Monday, June 24, 2013

Cigar Box Guitar? To teach math? Really? Absolutely.

G-Funk carries his ukulele with him everywhere. As I walk up the hall to his 7th grade Career and Technical Education (CTE) classroom, I hear him playing. I hear him again as he leaves the school after the carpentry club ends. G-Funk (“Grant” to his teachers) and 200 of his middle school classmates built cigar box guitars over the past two years, during and after school. Grant’s guitar ranks among the best built and best sounding.

Using Building To Teach materials and methods, the Cigar Box Guitar Project started in one school as a way to teach 20 students “hands-on math.” It has ended up serving over 200 students from all the middle schools in Alexandria, Virginia. CTE teachers now coordinate with math teachers; students, teachers and parents gather for school district-wide “gut bucket” blues concerts; the students are engaged in their projects; and, they’re measurably improving their math skills.
Download the Building To Teach Cigar Box Guitar Math Instructor and Building Guide 

A small city inside Washington DC’s beltway, Alexandria, Virginia’s public schools have a diverse student population which brings tremendous challenges, opportunities and rewards. I’m a wooden boat builder and carpenter by trade and have become a hands-on math instructor. My own kids have led me to guitar building. (They like musical instruments better than boats...) With the on-line inspiration of Keni Lee Burgess, I’ve even started playing a little bottleneck slide.

None of this work happens without good partners. Alexandria has two of the most flexible and open minded middle school CTE teachers you will ever meet in Matt Cupples and Kyle Godfrey. They’ve allowed us to come into their classrooms and work with their students. They’ve also made our work much, much better.

Curtis Blues ( is a local blues musician/ historian who’s crazier than any middle school student I’ve met. Who else could take a class of kids who have never played a lick and get them to perform a concert, on stage, in front of their peers?

Affection for cigar box guitars is not isolated to Virginia. After taking a CBG building workshop with me at a ‘Teaching with Small Boats” conference, Chris de Firmian has the kids of Ukiah, California building and playing.  He’s not alone. Google “Cigar Box Guitar” and you’ll get over a million hits. We want to continue to spread the fun. You can download the Cigar Box Guitar Math Instructor’s Guide. The related hands on math instructional materials and exercises are available through Building To Teach, also free of charge.

We get to do this work through the context of teaching math skills. Kids learn symmetry, measurement, fractions, basic geometry, even Algebra through building the guitar and laying out its fret scale. The math achievement is easily measurable; but what’s really great about this work is watching the student use what they build and change their expectations about what they can achieve.

Every Thursday afternoon G-Funk and his mates meet in Kyle Godfrey’s (CTE) classroom. They are now building electric guitars, working in hundredths of inches, learning to select the correct piece of wood for their fretboard and doing all the wiring. Best of all, I get to help.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Math Basics--Our Kids Need Them

Montgomery County, MD is a well-off DC suburb with some of the best public schools in the country. Recently, the Washington Post published articles revealing that 40%- 60% of Montgomery County students were failing the county wide tests in higher math--algebra, geometry and precalculus. And, while 62% of students may fail the geometry test, only 16% fail the class. These statistics have been public for five years and are no secret to the County School Board, educators, students and parents. (The Montgomery County PTA even published a chart showing how to fail the test and pass the class) Nor is this type of situation unique to Montgomery County. In Alexandria, VA, another well-off DC suburb, only 22% of students passed the 8th grade statewide Standards of Learning tests for math.

The problem doesn’t stop with high school. Seventy percent of Montgomery County high school students failed their math entrance exam to community college and need remediation. Northern Virginia has similar results. A national study from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University shows that 60% of students trying to enter Community Colleges fail this type of exam.

So, what’s going on here? Jerome Dancis, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland, knows the answer. He says students have long needed the basics--multiplication, division, percentages, decimals, exponents and fewer calculators. If they don’t know the basics then they are in trouble.  “If (students) are not fluent in arithmetic then they are going to have trouble in Algebra I, Algebra 2 and Precalculus.”

The problem is: we’re not teaching the basics and our kids aren’t learning. The Training Within Industries program in WWII had it right. “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” We need to truly teach the fundamentals of math. In my view, in order for this to happen, our kids need to know that math is useful. And, they need to be fluent enough in basic math to work without a calculator.

For many of these kids, the best way to learn math is through hands-on, project-based education. That’s why we developed Building to Teach, a national program that teaches teachers how to use hands-on building projects to teach math fundamentals.  I have seen hundreds of instances where kids who couldn’t grasp math in the classroom are able to learn through the building process and become excited about using math.

