The Benefits of Teaching Boys to Work with Their Hands: Grand River Academy’s Productive Growth Center

Over the years, I’ve always been a big fan of boarding schools that offer opportunities for students to work with their hands- to labor. I’m a boarding school alumnus who discovered labor later and, if asked, I’ll tell you that missing out on labor, hand work, was a missing piece of my education.

When I learned about Grand River Academy’s Productive Growth Center, which, specifically and consciously, teaches and takes boys through hand work, I wanted to know more. Here’s my conversation with Thomas Polack, leader of GRA’s Productive Growth Center

1. What’s different about boys working with their hands?
A master craftsman once said, you can use whatever tools you wish, but it depends on how much you want to be in touch with your work. A boy working with his hands creates a relationship between the individual and his work. The person is physically engaging in the material, and is actually the agent bringing about the product. Therefore, there is a hands-on relationship, and not just anybody’s hands, but his hands. His hands are the ones sawing, planing, or shaping. The person must be engaged, and not only with his mind, but with his body. So, the first major point is that the whole person is engaged in the work when he is using his hands. He not only listens, and sees, but also physically engages with his work.

Furthermore, I think that boys have an innate need/desire to work with their hands. In traditional agrarian societies, boys would have worked with their hands for their livelihood, and much of this need was satisfied in the normal grain of living. There was much more of a focus on the home-crafts, and there were many crafts known by the boys that caused them to be physically engaged with other individuals, and with the physical world.

With that being said, one thing that is different in today’s society about boys working with their hands is that it places them back into a long tradition where man engages the material world, and discovers himself as a builder, a steward, or an artist. He gets to be part of a tradition that extends out to every culture, and that has a wealth of knowledge and skill. Working with one’s hands helps boys gain stability, and they are rooted into a long tradition that satisfies their innate need to relate to the physical world.

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2. What’s happening in their brains when they approach a building project?
The first thing that is happening in a young man’s brain when he approaches his project is, very simply, “what am I going to build?” After many ideas, the young man finally chooses a project. Next, comes material selection: What kind of wood should I use, reclaimed, rough-cut, live-edge, and should I put my own twist, or just stick to the plan (ideally, I might add here, that eventually I would like them to design their project, but we are not there yet). After wood selection, the student breaks down the whole project into its parts. Thus, the young man immediately sees how the parts are related to the whole and how this theoretical project can begin to take shape. This same process happens over and over again as the project progresses.

When a young man approaches a building project using hand tools, he is placing himself in relation to his work in a very special way, and that is mostly because of what is going on in his brain. It might seem like a simple point, but an individual is not really able to use a hand plane well until he knows what a hand plane is, and what precisely it does. It is not as easy as flipping the switch of a power planer, and running a board through it.

Hand planes come in different lengths and sizes, their blades are set at different angles, sharpened differently, and each one is used for a highly specified purpose. Furthermore, one has to know what kind of wood they are working with, to determine exactly what plane should be used, and how the specific plane should be set up. So, there is a necessary knowledge about what kind of tool is needed based on the knowledge of the wood, and this is all before one even uses the tool. There is a whole other set of knowledge necessary during the application of the tool. Making a board flat with a plan might seem like an easy process, but again, to do it well demands a mastery of the craft.

Approaching a project really engages much of the brain, and the student has to break down and consider each part of the project and see how those parts fit into the whole. In this particular kind of building each part has many other parts and a particular knowledge is necessary to complete each stage of production, along with the knowledge of the tools involved and what is the best tool and how to best use it.

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3. What is a boy learning through project that he doesn’t learn seated in desk?
Project based learning, as opposed to desk work, forces a young man to engage the world around him.

When a young man is given a project based assignment he takes an active role in the project. The young man has to make/learn the plans, know how to use the tools, understand the materials involved, and then put all these things together to execute the project. If he doesn’t understand something he must seek the information he needs.

Moreover, a boy learns not only with his mind, but with his hands, and with his eyes, and with his nose. A good craftsman can walk into a shop and know that cedar is being cut. He also learns mistakes in a concrete, hands-on way, and learns how to problem solve in the same hands-on concrete way. Most learning today happens behind a desk where one passively receives information, which is OK for the typical course of learning where one is expected to later regurgitate the information on a test. Project based learning engages the whole person, his mind and his body, and the student must be an active participant.

4. What drove the Center’s creation at GRA?
I just completed my second year as a counselor at Grand River Academy. During my practice, it did not take long to realize that the typical training of talk therapy was not sufficient for the age group with which I was working—often they are too fidgety, too absorbed in technology, non-reflective, and high energy, to sit through an hour of counseling and really benefit from it. With this, I knew I needed something non-traditional and something that would fit the needs of an adolescent male culture.

Wood-working with hand-tools engages the whole person and demands both focus and physical activity. This kind of wholesome activity builds relationships and when the hands start moving, often times, the lips starting moving with them. Sometimes young men are not ready to “work” in their heads and need to spend some time simply working with their hands.

