Thursday, May 15, 2008

Kids These Days: The Reckoning

A couple of days ago I did a demonstration for some kids at my local YMCA. I wrote about this a few weeks ago and got some excellent suggestions. To my surprise, the whole thing went really well. Beforehand, I was worried that I’d run out of “tricks” in the first few minutes and be stuck there trying to come up with something. But before I knew it, 45 minutes had passed. Most of the time, the kids reacted to what I was doing as if I were a magician. Wows all around. It was quite an ego boost! There were also lots of questions, which was awesome. The four core kids were around seven or eight years old, with a few young teens watching from the sidelines.

I started by talking about trees. I named a few trees and then asked the kids to name some. They ran with it and offered lemon trees, orange trees, apple trees, pear trees, peach trees, etc. Granted, they were all fruit trees, but I asked for trees and that’s what I got! I showed them samples of cherry, walnut, maple, ash and dogwood (when I showed them the dogwood, one guy raised his hand to ask, “Does it bark?” Now that’s my kind of kid!) I drew a tree on the whiteboard and we talked about the roots, the trunk, the bark, the limbs and the leaves. My first theme was showing how lumber goes from tree to log to board to furniture part. I think it sank in, but, then again, most adults don’t even know much about lumber.

The next theme was the basic concept of making rough lumber smooth. To illustrate, I passed around a piece of rough butternut. I chose butternut because it has a very fuzzy surface that isn’t too splintery. I then passed around a piece of planed butternut. They were amazed that something so rough could become so smooth.

The next trick was perhaps the most successful of the day. I knew that I could show them some things and tell them some things that may or may not stick with them, but I figured I’d have a better chance of leaving them with a lasting impression if I let them get a feeling for working with wood. To illustrate how rough lumber is made smooth, I showed them how I used a hand plane. When I showed them the handplane, they acted like I was showing them a puppy from space. The only “bench” I had to work with was a folding table, so I rigged up a piece of plywood with a stop screwed into the end and clamped it to the table. (By the way, the venue for the demonstration was a hallway, so I had to be very creative…) I identified the parts of the handplane. When I pointed out the blade, they all shirked back like I was showing them a spider or something. I put down another piece of butternut and started planing. The first strokes yielded only sawdust because the wood was so rough. At this point I heard someone whisper, “It’s not doing anything.” Then I showed them the wood again and pointed out that it wasn’t smooth yet, but it was getting smoother. Then I did more planing and shavings started to emerge. Again, it was like I was pulling a rabbit out of a hat before their very eyes! I gave them each a curled-up shaving to examine and they described them as being like feathers or paper. One said it was like “a piece of smoke.” Wow. When the full surface of the little board was smooth, I passed it around. At this point I realized that kids, when understanding clicks in their minds, will involuntarily start to grin.

I then asked who wanted to try out the plane and, of course, they all leapt to their feet. I wanted them to get the feel for planing a piece of wood without having to worry about safety or technique, so I held the plane (a homemade little smoothing plane) in my right hand and let each kid put his or her hand on the front of the plane as I pushed it across the wood. Everyone got a turn. It really worked well (butternut planes like a dream). I hope the visceral feeling of the plane taking a shaving will stick with them.

I want to thank the folks who commented or sent me an email offering suggestions. I got lots of great ideas. I used Sophie’s idea of illustrating how grain works by giving them a piece of wood with the grain running lengthwise and one with the grain running across. I let one of the smallest kids break it. I then asked them what would happen if I made a table with legs that had the grain running across and they said the table leg would break if someone bumped against it. Thanks, Sophie!

I'm certainly no master. There are many people with much more to teach. But my focus was just to show them something they had never seen before. The experience was great and humbling, and I hope to be able to do it again some time. The biggest payoff was afterwards when an eight-year-old girl came running up to say, “Thanks for the lesson you taught us today.”



yugami said...

The feeling of a plane taking a shaving sure stuck with me from the 1st time I did it. And heck, I was 30.

J said...

Mitch, what a great story and experience. I wish my shop teacher in 6th grade had been like you -- meaning less creepy and more in tune with kids.
-- puppy in space