Friday, February 26, 2010

Scrap Walking Stick Creations

About two years ago I began carving faces, flowers, and bugs on the scrap pieces of wood that I cut off my walking sticks. For years I looked at those nice pieces of wood... some sourwood, rhododendron, or perhaps dogwood and just didn't feel right about tossing them out or into the wood heater. Even though they had been cast as walking stick rejects, for some reason I just loved these little pieces of finely cured wood so I gradually ended up with a fine reserve of the best pieces.

I might have already posted one of the greenmen here as seen in the picture above and now I'm back at it again! These little pieces of wood are just too beautiful and most of all they are just too easy to pick up and put into my cargo pockets when I'm leaving the house. During the day I can then work on them whenever I can find a minute or two.

These little "on the go" carvings are mostly unplanned so I use complete "on the spot" creative freedom in their woody creation. As seen in the other pictures I just finished another scrap wood face this week, just working on him when I could. He is made from a piece of rhododendron that is about 6" long and 1-1/2" diameter which is my ideal walking stick thickness.

While this particular little face is quite simple I was influenced from several references while carving it. Most of all I had just watched the movie Avatar the day before I began carving so that's probably where the look of something from The Planet of The Apes crossed with Star Trek's "Spock" came in. I even added some lavender skin tone to the final finish but it's hard to see from a picture.

Although he's not too complex when it comes to carving, this little fellow will make a nice addition to the "family" as I decide what the next one will be.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fire Building Contest Re-Visited: Boiling Water (Part 1)

In an earlier blog entry someone suggested that I have a fire building contest where the Scouts must boil a pot of water to win. During January our contest which concluded Firem n' Chit (fire building & fire safety) training, the kids had to team up and burn a piece of twine stretched about 18" high to win. That contest was a great success so I couldn't resist doing it again with the boiling water which was this morning.

For preparation I decided that I would extend the learning experience one step further and teach them how to make their own "hobo" campfire pots. First I had to develop the idea so I came up with a nifty handmade pot using one quart metal orange juice cans that were discarded from breakfast. These turned out just great but I'll explain in detail how we made them in part 2 of this post in a day or two because that's another story worth carrying it's own weight.

As usual I started this class by first having a brief review of fire building and fire safety that we covered during the first couple of classes. In an effort to instill their confidence I then had them gather sticks and tinder then I used these wet materials to start a demonstration fire. The kids are in our residential program for about one year and upon graduation they should be campfire experts and days like today which are cold, wet, and snowy present an additional challenge that will hone their skills to a "T".

Yes, today would be the ultimate challenge and after raining all night long my own spirits for success was dampened a bit but the kids love building a fire so I wasn't down for long. For some reason a campfire can captivate their complete attention and focus in a kid like no other activity can accomplish. All hands are busy and the contest was on!

Gosh, the wood they gathered was so wet but they had learned how to "snap" a branch to determine if it was dry inside. I had also showed them how to scrape off the outer bark which held most of the moisture like a sponge so they proceeded with confidence. Some of the kids would occasionally rub the twigs across their cheeks or lips where the skin is most sensitive and an excellent way to detect any moisture in the wood. They had listened and I was proud of their confidence and skill.
They had placed their tender just right inside the starter wood in such a way that the fire could "breathe" then so patiently pampered it by adding more fuel wood, but not too fast. In addition the teams also had to figure out a way to hold their pot of water over the fire and some pretty inventive methods were devised. They were brilliant and even on this wet and cold snowy day their fires began blazing one by one until the first pot of water reached 220 degrees Fahrenheit and we had a winner. 
Even though we had a winner there wasn't a single whining voice from anyone. The winning team let out a cheer of victory but all the other boys continued working on their fires until every team had boiling water. I was amazed at their determination and no one left until every pot had boiling water. A healthy dose of competition provided the motivation but when you see every losing team continue until they had boiling water made my day. Yes, they now have a new well-honed wilderness skill but even more gratifying to me as a teacher was the success seen through patience, team work, and technique.These kids have great potential.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Fixation & Repetition Ensure Classroom Success

Some dictionaries define fixation as an unhealthy preoccupation with something, but looking at it from an educational aspect in the woodshop I refer to it as "intense interest" in the project on hand. When a student becomes fixated on a project it is a beautiful thing to witness as a teacher. When it happens it's as bright in my eyes as is a traffic light turning from red to green then engines roaring at full thrust. The students entire psyche is engaged and he is oblivious to everything except his own focus. It really is that obvious but usually I'm the only one who sees it occur in the woodshop because I maintain my own intense focus on what's going on.

