A few months back, we featured a gallery of woodworking projects from a bunch of high school students. You responded with a flurry of letters that expressed two schools of thought: jealousy that these kids could make such wonderful woodworking projects at such a young age, and wild enthusiasm that these kids could make such wonderful woodworking projects at such a young age. Well, we sent those messages on to George Trout, the teacher who mentors these budding woodworkers, and recently we got him on the phone to learn more about him.
We found a very frustrated guy. George is an educator who is trying to teach his kids problem solving and critical thinking. While he has earned the respect of woodworkers and many woodworking magazines, he still says he doesn’t get a lot of credit from his fellow educators. To them, he says, “it’s thought of as just manual labor, not requiring any brain work or critical thinking or problem solving.” While that seems ridiculous to those of us trying to cut the dovetails for a set of drawers, it’s still the kind of thinking that goes on elsewhere.
But he’s a very proud teacher, too. He has about 130 kids in his woodworking program every year and his only real problem is keeping them out of the classroom. With a fully outfitted shop, students are in his class at all hours, sometimes working late into the night. Just last week, during spring break, he had to come in and run a 9-hour lab so students could get some work done. “That’s a good problem,” says George, “when you get kids that want to be in your room.”
Right now he and his kids are preparing for a very large art show at the school. All told, about 850 students are participating, representing all kinds of arts, and they’re expecting about 3,000 visitors. He and his class have about 50 pieces of furniture in the show, including four beds and, for the first time, a coffin. Last year’s show was so spectacular, he says, “To be honest with you, it’s getting tough to outdo ourselves.” The show is on Thursday, May 24th at Springfield High School in Springfield, PA (right outside Philadelphia).
George himself got hooked on woodworking when he was five. His parents hired a carpenter to renovate the basement and he followed the contractor around all summer. “I knew I wanted to work with wood somehow,” says George.
Now, strangely enough, he does very little woodworking, at least for himself. His passion is renovation and restoration. He currently lives in a Victorian house, circa 1883, and loves to restore and collect vintage furniture. In fact, he doesn’t really rate himself very skilled as a woodworker. “When these kids leave here, some of them know more than I do. I just assist with most of the brain work and guide them in the right direction.” In fact, he and his kids don’t even work from plans most of the time. “A kid brings you a picture and he says, ‘I want to make this.’ I have no idea how we’re going to do it, but I’m going to tackle it.” So they figure it out together.
George is fighting an uphill battle. A lot of woodshop classes are being replaced with technology education courses. And, he says, education has become all about technology and computers. “Education people just want to hear computer, computer, computer,” says George. But, he adds, “Kids are tired of pressing the buttons all day. They have it at home, they have it in every class, they have it in their jobs, and when they come into my room they say, “I can’t wait to use my hands.”
So George needs our help to get his message, and our message, across to all of those educators out there. We need to tell them about the educational value of shop class and that woodworking skills exercise more than fingers. Though George has one of the healthiest woodworking programs in the nation, he still says, “I think I’m losing the battle.”
– Bob Filipczak