Feature story: Hands-on learning

Shop teacher sings the praises of working with wood

It's an old dividing line, jobs in the trades that require hand skills with a variety of tools versus jobs that rely mainly on thinking. Hands-on versus intellectual. Are both important?

It is, of course, valuable as an adult to be working in the knowledge economy and have the wherewithal to buy, say, a purportedly well made collection of dining room furniture, but is it also important to understand the joinery used to assemble the table and chairs? Does it matter that a plumber or a carpenter in the same showroom turns and walks away, knowing poor workmanship when they see it?

It matters to Mark Leeper, who teaches woodworking, drafting and engineering technology at M-A. His woodworking students regularly turn out objects made of wood, starting with small boxes, cutting boards and counter-top bookcases.

With more than 180 hours of class time, the students move on to bigger things, but all of it involves hours of focused work that tests hand-eye coordination, thinking before acting, and learning the safe and effective use of tools.

Working with wood

There are no textbooks in Mr. Leeper's classroom on the first floor of Building S. Nor are there computer monitors or keyboards.

The room is light and airy, noisy and dusty, and no place to fool around. Blades with teeth whirl and whine. Chisels with sharp edges can slip suddenly if they aren't sharp enough. Such a mistake could have you starting over with a new piece of wood. Wood and woodworking tools are unforgiving of the woodworker's mistakes, valuable experience in an imperfect world, Mr. Leeper says.

Woodworking calls for common sense, he says. Are there students who don't have it? "Common sense comes from training, not necessarily from prior experience," he says. Students these days are "a little bit disabled" in their abilities to work with their hands, and to focus. When working with wood, it's helpful to be able to focus on one thing at a time, he says. "Kids don't have the patience for that kind of thinking."

His class embodies other lessons as well, he says, including a work ethic. When working with wood, the job has enjoyable parts and not so enjoyable parts. Sanding, for example, often fits the latter category. Students will say they hate it, Mr. Leeper says, but he adds that what they aren't understanding is the value of investing time to make something worthwhile.

At least one of his students sands his work "until it's like glass, until it's perfect," he says. "He's at the extreme, somebody I never have to encourage."

And some students transform. Mr. Leeper says he has received class evaluations along these lines: "When I first came here, I was scared to death. Scared of the machines. Scared I was going to hurt myself. Now I feel powerful. I know how things work. I had a good time."

School becomes stressful, he says, when kids can't find opportunities to be themselves. "Why isn't it OK to take honors classes and take a wood shop class?"

Weighing choices

Students who take Mr. Leeper's woodworking classes pay a price. In the currency of college admissions, his classes have no value in that they don't meet the admission standards of the University of California.

The UC publishes a list of courses considered worthy of admission credit. Referred to as A-G courses, they must be "academically challenging, involving substantial reading, writing, problems and laboratory work (as appropriate), and show serious attention to analytical thinking, factual content and developing students' oral and listening skills," according to the A-G Guide, a UC publication.

Over four years, a student must take at least 15 such courses, the Guide says. But the average student ready for high school work will take 19 to 21 A-G courses out of a four-year total of 22 to 26 courses, says Diane Mazzei, vice-principal of instruction at Woodside High. Not much room for other kinds of classes.

The UC goes further. In 2013, the typical applicant completed an average of 26 courses, which works out to about 7 honors-academic courses per year, the Guide says. In other words, they spared no time at all for classes that aren't A-G.

Mr. Leeper acknowledges the time bind. "We can't mess with (A-G)," he says. "We can't ever mess with that. By encouraging any sort of exploit, we're messing with the kids' opportunity to get into college."

But he is critical. The UC, admittedly a research institution, focuses on theoretical knowledge, but requires students to focus on it as well. While the UC is now accepting some technical education classes, the content, he says, must be 50 percent theoretical.

"Do you sacrifice that practical knowledge for the theoretical just because the UC says so?" he asks. "I don't understand why the UC is the gatekeeper for things like that."

"We as a culture get on this treadmill and only certain kinds of things are acceptable and we all have to follow along. (The admissions people) are driving the bus," Mr. Leeper says.

He has seen his students off to Princeton and Stanford, Cornell and Brown. "They've taken these classes and they got in anyhow," he says.

The UC did not respond to requests for comment.

Excellence, but ...

Mr. Leeper made a passing reference to the value he sees in the 2014 book, "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life" by William Deresiewicz.

"The main problem is the admissions process and the kinds of people it produces," Mr. Deresiewicz said in a September interview on the PBS program Open Mind."

They're incredibly good at being students, but they're not at all good at thinking for themselves and especially thinking about what they want to do with their lives."

Public investment in capable, free public universities is the answer, he said. "If we had 100 Berkeleys, people wouldn't have to scramble and have these insane high school experiences."

In an October interview at Stanford University with former dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims, he explained his sheep metaphor. "You're a sheep because you're always doing what the adults want you to do and you're never doing what you want to do," he said. "You never get to that part of yourself that (asks) 'What matters to me?'"

Using muscles

Aolani Vargas, 17 and a senior from Redwood City, describes herself as someone who prefers not to sit and listen to someone speak. In Mr. Leeper's class, she says, she can enjoy walking around and experiencing the tools.

On sanding: "It takes a lot of muscle and you always have to be even with everything," she says. "If you're, like, with friends and talking, it's not that boring. It is messy. It gets all over your clothes. I don't suggest this class to people who like coming well-dressed to school."

Matthew McGarry, a 17-year-old senior from Portola Valley, considers the material he's learning will be useful someday. "Mr. Leeper's an awesome teacher," he adds.

Angel Sanchez, an 18-year-old senior from Menlo Park acknowledges the commitment to the time it takes to make a good-looking object, and the need to think about what he's doing. "I can't edit stuff off it if I make a mistake, not like clay," he says. "I have to say that this is one of my favorite classes."

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Dr. Vera Jacobson-Lundeberg
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2015 at 12:08 pm

Great article! I would encourage readers to also read last Sunday's SF Chronicle that posted an article by Robert Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, "College degree shouldn't be only route to middle class". Mr. Reich clearly states, "A four-year college degree isn't necessary for many of tomorrow's good jobs". Perhaps we need to reexamine our current thinking and explore new educational opportunities for all students. "It's time to give up the idea that every young person has to go to college, and start offering high school seniors an alternative route into the middle class."

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Couple brings Chinese zongzi to Mountain View
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 5,702 views

Summer Cooking Classes - Free!
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,591 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 6 comments | 1,263 views

More Bad News: Downtown Parking Will Get Much Worse
By Dana Hendrickson | 11 comments | 1,126 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 993 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More