Tuesday, February 25, 2014

If You Build It Screenings in Bay Area February 28-March 2nd

There will be If You Build It screenings in San Francisco and Berkeley this Friday, February 28th through Sunday, March 2nd and in San Rafael on March first.  The filmmakers, Project H director, Emily Pilloton, represerntatives from Realm Charter School and Tim Brown of IDEO will attend many of the screenings.

My apologies that I got the screening date wrong in an earlier blog post about Project H and If you Build It.

Woodworking Classes At the Randall Museum or Is It Safe For Teenagers Not To Operate Machinery?

San Francisco's Randall Museum offers woodworking classes for kids (with caregiver) starting at age 3. Classes continue into adulthood.

When you look at the photo (from the Winter Family Classes page of the Randall Museum's website) of that very young person concentrating as he holds a real hammer, to drive a real nail into a block of wood, it's reasonable to ask what is going on here? Is it safe? Is it age-appropriate? What is being taught and why?

Let's put these questions to the side for a moment and take a closer look at this remarkable photo. The young woodworker is fully focused and determined. Compared to the size of him, the hammer and nails are enormous, but you can tell that he will manage, with the full concentration and coordination of body and mind, (and the appropriate help of some pre-drilled holes to guide the nails), to drive the nails home. He's not at play. That is, he's in a very structured environment in which the only appropriate use of the hammer is to drive the nail. His purpose is clear. He will almost definitely experience frustration, for what he's being asked to do is far from easy. And he probably will experience pain. That unwieldy hammer will deflect. Instead of driving the nail home, it will slip off to the side. The hammer will come down on the nail but not hard enough and the nail will remain where it was. He will miss the nail altogether and hit his fingers. He will cry. He will quit. If he tries again and he ultimately succeeds, it will be irrelevant whether an adult does or does not tell him what a great job he did. He will know. The evidence will be there before him. And assuming that the block of wood being nailed is a component of a project he is building, he will take it home with him.

"The earlier the better," Jill Cunninghis, woodworking instructor at Randall told me when I asked her at what age kids should start woodworking. "Woodworking teaches important life lessons that the kids don't get elsewhere. What do you do when a project doesn't turn out the way you wanted? Do you try to go back and fix it? Do you learn from the failure and make a fresh start?"

The Randall museum, part of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and supported by the nonprofit organization Randall Museum Friends, has a wonderful offering of woodworking classes for kids. In addition to classes for the youngest woodworkers there are classes for kids aged 7-12. Young woodworkers who take these classes repeatedly can come away with a very comprehensive skill set. There are also classes for teens and adults, starting at age 16.

I asked Jill Cunninghis about the gap between the 7-12 class and the 16 and up class. "In all the years I've taught at Randall, I've only had one teenager participate in the adult class," says Cunninghis. "We have never had enough demand from the age range we're not covering, but if we got enough people interested to put together a class, we would certainly do so." Jill would love to see interest in that age range and says that if a group of six teens can be gotten together, Randall will find a way to offer a class.

So far, however, demand has been disappearing right at the age when many kids of my generation took shop --middle school and high school. If nothing changes, that young woodworker driving the nail will have moved on to other interests by the time he turns a teenager. We have a good idea of what he might be doing. It will likely involve, in school, heavy use of one small part of his brain and, out of school, a lot of screen time.

Now it's time to ask again the questions we asked, but never answered, at the beginning: What is going on here? Is it safe? Is it age-appropriate? What is being taught and why?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Superfluous Necessity

The oldest stone-tipped weapons date back more than 250,000 years.  Current understanding is that modern humans emerged around 200,000 years ago.  That is, we made tools before we were modern humans.  We've likely been making them ever since.

The above photo is from this National Geographic article.

As we step into the era of digital printers --where instead of making a wrench you can print a wrench-- it's reasonable to ask, will we ever need to use our hands to make anything again?  And if we won't need to, should we?  We can accomplish so much more collectively, with incredible efficiency, than we ever could individually.  Not only do most of us no longer need to know how to make and use tools, we don't have to cultivate crops, or sing, or tell great stories.  There are others who can do that for us, and far better than we could possibly hope to do ourselves. 

As modern individuals, we need only to acquire (work), consume and propagate.  This is a tremendous accomplishment but it invites the other parts of our nature to atrophy.  To stay human we need to use those parts of ourselves that necessity no longer requires, but that our nature requires.  We do have to sing and dance and draw, make music, tell stories, garden, play sports.  We need to be clever. And we need to make and use tools, with our hands.

