Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Perfectly Circular Holes, Differentials and Wooden Cougar Skulls.

Finding Usefulness in the Useless.

Recently  I received my first hate mail for a blog  post I wrote about not wanting to be told I had to become a better teacher. You can find it here.  The hate mail wasn’t really hateful, more just rude, unkind and not based on the facts, which I suppose hate is, too, but it did make me think. The writer, a fellow who I'll call Richard, said he was an assistant principal and that I was the poster child for why teacher unions and teacher tenure should be abolished. If not for high-priced lawyers he would “fire my ass.” I shouldn’t be allowed around children, I was pretty much useless and so on. Well, being the introspective fellow that I am, I have reflected a bit on this and the writer may have a point.

I teach in a small rural high school and as a result I wear many hats. Besides teaching three different science classes, I have two woodworking classes with kids ranging from those who have never cut anything more challenging than butter to students who have worked with me for four years, often more than once a day. 

And here I wonder if Richard isn’t right. The kids have four required projects that sequentially teach them skills and safety around machines that can turn their fingers into hamburger. After that, they can pretty much build whatever  they want. And this continues as long as they are in woodshop. So I have students building everything from chairs they may never sit in to bookcases for books they don't have.

Now I am sure there are state standards for what I should be doing in shop. But luckily my administrators don’t have time to get worked up over them, either because there are no high stakes standardized tests in woodworking, or, according to Richard, since my job is as secure as the Queen Mother’s they can’t do anything about me in any case, so why bother.

But I do have a few standards of my own that I follow. These weren’t developed by consultants or committees, so I am sure they are lacking in all sorts of important ways. 

My first standard is that students show up on time and get to work. As any teacher or business person knows, this isn’t an easy one to meet. 

My second is that students work to the best of their ability. They don’t get to move on until their project meets a very subjective standard of mine, which is, if they take the project home, are their parents going to be impressed that their child built this, or are they going to say, "Mr. Miller lets you get away with building this POS..." and he shouldn’t be allowed to work around children, yada, yada, yada.

My third standard is that students have to have something “useful” to work on and then they need to put in time on that project. This isn’t an easy one, either. Often high school kids don’t always have projects they want to build, period, and who gets to decide what’s useful anyway?

Industry certainly has an idea of what is useful. In a feeble effort to improve myself, last summer I sat in on a seminar sponsored by Boeing and other local industries to find ways to encourage kids to go into manufacturing and the STEM fields. 

There was a presentation by a Boeing representative about how Boeing uses the local high school skills center to teach kids how to become airframe specialists. He showed off a section of an airframe: imagine someone had taken a Skilsaw and cut a random square out of a 737 about the size of a pizza box. It was shiny and smooth and lined with hundreds of perfectly spaced rivets in perfect rows. Just like you would want to see the next time you board a jetliner.

 He explained that this was the culminating project of an eight week course on how to drill perfect circular holes in perfectly spaced patterns and perfectly rivet them together so that your next ride in a 737 doesn’t end up like this. 

Now that is useful. Trust me, I want my rivets in rows as much as the next fellow and here these folks have high school students learning this important and useful skill.  

And what do I have my kids doing? Pretty much any damn thing they want. 

You see, in my class, the kids get first right of refusal on what is useful. I have one boy building a custom gaming chair complete with drink holder so a moment won't be lost while he is zapping aliens.  I have a kid building an amazingly elegant, but possibly uncomfortable lounge chair, who will learn first hand where form and function collide. 

 I  have a couple of less directed boys who were always at a loss for useful projects so I put them to work doing shop improvements. After a few days of this they came to me and told me they had a plan. They wanted to build a game table out of the blown out rear end of one of their pickup trucks, the differential.  I was so happy they had a project that I said sure. And build it, they have. It stands about four feet tall and weighs over a hundred pounds. When I asked how were they going to sit at it, they replied that they would build tall stools. They learned how to weld and forge steel, and that an idea and its execution are two different things. And we all do like to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

 I also have a very creative and talented young woman carving an accurate and realistic life-sized cougar skull out of basswood. The real cougar skull is a family heirloom that resides in a velvet lined box. She reminds me of Hamlet as she studies the skull from all angles and sketches and carves it. She has become intimate with her project, she totally owns her learning, and in the end it has absolutely no practical use. There is no wooden skull reproduction industry threatening to ship its jobs over seas if our schools can't provide skilled skull carvers. But she is happy and so am I. 

So, in the end, who is right? Do we need skilled workers who can build airplanes in American factories for decent wages? Absolutely. Do we need people who are willing to do repetitive, precise, detailed work? Absolutely. Do we want the workers who rivet our airplanes to be free spirits who drill their holes any old place they want to? I would hope not. 

But we also need the type who see a cougar skull as more than a dead piece of bone and create something unexpectedly beautiful out of nothing. Or maybe an entrepreneur who looks at a junked airplane and sees furniture. Or the kid who decides that drilling hole after perfect hole isn't what they want to do for life and maybe they want to try something more interesting. Even if they can't meet the standards of fellows like Richard, maybe they would consider teaching. You never know where a little uselessness might lead. 


  1. That's quite a blog post. I read it on my phone, which was very
    effective, because right after I read the line, "And what do I have my
    kids doing?" I was hit with the photo of the spectacular chair.

    By the way, some of your students today gave a fairly professional
    critique of the wooden phone stand in my room--they described how one of the holes could have been drilled in a different manner, and
    pointed out an area where more sanding would have been helpful.
    Clearly you have some learning targets built into some of those
    sequential projects you talk about!

    You make a strong case for not teaching the drilling of holes in
    straight lines in your class.

    1. I could have given a professional critique of it too, but sometimes as teachers getting some work in period is better than no work at all.

  2. Very nice, Todd. I suppose if "Richard" had not posted his unfortunate comments you would not have been inspired to write this post, and we would all be the poorer for it. So, here's to all the Richards of the world who, in their intractable ineptitude, actually encourage the proliferation of that which they rail against.

  3. Very good post, Todd. My brother teaches in an alternative in Maine. The surrounding schools send all the kids that don't fit in their "normal" classes and that they'd like to get out of their classrooms. When I ask what he teaches he says "work ethic". They have built houses, rebuilt tractors, rebuilt the brakes on my car, etc. It's not uncommon to see these students graduate with a rebuilt pick up with tool box and headed out in the world starting their own business. Or as the case with my nephew, travels all over the world using his welding skills learned in my brother's class. (And he makes a 6 figure income).

  4. Thanks Gerard and John,
    I appreciate the comments. I know in my own life I learn a lot more after there is some context to learn it in. I wondered about why metals get hard since I made a chisel in eighth grade shop class. The teacher gave no explanation, just do X Y and Z. Some 45 years later I heard a simple explanation from a Materials Science teacher and I have been learning about metals bigt ime ever since. You never know where some little thing is going to lead. So I believe in providing little things.