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The Writer’s Workbench

What teaching writing and teaching woodworking have in common

Recently my son attended a two-week course at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockland, Maine. What do woodworking and writing have in common? You might be surprised!

BEGIN WITH THE BASICS

As you might expect, the students didn’t begin the course by running a few boards through the saws. No, they started with “This is wood. This is what it is made of, how it moves, how it behaves.” The instructors were preparing their students, whetting their appetites, and carefully creating fertile soil in which the future lessons would bear fruit. When we teach writing, we begin with the basics as well. Time spent in the early stages of the lesson is time well spent.

THE WORKBENCH

What is the most important tool in a woodworker’s collection? Is it the table saw that can stop in a millisecond before cutting off a finger? Is it the chisel, sharpened and honed? What about the simple carpenter’s pencil? No, the first and most important tool is the workbench. Because it is the place where tools are kept and maintained, it is where the craftsman begins and initiates his creation. The more tools at his disposal, and the more comfortable he is with those tools, the more creative the builder can be.

Before the students ever began building their first project, they spent two days in the workshop sharpening their tools. Were they bored? Did they feel gypped out of a chance to “express themselves”? Of course not! The final project can’t transcend the quality of the materials. Teachers, again, let’s not short change our students by thinking “the final project” is the focus of the assignment. Teach them to use their tools.

QUALITY TOOLS

The woodworking students brought some of their basic tools from home. As the instructor began to explain the importance of quality and precision, he named a common brand of plane that lacked both. “Did anyone happen to bring one of these?” Oops. That would be the one from our garage. It did make for a good object lesson as the class quickly saw how a mass-produced inferior product could lead to imperfections later in the process. Not to mention, the student would be frustrated in his efforts to create a quality piece of workmanship. The lesson here? A good teacher won’t let a student use inferior tools. Resist the cheap, the easy, and the common.

MESSY PROCESS

My son came by his love for woodworking naturally. His father and both grandfathers have taught him. As the wife of a woodcrafter, I can attest to the fact that our garage will never house a car again; it’s home to The Workshop.

One constant source of concern is the dust. It’s everywhere. As glamorous as it is to find the perfect drill or lathe, the perfect dust collection system is more of a priority. This is messy work. The sawdust obscures vision – a safety hazard, gets all over everything – a finishing hazard, and enters the lungs – a health hazard. Dust must be dealt with.

Writing can be an equally messy process. We need to encourage our students to rejoice in the early stages and not to fear the “mess”: the cross outs, revisions, pencil marks, and other remnants of thinking and editing. Just as a good vacuum keeps the floor tidy, clear goals and self-assessment keep writing progressing. Help your students know where they are in the process, give them freedom to toss out what doesn’t work, and teach them the power of the good question to know what to keep.

SKILLED ONE-ON-ONE TEACHING

Thanks to technology, it’s possible for the motivated student to take advantage of all kinds of resources. Still, when it comes to building something from scratch, there is no substitute for sitting at the feet of a master. Every measurement, every cut, every nuanced stroke of the plane was carefully monitored by an artisan. The continuous feedback was priceless. Did my son return from his 2-week stint with a work of wonder? No, actually it was a table in pieces, a “kit” if you will. The polished pieces came later, the fruit of the time spent learning from every mistake.

When we work with our writing students, we take the longer view. We see that each mistake is an opportunity for growth. We encourage our students in their current skills even if we know that we may not be the teacher who sees the fruit. If school is a garden, sometimes we are the waterers and the pruners, not the reapers. (Yes, I realize I’ve switched metaphors from wood and tools to gardening and fruit. I’ve been around CiRCE for a long time!)

THE LEARNER’S ATTITUDE

When he returned home, I asked my son why his group of 12 students had such an incredible experience. They meshed well together and they enjoyed spending time outside of the class together. One of the instructors complimented that particular group as having an exemplary attitude. No one arrived with a prima-donna complex, rather all took instruction willingly and gratefully. Mistakes weren’t seen as an obstacle but rather a chance to learn more. The students and the teachers worked, taught, and learned in harmony. They didn’t have to be taught to love learning. They arrived hungry for it! They knew they would be on the receiving end of something valuable.

Will our writing students be so motivated? Maybe not, but my hope for those reading these words is that we look beyond the immediate assignment.

When we see our teaching as more than imparting information or satisfying a customer, we are free to see writing as more than an essay to be written or a worksheet to be filled in. Do we have control of every attitude that enters our classroom? Of course not. But we can respect our students, our subject, and the learning process. This in turn helps our students to be at home with their workshops and the tools of their craft. We build something beautiful together.

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