Just recently one of my students was fixated on his project with such intensity that I'm not sure if he would have heard my hands slap together. He did occasionally "come up for air" to ask my advice on a particular problem but his focus was full-throttle on learning how to make the mechanisms on his small box mouse trap work.

Yes, he asked for help but there was no doubt in my mind that he really wanted to master the skills to do it himself. I knew this to be true because after working on the trap for several woodshop periods he asked if he could make another one which leads to the power of repetition. And I'm not talking about the repetition inflicted on me as a child after misbehaving in class, then my teacher telling me to write 100 times, "The true meaning of discipline is not punishment, but the development of enough self control to study, learn, and achieve great things." (I must have written that phrase 10,000 times in elementary school) I'm talking about the kind of repetition that is present when a student wants to learn something new with a passion that can transform their very lives.

Doing something over and over again is probably the most powerful method of learning something new, but when the student is motivated to learn without the teachers constant nudging then he becomes empowered and in control of his own education..."to study, learn, and achieve great things."

With the right motives, prompts, and the ability to engage students imagination with meaningful hands-on activity, good teachers can also reach high levels of student engagement in any classroom setting. Most teachers are good for kids because teaching is a values driven profession but students constantly read you like a book and they know if you're genuine or if you're "just there". That can also be easily applied to parents and grandparents as well so step up to the plate and show a kid how to empower themselves.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Woodcarving Merit Badge: Relief Carving Requirement

For more than 5 years I've been using this American flag for the relief carving requirement when my Scouts are working on the woodcarving merit badge. The two final requirements for this must-have merit badge are to complete a simple relief carving and a carving in-the-round. I use a small dug out Indian canoe for the in-the-round carving requirement but I'll present that project later, if I haven't already done so.

A couple of weeks ago I finally put together a small wall display (as seen in the picture to the right) showing the steps for completing this project. For a relief carving, which is carving something on a flat surface, this flag has worked out great with all age groups and I would consider it as a perfect introductory carving to learn the basic cuts. Both 'stop cuts' and 'push cuts' are used in carving the 13 stripes and a stop cut must be made on the right edge of the star square which goes against the grain of the wood.

For the flag we use a pine board that is free of knots and is cut from a 1" X 12" which can be purchased at a reasonable price from any home improvement store. Basswood would be great but that's more expensive and I find that the pine works wonderful for this project.

The new wanna-be carver is given the pine blank with the 50 stars and 13 stripes already traced onto the wood as seen in step number one. When a new carver is learning the craft I find it very helpful and encouraging to have the flag already laid out on the wood which is a good practice to encourage and to ensure success.

For step number two as seen in the next picture to the right I show the carver how to do a stop cut on the right edge of the star cage which is "v" notched against the grain. I then demonstrate how to make a push cut by carving the first stripe using a controlled cut using both hands. By pushing this cut into the newly made stop cut, the student will then understand why a stop cut is just that... because it "stops" the cut. The 50 stars can then be lightly punched out with a large phillips head screw driver and hammer. Kids absolutely love to punch out the stars but not too hard or the board will crack in half.

The final step is carefully using acrylic paint to give the "stars and bars" some color. When dry complete Old Glory with a protective coating of polyurethane then tack on a picture hanger to the rear side and you've got yourself a fine relief carving to be proud about. And best of all this carving will complete the relief  requirement for the woodcarving merit badge and what kid wouldn't want to have that on their sash. As always, have fun and be safe!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Scouting Celebrates 100 Years In America

How could I let February slip by without mentioning the centennial of Scouting in America. Although it first originated in the United Kingdom in 1907 by General Robert Baden-Powell Scouting  first came to America on February 8, 1910 and this massive youth organization has been unstoppable ever since. Today there's 4 million youth members in the BSA and over 110 million Americans have been members at some point in their lives including Presidents Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

No doubt about it, Scouting has had an enormous impact on American culture for 100 years and I am more sure than ever that it will continue in strength for another 100 years. Why? The simple answer in my opinion is because "boys will be boys" and the BSA meets their needs for adventure ten-fold. Despite a modern culture that now seems to foster less personal responsibility and self-reliance and with political correctness gone berserk at every turn.. I still predict that Scouting will become larger and stronger than ever before.

