Modern Artistic Blacksmithing Class

12 02 2010

I’m teaching a blacksmithing class at Hampshire College this semester. It’s a really cool opportunity for both me and the students. We’re going to be doing some really great stuff, and I hope to get a camera so I can document as much as possible.

The class is exciting for me for a number of reasons. It diversifies my income — I’m not relying solely on commissions to make rent. I’ll get some sort of Honorarium payment from Hampshire for teaching. The other thing it does is tell me a bit more about what I have learned in the past eight or nine months since I went to Europe. They say the best way to reinforce what you learn is by teaching. Since I want to be doing larger architectural works, I’m focusing this class on creating a window grille for the Lemelson office, and a section of fence, hopefully for the community garden.

We’re doing two projects, because the class is oversubscribed and I don’t want to turn everyone away. Since there isn’t enough room for a dozen people to work in the shop, I have to split the class up into two groups of six. Each group will design and carry out a different project.

This leads us to the nuanced difficulties of my task. I’m the only one in the room who really understands what it means to do one of these projects — I’ve been watching blacksmiths work on them for a while, but never really got a chance to do it myself. Now I get to be project manager and direct a bunch of other people. I have to plan out the workload so we don’t hit a bottleneck, relying on one or two people to get work done before the whole project can proceed.

I also have to teach blacksmithing techniques. The aim of this class is to build something large, because most of the blacksmithing that goes on at the Lemelson Center is small and relatively crude. People know how to make knives and hooks and bottle openers, because that’s all they’ve seen. No one has been teaching blacksmithing for a few years, so what’s been passed on is limited knowledge. I get to educate a bunch of almost-blacksmiths. Some of them have decent skills and hammer control.

Some of them haven’t ever swung a hammer in their life. About half my class has no blacksmithing experience. They don’t know the first thing about forging, and they just came to the class because it sounded really interesting. This group of people is also exciting to engage with — I have to figure out how to develop the right techniques without losing sight of the main project. They have to build muscle memory, a feel for the metal, a knowledge of which tools can accomplish what tasks, and they have to do it all while putting together a fence, or a window grille. I think they can do it though.

My hope is that the presence of a larger project will actually aid in our (nearly daunting) task. Once we get past the basics of hammer work, which will be an exercise at the start of next class, we can focus on the techniques specific to our projects. Does it have a rivet joint? We’ll learn to punch a hole and hammer over a rivet. Do we need twenty elements to be all exactly the same? We’ll learn to make and use jigs. Do we have a mortise and tenon joint? We’ll learn to put a tenon on a bar and drift open a hole. Of course, then we have to learn about proper cutting tools and making drifts of the correct size. I hope you can see how it all logically flows together.

The first hurdle, however, is getting the design together. How do you get a room of people who have never conceived of blacksmithing as anything larger than a bottle opener to design a window grille? You have to train their eyes and mind to perceive and think about the properties of ironwork. I started with books, lots of books with pictures of contemporary blacksmithing. I told them to look for compositions, joints, and textures of metal that they really liked, and share them with the class. The assignment was to go home and, from the books, choose elements or make up their own for ideal window grilles.

I’ll tell you how it goes! Next class, after a forging exercise, we’ll compile the drawings into our design. We’ll figure out how much metal we need, and by the third class hopefully we can start forging the final projects!

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You Just Don’t Understand Me

19 12 2008

As the snow blows sideways in this wonderful storm, I want to relate to you a really meaningful interaction I had with a three-year old this morning.

There’s this little boy who we’ll call ‘Jack’ for the purposes of this story. Jack is three years old, intelligent, articulate, and imaginative. He was in our parent-child program for a few sessions, but now he’s old enough to take classes by himself, with a group of other children his age. This is his first real class.

He is also L-O-S-T lost in his own world. Lost like wandering off during activities, collecting bean bags and rubber stars and stashing them under various mats in his own little game, that sort of lost. Lost like swishing his saliva around in his mouth to the point where it bubbles out and you have to say, “Jack, why don’t you go get a tissue from your mother,” because there’s really no polite way to breach the subject in the middle of class. (Don’t say, ‘eew,’ because I know you all did that when you were three or four, or twelve or twenty, in the shower by yourself.)

Now, I have no problem with this in general, because I think kids should have as much free play in their lives as they want — especially three-year olds. No sense in sticking them in structure if they don’t want it, except when their parents are paying two hundred mumble dollars for you to teach their wee one to roll over and stand on one foot.

But it really actually is a problem when you have seven three and four-year olds in a gymnasium and one of them wanders off, because then the other six get it in their heads that they can just go play too, and suddenly you’re herding… well, cats would be too easy. And safety wise, you don’t want oblivious kids wandering unsupervised around the equipment because “they could get hurt.” And it’s my liable ass that has to make sure they only get the good type of excitement.

