --
Let me know what develops.
I'd like to publicize it in Woodworker West.

Ron Goldman
Woodworker West magazine
Now available in digital form.

This from Christian Dauer at
Randall Museum as a long established shop class for all ages
scroll down on link for teen and adult course description.
We just toured the SF Waldorf and they do have great offerings in handtools based wood work

This from Gregory Johnson at
The high school i attended in Stockton has now set up a construction technology academy. They prep students for a wide variety of careers in the trades.

This from Patrick Hayes at
Ken:  I think there is some value in looking at the curriculum of Waldorf Schools.  Woodworking, hand tools, is part of the upper elementary school programs.  It is part of a progression of motor skills training that starts with knitting and crochet.  I am going to inquire with Seth Melchert, my mentor, and parent of 3 Waldorf grads, now college age people.

Will keep you posted.