Scouting offers the experiences that a boy needs to be successful and the kind of activities that have been engrained in their very being for eons. It's hard to erase those impulses that makes boys boys.

Scouting is light years apart from the prepackaged entertainment produced by modern culture and overprotective parents. Sure it seems easier to just place the kid in front of a TV screen or video game inside the house all day but doing so will produce only mediocre adults at best. Boys need adventure, hands-on activity, competition, and opportunities for "in the field" leadership. Scouting is all that and much more.

Sometimes it can be pretty hard to "unplug" a boy when they first come to camp but it's usually not long before they begin to see the opportunities and to engage. There's just something about pitching your own tent and sleeping in it overnight... paddling a canoe for 50 miles, or learning to shoot a bow & arrow that brings out the best in a kid. These are the kinds of experiences that build real friendships, quality parent-son relationships, and the character that leads to the husbands and fathers of tomorrow who will always be there for their family. You'll never reach these kinds of levels by following the path of least resistance which can be found in abundance in today's culture where parents allow their children to play mindless video games with no limits. As seen in the pictures to the left, I had very little time for TV when I was a youngster.

One of the best things about Scouting is that a troop is youth led. At a certain age, usually by sixth grade, most boys begin saying to themselves, "That I don't need to listen to adults as much". But when an older boy tells them to "Clean up your tent" or "Do the dishes" they listen. Peer pressure works miracles and the Scouts of today are youth-led.

Membership in Scouts only costs $15/year and about $200 for summer camp. No doubt about it you can't get a better bang for the buck when it comes to building character for the next generation. So long as Scouts continues to be youth-led, high adventure, and 100 percent hands-on then it will be around for another 100 years. Happy anniversary!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Easy, Fun, & Decorative Wood Beads

I know that I'm the teacher but I continue to learn volumes in knowledge from the students in my woodshop class with every passing year. That was just the case about three weeks ago when one of the kids asked me how he could make wood beads for a necklace that he wanted to make. I quickly ran his question through my brain containing more than 15 years of woodshop class repertoire but strangely nothing immediately came up and I had to pause with an answer to his question... however, I told him that I would get "right on it".

Wood and plastic beads are relatively cheap as you can purchase a huge bag of them at the local department store for just a few bucks so I've never got around to making my own. I've always used them to decorate the wrist straps on my walking sticks which adds a great accent to a woodspirit carving.

After some experimentation I knew that it would be next to impossible to carve out perfectly round beads in a time effective manner so I dismissed that idea right away. I then put my focus on making flat-sided beads and found them to be extremely time effective, fun, and they looked just great.

To make them I first cut several yellow pine strips on the table saw about 3/4" X 3/4" then planed them down to approximately 1/2" X 1/2". From there I used the bandsaw to slightly score the wood thus defining the squares onto the wood. (After I mastered just how to make these beads I've since cut a variety of sizes in beads up to an inch square and as small as just a quarter inch.) For beginning I still think that the 1/2" sized squares are the best all-around squares for learning just how to do it.

I could then cut the strips into lengths about 10" long which made them easy to carry around in the cargo pockets of my pants so that I could cut out several of them during any lag time that I could muster into my busy day. With the scored strips I simply used my jack knife to cut off the four corners on the top of each wood square, then I'd simply do the same to the lower four corners. "Presto" in just 8 simple push cuts I then had another wood bead ready for the next steps in finishing.

After a strip of wood squares have been carved I then cut them off in "threes" for drilling the center hole but later found that cutting them in "twos" was a lot easier. A pair of two beads worked great when I put them up to the drill press and held them with pliers. Depending on what you plan to use for stringing the beads will determine the size hole that you should drill. Next the beads can be cut apart and I string them onto a piece of stove pipe wire for safe keeping until the next step.

With the beads on a piece of wire I can then dip them into my favorite stain or paint. I found a gallon of "honey brown" stain at Wal-Mart for under $10 that works just great and the can is big enough for easy dipping. For color stained beads I just water down acrylic paints to a very watery mixture where much more wood shows than does paint. After dipping I just give them a couple of quick shakes to eliminate runs, then hang them up overnight at room temperature. The next morning I'm in business!