It’s very simple--the building process is an historic use of math; students learn the math skills if they have to use them. Historians tell us that math was developed about 2000 BC. Widespread classroom teaching of math is only about 200 years old. So, math instruction was “project- based and hands-on” for the previous 3,800 years. Math is a critical tool we all need to succeed, as well as a language we need to speak.  We forget that at our--and our kids’--peril.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Building To Teach Update

It’s well past the New Year, and I thought I’d give you an update on Building to Teach.

As you know, almost a year ago Kent Barnekov took over as Executive Director of the Alexandria seaport Foundation so I could concentrate on developing Building To Teach. Up to that point, the Seaport Foundation staff had compiled and distilled some of our teaching materials- we’d even trained several other organizations- but the program just wasn’t moving forward fast enough.

Our big break came in August, when we were told that the Office of Naval Research (ONR) had funded our proposal to develop our materials, put them on the web and start training other boat building organizations in how to teach math while building boats. ONR is trying to develop a future workforce with skills in science, technology, engineering and math. What better way than having kids build their own boats? While working on a project, they learn that math is a useful tool and hopefully they learn to really like boats. Special thanks go to Dr. Kam Ng, our ONR program officer, for his belief in our work.

The purpose of the ONR grant is to, over three years, train fifty non-profit organizations across the country to teach basic math and engineering skills to 4500 underserved youth in grades 4 – 12 through boatbuilding oriented, project based lessons that align with math and science Common Core State Standards, as well as Career and Technical Education (CTE) skills and competencies. Volunteers from Navy related Agencies and Industries will also be engaged and trained to serve as on-line tutors and career mentors. Training for the organizations and volunteers will be provided both on line and in person.

The project is funded by ONR for its first year. By July, the on-line training materials will be up and running, twenty organizations will be trained and volunteer training will be underway.

Work started in earnest in August. The first milestones involved refining our existing teaching materials, developing new materials, as needed, building the web based distribution tools and starting to get word out. Here are some of the results...

Two Step Training Certification
Based on feedback from interested organizations, time has been spent refining the training model. There will be two levels of certification. The first is on-line and will be available to interested organizations. The second level of certification is “in person.” This will be available to organizations who qualify for support under the ONR grant and have completed the on line training.

Public Website-
The online face of Building to Teach is a “Public” website. This website was launched in December and is still being refined. The on-line training will happen on password protected “Builders Sites.”  The concept and flow for the websites and their related technology is being worked out and reviewed by a committee consisting of David Welsh (Arlington Career Center), Heather Rosato (Yuma Productions), Erik Kimel (Peer2Peer Tutoring) and Walter Rissmeyer (Blueland Media,) Heather Rosato has been doing a wonderful job synthesizing the materials and making them coherent and good looking. Jack Mandel (Jack Mandel Design) also designed a very nice logo.

Building a Skiff to Teach Math, Getting Started in WoodenBoats, Vol. 32- WoodenBoat Magazine, January/ February 2012-
A seven page introduction on how to teach math while building a simple boat, this article is the public “kick off” of Building To Teach. WoodenBoat Magazine is read by almost all of the groups who will be interested in participating in the ONR grant. The magazine is just now  (1/3/2012) reaching readers, and interested groups are already getting in touch. Special thanks go to Bob Grove for doing the beautiful illustrations.

Reactivation of TWSB Alliance-
This group represents the organizations that attended our Teaching With Small Boats Conference in March 2010. The 63 attending programs serve approximately 27,000 students a year. The groups who are trained under the ONR grant will largely be a subset of this group.
The next conference has been scheduled for April 27, 28 and 29th. It will be hosted by the Center For Wooden Boats at their at Cama Beach (Washington State) facility.
Regular Steering Committee conference calls to arrange next conference and develop organizational planning and governance documents.

The first Building to Teach training is scheduled for April 30, May 1st and 2nd as a follow on to the conference. It will also be held at Cama Beach facility.

Museum Small Craft Association Conference
Many of the groups from the TWSB Alliance attended the Museum Small Craft Association annual meeting in Maine this past October. Attending the conference hosted by the Maine Maritime Museum and The Penobscott Bay Maritime Museum was very valuable for lining up potential training organizations, learning about other groups activities and spreading the word about Building To Teach.

Building To Teach Math Cross Reference Chart-
This multi-page spreadsheet summarizes the skills that can be taught with Building To Teach materials. It links the national common core standards, hands on math exercises and projects with track-able math competencies from the 4th grade through Algebra and Geometry. Special thanks go to our summer interns Josh Cohen and Will Mendez for helping to put this together.