My plan is to use the tradition of woodcraft and combine it with talk therapy, as a non-traditional mode of counseling. I have created what is titled, a productive growth model, for this method. Often times, when one thinks of a wood shop they think of power tools, cement floors, florescent lighting—the opposite of a counseling environment. The space uses hand-tools exclusively, which are quiet, rhythmic, and demand a real discipline of the body. Our young men will be able to create beautiful things in a beautiful space, and foster a strong counseling alliance and a strong sense of self-worth.

5. How does the Productive Growth Center work? Take us through a boy’s experience.
The productive growth center utilizes a productive growth model that using traditional talk therapy along with woodcraft. The Productive Growth Center is a counseling center, and in the counselor’s office it looks a lot like normal counseling. Each student receives an intake and he meets weekly with his counselor for counseling session. As things progress, however, the counseling goes from the office into the work space. At this point, the student picks a project and must identify a plan for his project. Once he has his plan he selects the wood for the plan and begins his project. We have several different kinds of wood so the student must identify what is going to be the best kind of wood for his project (and sometimes this is a matter of taste, as one can have a reclaimed look or a more clean traditional look.)

I will give you an example. One student is building the bedside table shown in the picture below. When he goes to pick his wood, however, he might start with a 2X6X12. He must take this board and get the smaller dimensions he needs, and then plane, shape, join, stain, and seal his project. I am working along side the student, sometimes helping him with his project, and sometimes working on my own project. Quite a bit of talking takes place during this time and it all culminates in the young man standing back and looking at what he has built. For young men this process is a solid way to build a sound relationship with his counselor (or an apprentice, in the master apprentice relationship). Moreover, he is able to learn a craft and gain insight through the entire process, hopefully, into himself and the world around him.

6. You mention emotional growth as benefit of a boy’s project? What does a boy learn/come to understand emotionally through handwork?
When a student can step back and look at something that he built, that is beautiful, it gives him a lot of self-worth/self-satisfaction. “Wow, I built that,” becomes a self-affirmation, “Yes, I built that.” Furthermore, the student continues to receive affirmation when people see the project and have the same response, “wow, you built that, it is beautiful!” A student sees his handiwork as a reflection of himself. Without necessarily knowing it, he experiences a real profound reality, “I can build beautiful things that mean something, I have meaning, and this all feels very good and satisfying.”

Each step along the way becomes a series of successes, coupled often times with a whole educational process. He learns that he is a steward, an artist, a creator. He learns that if he puts each one of these parts together and continues to persevere to the end, there is something beautiful at the end to accomplish. Finally,it is a real beautiful moment when the student is in the know, and gets to show off his work to his parents. All of a sudden he is the teacher, or master, and his parent is the apprentice.

When the students came back from Christmas break I had hung some of the racks they made for the chisels and clamps. One student came down several times that week just to look at his work, “Wow, those came out way better than I thought,” he would say to me. “Yes, yes, they did,” I would say. It was also a pleasure to see several other students take notice of them and have the same, “wow, those look great,” response. Not that a student lives for that moment, but it surely feels good. and just affirms the whole process.

7. Do you have a background in woodwork or another kind of manual/hand work experience? What’s your handwork history? Has working with your hands played role in your life?
I do not have a background in woodwork. My bachelors is in philosophy. I do love working with my hands however, and was first inspired to start woodworking when I wanted to build a hope chest for my wife, and then later a dining room table for my wedding present to her. I have also built little things like picture frames, benches, book shelves, coat rack, etc. And, I’ve built bigger things like a wrap around bench for my patio. My uncle is a cabinet maker and he was the one that first showed me how to do some woodworking, and I have a brother in law who makes reclaimed furniture for a living (he is a designer and a really good guy, so we spend a lot of time talking about woodworking.) Other than that, I did put in my own rather large patio and I have done other random manual labor like putting in floors (plus I worked maintenance at GRA before I became a counselor, so I got to do quite a bit of labor then.)

Working with my hands has definitely shaped who I am. After each project, I feel more confident, and somewhat accomplished, especially the things my wife really likes. And doing one kind of labor gave me confidence to try other things, like putting in floors and a patio, or drywalling. Once I learned that I could work well with my hands, it seemed like many things opened up before me, including helping others. It also affects the way I see things; once one has built something it really affects the way one “sees,” and it always causes one to know how much more there is to see.

Plunging into the world of hand-tool woodcraft is similar to my experience of plunging into the world of Thomistic Philosophy. There is a whole woodcraft tradition out there that broke with the industrial revolution and it carries the weight of many centuries. When one really understands a traditional workbench, one begins to understand the beauty of collective wisdom. I spend a lot of time now understanding this tradition and better, I get to build things using “its” principles. I truly am still a neophyte to woodworking and I have so much to look forward too. Each step along this path is really wonderful and I know there is much more that lies ahead.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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