I intend to use these beads for weaving into the leather wrist straps of my future walking sticks where I believe that they will add an additional wonderful personal touch to them. Kids can also make fun creative necklaces from them and I suppose that additional accent could be obtained by woodburning various designs and markings into them.

As seen in the picture to the right I've even begun experimenting with carving tiny woodspirit faces into some of the beads which will open up even more possibilities. Wood beads will now always be part of my carving arsenal thanks to a simple question from one of my students a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Igloo Tour (And The Tools We Used To Build It)

With the best winter weather in years I just can't seem to get enough "snow" to satisfy my needs which is something that's been building up inside me for many years... so many years just waiting for that next great storm. Finally this winter it has come in an abundance, almost back-to-back, and dashing some very deep snows on us week after week. Therefore I don't want to forget this great snowfall and all the adventure that it has inspired in my own wanderings of my woody trails and the opportunities that it has provided me as a teacher.

The first part of this video takes you on a short tour of our first igloo both on the outside then a good look at the inside of the ice walls. It is my hope that you will get a "feel" for an igloo by following me inside for a moment to see what it's all about. The second half of the video is a short review of the tools that we used to make and shape the snow blocks. Be sure and dress warm for this project and in layers so that you can peal them off as the work heats up your body. Also use plenty of caution during building the ice walls and after the igloo is finished because it will still be somewhat fragile until you allow it to freeze during the night. After the igloo has sustained freezing temperatures overnight the ice walls will fuse together quite nicely into one solid block of ice making the natural structure very strong.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Random Minute During A Woodshop Class

This is a quick one minute clip from one of my woodshop classes last week. We build, carve, and burn a variety of projects but, like today,I find that students achieve the greatest success if they concentrate mainly on practicing simple woodshop techniques then gradually progress to a higher level.

This video gives you a very quick glimpse into a typical day of woodshop classes where approximately 60 kids each week have the hands-on opportunity to learn new skills. Unfortunately woodshop programs in our elementary and middle schools are disappearing at a rapid rate which is sad since such a program so perfectly compliments their conventional "in the desk" classes. And education experts wonder why boys are doing so poorly in school during the last decade.

Boys weren't made to sit still all day and listen to lectures. Boys learn best when they have a well balanced curriculum where "hands-on" and action/adventure based learning is part of their day. When educators figure this out then our next generation of boys will have a much greater chance of achieving great things.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Here's A School (and a woodshop teacher) That's Doing Things Right !

At a time when our schools are "scrapping" for funding here's a school and a woodshop teacher who found a way to make it happen.  As this video shows, Buljan Middle School in Roseville, California is apparently an exceptional school that has found a way to elevate their curriculum by studying music which even includes making their own guitar in Duane Calkin's woodshop class. A good article on Duane's program can be found at the Roseville Press-Tribune. It's nice to find a school that's not only doing things right, but a school that's exceeding expectations for their students far and beyond. Just watch this video and follow Duane's link above and you'll see for yourself.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Woodshop Has Gone "SnowShop" (Igloo update)

In accordance with recent history snowfalls like this don't come our way very often. Gosh it could be another 5 or even 10 years before we see snow like this again and we could even get 6 more inches of the white stuff before this weekend. With a sense of urgency in mind and being a teacher who doesn't like to let fantastic opportunities to learn new lessons "slip or slide" away, I therefore decided to insert some flexibility into my students schedule by making today's woodshop classes into "snowshop" class.

So many lessons can be learned by working with snow and those lessons can be just as much productive and powerful in teaching as when a student is learning to use his hands to build a wood box. In many ways I believe that snow crafting can introduce a student to some lessons that are even harder to grasp in a woodshop setting. For one thing igloos are much larger than anything that we build in shop class. An igloo is a project in building a shelter that the students gradually see transformed into a nice room with rounded walls that they can glean pride from having fashioned from the snow. From a bare spot in the forest to a rounded room that echos your voice is great evidence of internal learning that just can't be achieved in other ways. That is golden.