Bevin’s Skiff Math Instructors’ Guide
The Bevin’s Skiff lesson plans have been revised into a step by step instructors guide for math instructors to use while building the boat. Currently at about 70 pages, the Instructors’ Guide has been reviewed by teachers familiar with teaching through boat building. These folks include longtime teachers and ASF volunteers Robin Muir and Penny Holland, as well as Matt Cupples, the Career and Technical Education teacher at Hammond Middle School (Alexandria, VA) Their comments are now being incorporated into the document.

Bevin’s Skiff Math Instructors’ Videos
A key component of the on line training will be videos presented on a web channel. We’ve filmed approximately 40 videos that complement the Bevin’s Skiff Math Instructors’ Guide. This work was done in the studio of the Arlington Career Center with the assistance of their instructors, students and interns. The pieces are currently being edited. Once finished, they will populate a web TV training channel being developed by Dave Gardy at TV Worldwide. After registering, potential instructors and volunteers will be able to view B2T videos and exercises. In order to receive certification (and the resulting permission to use the materials), they will need to complete on line assessments that monitor their progress through the materials.

How to Teach Hands On Math videos
These videos, also shot at the Arlington Career Center, cover our Elements of Instruction and Fundamentals of Math. They are also being edited now and will also be incorporated into the web training channel.

Industry Outreach
A major goal of Building To Teach is to engage volunteers from industry as on-line tutors and career mentors. We will be doing this recruitment primarily through their employers. Ken Lopez at Animators at Law has been developing PowerPoint presentations for both potential Industry and Training Organization partners

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters
As many of you know, I helped write the Carpenters’ Union math book and training materials- Math For The Trades. (This book was released in the spring and is already in its second printing.) The International Training Center has generously offered to support partnerships between their 250 local training centers and any groups using Building To Teach materials. This not only builds a potentially powerful local partnership, it makes all the Union’s math training materials available to Building To Teach organizations.

Upcoming Work
In January and February we’ll be working towards a March launch of the web based training. There’s a lot of work to be done on the Builders Sites and related web channels. We’ve designed Hands on Skill building projects that can be used to familiarize volunteers and instructors with the building process without having to build a full boat. We need to build the prototypes and accompanying instructional materials. We’ll continue developing the materials for the in person trainings and recruiting groups for those trainings. We’re also going to continue recruiting volunteers through our outreach to related industry and agencies.

So, if you haven’t seen much of me, this is what I’ve been doing. It wouldn’t be happening without the help of a lot of people- some I’ve mentioned, others I’ve missed. Their enthusiasm for the project is the best indication we’re on the track.

Thanks for the help. I’ll keep you posted.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Community Based Boat Building- A Basic Checklist

Last week was the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Connecticut. It was a great time, as usual; but what struck me was how many groups are out there building boats with kids, families and community groups. It's wonderful because the rewards from the work are so great. That said, there's no reason folks should be "re-inventing the wheel." So, I'm going to use this space to post an article I wrote for a revised Community Boat Building Manual that never saw the light of day. I hope it is helpful.

Check List for Starting a Program

          Identify the group you want to serve and its needs
          Find your best partners (Co instructors, initial funders/ sponsors, leaders of the selected group)
          Establish goals for the project
          Decide what type of environment best serves your goals (part of school system or not, apprenticeship, entrepreneurial, camp, community center, etc…)
          Select a boat that meets your goals
          Take care of the boring stuff (Insurance, materials, tools, space, etc…)
          Build the boat
          Measure Your Success and the kid's progress
          Get Press coverage for building and launch
          Teach the young people how to use the boat they built
          Celebrate the accomplishment with all parties involved. Do it in such a way that emphasizes the accomplished goals. This reenforces what the young people have done and learned.

Why build wooden boats with kids?
(and if you're going to do it,)
 What's the best way?

I get asked these questions a lot. Everyday I go to work and try to figure out  better answers. When somebody calls me for advise, they usually want to know how to get started building boats with kids. Being a former history major, I answer these questions with a question. "Why does your community need a boat building program?" A lot of times this brings them up short. They've been thinking about their potential work as being a boat building project rather than a community program. This kind of thinking can lead to the fatal mistake of building a boat and then not knowing what to do with it. I have checklist for starting such a program. (see sidebar) The first points are to identify your community's needs, forge partnerships and establish goals for the project. Essentially, start a program because it's needed and try to address specific problems.

What does community boat building have to offer?