When we think about the coming resurgence of woodworking education, it needs to include this perspective.  Yes, for some students, learning woodworking will be practical and may lead to a career.  But for the other 99 %, it will be like playing a musical instrument --superfluous, but a necessity.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Against a sea of troubles

At Lincoln High School in San Francisco, Thursday night, in an intimate overheated auditorium, Mr. Kim's honors English seniors enacted scenes from Hamlet, strung together in approximate succession, so that together they took the form of the play.  Each scene had its own director, cast, costumes, stageing and theme.  One group dressed in surgical scrubs, interpreting the play through the lens of Grey's anatomy.  Another performed the final duel using nerf guns.  Most of the students memorized their lines and surprisingly many delivered the distant text as if they were speaking it, so that their character and meaning came through clearly.  At the end, a student presented a gift to Mr. Kim with the (approximate) words, "You have set such high expectations for us and because we love you, we strive to meet them."

What does this have to do with woodworking education?

The students in Mr. Kim's class will never forget Hamlet.  The lines they memorized they will carry with them.  Meanings which they don't understand today might become clear to them decades from now.  Whenever they see a play or a movie they will understand to what extent it is but one interpretation among many, that it could have been done differently and meant something else.  Few of these students will likely go into theater, but they've all learned something of intrinsic value.  This kind of learning --learning for its own sake, learning for personal enrichment, has gone so out of style that's it looked on at best as a luxury and at worst, with disdain.

I've gotten into the habit of asking people if they took shop class when they were young.  Those who did invariably remember not only what they made, but the tools and techniques they used.  It sticks with them.  (Except for me and a few others) it hasn't furthered their career.  But they learned something that lasted, that's always there.  Think of the immense volume we learn in school that we manage to forget, as if our body had a secondary lymphatic system just for that purpose.  There must be some worth in what little remains.

The kind of learning I witnessed Thursday night is not the standard fare at Lincoln High School.  There is a rising tide in secondary education --of trying to quantify all learning, of valuing only that knowledge which will lead to employment, of preparing students for our busy, stressed lives by instilling early the habits of busy-ness and stress.  Mr. Kim's class, some woodworking education, all forms of authentic learning are islands in a rising ocean.  They're still there. Yet soon, they may all be underwater.  Or soon, the flood may begin to recede.

My high school has the motto, "That each generation may introduce its successor to a higher plane of life."  Too many schools today operate on the principle that each generation should introduce its successor to a higher standard of living.  Hamlet doesn't improve one's bottom line.  Woodworking does little for most balance sheets.  Music is a poor trade for most who ply it, yet clings to its position in many schools because its advocates cleverly make the case that music makes us better at math and is prerequisite for anyone who hopes to become CEO of a major corporation.

I humbly predict that as woodworking education makes its resurgence, we who understand the intrinsic value in woodworking will learn to sell it to our skeptical peers by finding that the kind of thinking that one learns woodworking will be essential to our country's future economic well being.  That those who learn to express a thought with their hands will have an enormous advantage over those who can only think through the interface of a screen.  That the best engineers, architects, builders, inventors and innovators of all kinds will come from those who learn at a young age to manipulate the physical world, not just the virtual approximation.

There might be some truth in this line of thought.  That woodworking prepares one for great but other endeavors.  Yet the opposite case also has merit.  Think of president Carter, the highest-profile contemporary American woodworker.  Perhaps his years in public service inform his craft.

We live in a society whose uniqueness lies in the way in which it assigns value. Very little has value in and of itself.  Each thing has value because it can lead to some other thing.  Education has value because it can lead to prosperity.  Wealth has value because it can lead to more wealth.  Sacred honor, so dear to our country's founding fathers, seems naive and foolish to us today for the simple reason that its value is intrinsic.  Music's value is intrinsic.  Art's value is intrinsic.  As is love's.

This brings us back to Mr. Kim.  The sweltering, tiny theater.  The raucous, enthusiastic audience, the proud, accomplished students.  The gift presented as an afterthought, the few words of presentation ad-lib: You have set such high expectations for us and because we love you, we strive to meet them.

That's something to keep in mind as we think about the reestablishment of woodworking education.  Where will be the accomplishment without high expectations and where the learning without love?