Somehow by using snow as a natural building material also seems to trigger something prehistoric in the participants. Snow is a natural material that humans have been using for temporary shelters for probably thousands of years. Snow isn't something that can be purchased at the local home improvement center but instead it is a natural material that is real and those who learn to skillfully form and carefully fashion the icy blocks into strong walls will learn a valuable lesson in resourcefulness and self-reliance. Knowing that you can build walls and roofs as protection from the earthly elements from something as simple as snow will instill another level of self confidence that is almost impossible to achieve inside the classroom. This is a real lesson in life that you have to learn in the woods and by learning to build useful things from naturally found materials and with your own hands.

Make no mistake about it because working with snow is very hard work. Some students, especially in the begining, will be turned off by this activity because they know that it will require much physical effort. Fortunately those students are mostly far and few between but in their own growth they will still learn by observing because the spirit in teamwork is hard to ignore. Human nature will usually help these students because everyone wants to be part of something and eventually their internal desire to contribute and to be a team player will win them over. When a group of people are working together as a team to accomplish a common goal by using their hands a higher spirit in cooperation will soon become so powerful that a bystander can not resist.

Therefore I challenge you to get your students (or children) outdoors once in a while so that they can learn the kinds of lessons that will compliment their chances of success in the conventional classroom. Turn off their video games and just do it then see for yourself!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Scout Class Building An Igloo

Since the North Carolina mountains received another one foot-plus of snow last Saturday I've had to alter my Boy Scouting classes for this week. I had planned for a natural science nature hike to work on 2nd and 1st Class rank requirements while also injecting an introduction to watersheds, landforms, and the three major rock groups. Unfortunately this exciting class that would have ended around a small ridge top campfire for a final quiz and discussion will have to be postponed for another week or two so stay tuned for an update.

With one door slammed shut I only had a couple of hours to come up with an alternate lesson plan and direction for my class. The day was damp with a slight drizzle in the air and about 10 to 12 inches of snow still covered our wooded paths. After a cup of coffee our educational coordinator told me about her experience with the United States Marines several years ago when her sergeant had them to practice their outdoor survival skills by building igloos after a two foot deep snowfall while stationed in Massachusetts. After some thought I got busy gathering several shovels and other tools for a class about igloos.

I had some old OSB board that I made an (18" long) X (12" wide) X (10" deep) box that had no top or bottom. As seen in the pictures we placed this box frame where the next "snow brick" would go, then proceed to pack snow into it and then finish by slipping it upwards leaving behind a nicely shaped block of snow. Originally this snowfall was dry-like and powdery but today's drizzle provided just the right dose of moisture to make the snow stick. Gradually the walls got higher and with each layer we had to also begin slanting the walls inward to make the roof. The kids also had to make some sculpting boards for shaping odd humps of snow smooth and for packing snow "mortar" in-between the snow bricks to make the wall one solid form.

Building the igloo was a somewhat messy job on this balmy February morning with a slight drizzle but the kids really took ownership of the project. I began with a short discussion about the origins of igloos and of course everyone related them to the native Eskimo people of northern Canada and Alaska. For many centuries these hardy and resourceful people have used the igloo as reliable shelter while on fishing and/or hunting expeditions while away from their tribes or villages. We also discussed how the igloo could be used as an emergency shelter when caught in a snowstorm in the wilderness and their ability to shield the body from deadly winter wind.

While building the igloo the kids came up with some brilliant questions. As he was packing snow mortar in-between the blocks of snow one student wondered how strong the walls would be. This provided an excellent opportunity for a casual conversation about how the ice blocks meet at the top of the igloo roof where the structural integrity is found by distributing the weight evenly in all directions.Questions like this are a teachers optimum opportunity to teach a lasting lesson because it was first generated by the students hands-on experience. We weren't in a warm classroom with beautifully organized desks with a teacher asking questions to the students from the front of the room... no, we were in a "real" classroom and the students were asking brilliant questions inspired by building an igloo with their own hands. This is the most powerful kind of learning and the kind of lesson that will last for a life time.

An hour goes by fast when you're busy building and learning so we didn't quite finish the igloo today and we still need to close-in the remaining 1/3 of the roof. Despite the cold, the wet, and the mess these kids worked hard on their igloo today. Although I don't have any scout classes scheduled tomorrow, at lunch they asked me if they could try finishing it tomorrow if they could work it into their schedule so I granted them permission. I wonder how many teachers in a sterile and warm classroom setting get asked this question by their students. Education can be an intense and a powerful experience when students are engaged with their hands and then inspired by their own curiosity and imagination.