If you're reading a WoodenBoat publication, you've probably been bitten by the "wooden boat bug." The experience of building something beautiful and then using it in cooperation with nature is something that appeals to you. Ben Fuller in a letter to the editor of WoodenBoat listed some of the skills we learn from small boats, "self reliance, teamwork, forethought, honesty, endurance, tolerance and modesty." I would add showing up on time, following directions and learning to take responsibility and succeed.  Everybody uses these skills in life and in the workplace. In my experience, experts in school to work and those trying to prevent drop outs, gangs, drug use and teen pregnancy hold these skills to be vitally important in the success of their programs. Building traditionally designed wooden boats also provides practical application of the math, science, history and English that young people learn in school.

I have a quote from Franklin Roosevelt in the office," We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future." Anybody who observes their community sees that young people can benefit from some of the skills we listed above. It doesn't matter who or where these kids are. I've seen programs build boats with kids in Alaska, Hawaii and New York City. All these kids had similar needs inside themselves.

For most kids, even if they live near the water, boats and water are a foreign environment. To borrow an analogy from basketball… when you're building boats, the kids are playing on your court. They all start at the same basic level with no bad habits. You get to create your own environment with its own rules. (Safety First!) You have the opportunity to bring together groups that normally wouldn't associate. One of the more powerful breakthroughs in our shop occurred when we had a 17 year old recovery alcoholic lead a team of severely learning disabled apprentices. I know it sounds like a recipe for disaster,  but it worked. The leader has stayed straight and the members of his team can get a job in this town as soon as they finish school.

The building process is very adaptable. We've worked with emotionally disturbed and severely learning disabled groups  as well as gifted and talented. We've been able to tailor our programs to meet each groups needs. Success can be expanding a hull panel shape from a drawing or learning to hold and use a plane properly.

Building boats with young people is also unbelievably rewarding. When the light bulb goes off and a kid gets it, you get to re experience the feeling when you got it right for the first time. "It" can lofting, planking, sailing or reading a ruler. For me, it's a real high.

Get Partners

After you've identified the need, you have to find people to work with. You can't do this type of project alone, you'll become isolated, you'll burn out and the work won't be sustainable over the long run. So who do you work with? The answer is simple to say but hard to do. You work with the best. You find the best teachers, counselors, religious leaders, politicians, business people, fundraisers and volunteers. It's hard. It takes knowing your community and it takes time. For your first project, you need to find good people who will take a chance on working with you. Some of your partners should be knowledgeable about your community's needs whether it's job training, gang prevention, special education, math enrichment or environmental science.

Boats attract interesting people. These boaters, usually adults, end up being your best resource in a community based program. They're your volunteers, funders and instructors. Building a community base is critical to the survival of a program. You're not going to get everyone you need on the first project. Just make sure you create a team that can grow.

Establish Goals and Vision

You've gotten your team together to build a boat with kids. What are your goals? What do the kids walk away with? What do you walk away with? What rewards do the people who helped you get? What happens to the boat? What has building the boat done to further the program? Your goals should address your community's needs. You've got some expertise on your team. Use it. Find out what type of result is meaningful. "Self esteem" is soft and fuzzy. Learning the basic job skills of following instructions and showing up on time for work is much more concrete. One of the major goals for a "first" project is to have successful "goods" to sell. A successful project will allow you to sustain the program. Remember, you define success when you determine your goals.

Goals are set project by project. Vision looks farther down the road. You need to be able to describe what you want your program to look like and what effects it will have on your community. A vision can range from a maritime history museum bringing a waterfront tourism and activity  to a maritime trades center providing vocational training. It may be both or neither. It may be a summer camp. You have to decide and it's a team effort. Your partners' must "buy in" to the vision. The clearer your goals and vision the better you can describe your program. If your program works, having a clear vision and goals makes fundraising smoother because the benefits are easier to recognize.

Gut Check

Now you're getting a picture of what it takes to start a community program. Before you cut a piece of wood and get a group of kids and adults pumped up, do everybody a favor and take a "gut check." Do you really want to do this? You won't make any money. It's an emotional rollercoaster. It's frustrating. People will be blind to things that you see as obvious. If you're successful, you'll have a constant battle keeping the programs running and you'll probably be doing fundraising and administrative work- not much boat building. Are you ready for this?

Find the kids

Picking the right "first group" is vital to getting the program off the ground. Select a group that already exists, where the adults already do a good job with the kids. The adults in the group will know what the kids need. Make sure they have an integral part in setting the project's goals. This way your job is to build a boat safely and achieve your goals, not provide crowd control. These kids will become your best ambassadors with other young people and with the community at large.