Anyway, at the end of class, my co-teacher ‘Lisa’ and I take the kids over to a carpeted wooden pirate ship that was built specially for the gym. It’s probably the most rocking-awesomest thing in the world, with a steering wheel, slide, rope ladder, plastic rock wall and an honest to gosh plank that kids can jump off into the pit. Now, usually kids like to haul on the steering wheel a bit and then go down the slide, or they like to climb up to the plank and jump off, over and over. There are a special few who find the crawl space under the rope ladder and rock wall, and my little friend Jack is one of them.

Generally, I let them stay under there for a few minutes. At least I know where they are and that they can’t get hurt and won’t hurt anyone else. But eventually (being less than five minutes), it’s time to go. Now I have to get this kid to let go of his imagination for long enough to get him back to mom.

“Jack,” I say a few times to get his attention. He crawls out from behind the rock wall and looks at me through the rope ladder. While I address him, he starts fiddling with the ropes. “Time to come out,” I say.

“But I need to fix my windows,” he says. He picks at the ropes a bit more, but keeps an eye on me too.

“You need to come out now and either take your last jump into the pit or go line up with Lisa.”

He turns and looks at me straight on, with this intense gaze that only a smart, preoccupied kid can have. Then he scrunches his eyebrows together and in his adorable three-year old voice says, “Jacob, you don’t understand me.”

I love kids. He totally won my heart today.





Your Handbook for Building and Running a Young Writers Program

9 07 2008

In the final year at Hampshire College, students embark on a year-long independent project. Mine was starting and running a writing club for middle school students in Holyoke, Massachusetts — a depressed urban area outside Springfield. I recruited and trained volunteers (including Lindsay) from local colleges to work with the students after school on homework and writing. Though small, the club was meaningful for everyone involved. We produced three chapbooks and had a lot of fun.

I also wrote a handbook for others, encouraging others to start similar programs in their own hometowns. The handbook has a dedicated page on the blog here, and I’ve excerpted it below. If you think it is interesting and useful, please pass it along.


I run a writing club because I believe that writing education in particular is crucial.

Ours is a literate society. It runs on the written word. Business, government, community—all of these are defined in writing Walk down the street in downtown anywhere, and it’s clear that those who don’t understand the written word are at disadvantage. Street signs, billboards, storefronts, informing, directing, and advertising. The structures upon which our society is built—the codified laws, newspapers, books, all the ways formal information and discussion are transmitted, preserved, and passed on—are all written. Understanding and navigating the world around us requires an ability to read.

But to read is not enough.

A world in which we read but do not write is a world in which we do not have the tools necessary to exert power over our environment. Like toddlers, we would stand watching, unable to communicate our needs and desires in any nuanced way. We would be powerless to control even the forces that directly affect our lives—where we work, under what laws we live, how others view us, how we interpret our past and how we see the future. All this because we live in a literate society—one in which writing is the most accepted way to communicate in any formal sense of the term. Without writing, we are not free.

In my classroom, there is a boy who cannot really read. He can’t do math. He can’t write a coherent paragraph. When I ask him to write or even if we can figure out what he would like to write, he becomes very quiet. He gets his homework done because he copies off the girl who always sits next to him—she looks out for him.

“Do you have any homework?” I say.

“No,” he mutters, shaking his head.

“Mister, that’s because he forgot it!”says his friend, thrusting her copy in my face. She smiles sweetly and casts a sidelong glare at him.

He draws his skinny frame deeper into his big sweatshirt. “No I don’t have any,” he says, but can’t hide the sheepish grin that spreads across his face.

One day, he picks up a book on gangs. I watch him flip through it.

“Reading?”

“No. I’m looking.” He pauses at a picture of some older men, and then snaps the book shut. “They were in a gang?”

“Read it,” I say. I flip back to the picture—it’s a crowd of Mexican immigrants on their way to court. They were arrested because they were wearing zoot suits, a fashion commonly associated with gang members in the 1930’s. The boy figures it out, but only after I help him sound out words like “arrested” and “associated.”

He says there are gangs in the neighborhood where he lives, so I ask him to write about them, based on his own experience. He writes a sentence he says is fictional, and then I prompt him with questions to get him to fill in details. He resists further writing after getting this far:

“One day I want outside to play when I saw gangs start fiting in the middle of the road and the names were the cockroaches and the rats and they are fiding over territory one of the ganges where talking alot of stuff to the rats. Because the cockroaches Don’t Like the rat so they started talking bad like go suck a d***.”

He is in seventh grade.

Read more of Your Handbook for Building and Running a Young Writers Program…