Take care of the basic mundane things

You'll need shop space, tools, materials, liability insurance. Make sure these things are buttoned up before you start. For your first project, you may want to work under the umbrella of an existing organization that has some of these things. Schools, churches, municipalities are all

Getting Started

Potential instructors get tied up in knots over what the first day is going to be like. How you teach is up to you. Your technique will probably be a reflection of your personality. Each group I work with differently. With some, I explain the whole project, have them build models and then start cutting wood. With others, I put a pencil and tape measure in their hands, start calling out measurements and they have the boat laid out before they have the chance to decide that they can't build a boat. How you run your first session really depends on the group and the goals you have set. Don't think too much, it's only a boat.

Show the project off

Get people to see what you're doing while the boat is being built. Seeing young people build a boat is a more powerful image than seeing a finished boat sitting somewhere. Make sure that the press, community leaders, politicians and other potential groups see the work being done. It will excite them. Remember that if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it- no one cares.

Jim Hsiang is from East Palo Alto California. He works with disadvantaged young people building furniture and boats. Jim has a drawing he calls the "Golden Triangle." Funders, providers and clients make up the corners of the triangle. In order for a program to be sustainable, you need strong links between all the sides. Funders must talk to the youth. Providers must be effective with the youth. At the same time, the providers must be willing and able to listen to and integrate feedback from all sides. Use this first project to get your triangle's links working.

Sometime during the planning stages, someone usually asks these two questions. So, I thought I'd give you my set answers.

Why boats?

Boat building is out of the ordinary. In most cases the kids aren't familiar with it and don't think they can succeed. Overcoming these hurdles is a tremendously powerful experience for these young people. Add to this the use of the boat which requires balancing the individual, the boat and mother nature in order to achieve a goal and you have a very powerful tool. Another similar experience can be found in building and flying kites. I just happen to like building boats. I'm vocationally impaired.

Why wood?

Wood is an accessible and adaptable material. The boat can be as simple as a "six hour canoe" or as complicated as a Herreshoff daysailer. The material is still wood. It's easily machined by basic, familiar tools. If the correct design is selected, the building process is accessible to any skill level. Usually, supplies are not impossible to find (depending upon design and location.)

Wood also makes an historical connection. Most of history's boat have been built of wood.  Anywhere people met the water there were boats, usually of wood. This allows you to make a cultural connection with just about any type of group- from African Americans in Washington D.C. to Scandinavian farmers in Minnesota.

Of course when they ask you if you built the boat from scratch, you can say that you tried scratch but wood works better.

You've gone ahead, followed the check list and built the boat. What happens now?

Once the boat is built and the young people and adults involved have tasted success and realized some of the intended goals, what are you going to do with:

The Boat ?

Sell it or use it. If the boat is sold, I see two basic routes. Sell it to help continue the program or sell it and have part of the money go back to the builders in some sort of entrepreneurial arrangement.

If the boat is to be used, there are plenty of options including: Community Sailing Rowing Program, Camp Programs, Livery, Club racing, Experiential education.

(By the way, "Who owns it?") I see three choices- the kids, yourself or a sponsoring group.

The Kids ?

You've shown them they can do something and you've taught them a bunch of other skills. The next step depends on your goals. One idea is that no one graduates, they just keep coming back until something better comes along. Another idea is to provide job placement and scholarships. Another is to set up your program so that the youngsters use the boats as a vehicle to independence. If you've been part of a school program, show how the boat building has improved their scores and attitudes. Make the link between practical application, education and future success. It's up to you.

The Adults ?

If your program worked, you're going to have a bunch of pumped up adults. Find out what their interests are and try to dovetail them with your program's goals. That way there is "buy in." Personally, I hate committees and meetings, but you need some sort of organization for clear communication. People need to feel that they are accomplishing worthwhile goals. These folks are going to be your strongest day to day support. I wouldn't be able to run any programs without volunteer support.


You now have the "goods to sell" to other groups and funders. Of course, the toughest part is taking the first step and making the commitment. Starting a boat building program is like starting a small business. If you're not careful it can eat you up.

John Gardner said …"the way to preserve small craft is [to] get their reproductions out on the water, use them, wear them out and replace them anew… Historic small craft are for the young and old and the in-between. They are to use and enjoy, and to pass on for future generations to use and enjoy, ad infinitum. Preservation through use, in the long run, that is the only way."

So go build boats and use them! (and do it with kids) Why build boats?, to paraphrase Guiness, "Boat Building is Good for You." What do you do with them after you're done? Whatever your community needs.

Good luck and call me if you need help.