In this video, 6th and 7th grade students from a public charter school in Philadelphia, working with world-class Community Partner, the Wooden Boat Factory designed and built 4 boats. They began with 4 flat squares of boat wood and working in small groups, spent 1/2 day a week building their boats. Along the way, these students covered many of their curricular requirements in math, reading, social studies, technology, and science. This is a powerful demonstration of hands on learning at its finest. Take a look...
Guerilla Educators: Over the years, more then a thousand students have built boats under your guidance at the Wooden Boat Factory. How did you develop such a unique program that has had such a powerful influence on primarily inner city students?
Geoff McKonly: Several experiences in my life led me to question educational perspectives and approaches. As a student in high school I was largely bored. The world of the classroom seemed removed from the real world. During this time I fooled around with researching and doing whatever I had an interest in. For instance I got very into bicycle racing and opened a repair shop with a friend of mine because I was looking for a platform to learn more about something I was interested in. I had no idea at that point what I was doing and that a lot of what I was teaching myself in pursuing my interest was the same things I was barely passing or flunking in school. During this time I was learning physics, math, business practices, supply and demand, communication skills, work ethic, and traveling all over the place racing bicycles. I was at one point waking up at 5am to train and working in the shop after school. During this time one of my teachers told me that a lot of my teachers thought I was strung out on drugs because I didn’t seem to care one bit about school work. I had created a world that allowed me to do all kinds of cool stuff and when I found out that my teachers thought I had a problem yet never had bothered to find out what I was doing it really made me stop and think. I lost a lot of respect for many of my high school teachers at this point. One of the subjects I flunked was geometry in 10th grade. I repeated it in 11th grade and spent my time during my second round in geometry class reading Catcher and the Rye. This had a profound effect on my perspective on authority and gave me courage to follow my own path.
Besides bicycle racing I was spending four days a week teaching skiing in the winter, the summers sailing with my father, cousin and on my own and a time on wood working projects. My parents were very upset with me about my school work but they gave me tremendous freedom and support to pursue my interests in the other areas. These activities comprised my formative education. Bicycle racing taught me determination, teaching skiing empathy and communication, wood working problem solving and sailing persistence and self-reliance.
When I went onto college and worked various jobs this varied background of recreational pursuits was relevant to working towards success. I found myself relating things to one or another experience in my time out of school. The practical nature of my background experiences served as a distant link to a solution I didn’t fully understand the nature of the related problem. The key to my interest in the problem was the connection between my disinterest in my formal education and my innate understanding that I was not stupid. I was lucky in the tremendous amount of confidence I had in knowing this.
I had a sense of what it was that was useful to me in navigating life and that it had come through doing, trial and error, experimentation and hard work. It came from the opportunity that my parents had provided me to create and make mistakes. Not from my time in school within a world disconnected to reality.
All of our programs at Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory focus on opportunities that are real and challenging. My experiences have been what has driven me to begin Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory and which continues to drive our programming. For example, our most popular class consists of boys and girls building 15’ wooden canoes. The canoes are a basic boat building project but involve skills that are a challenge to the beginner. We are teaching basic tool use, hand eye coordination, individual responsibility and critical thinking. Regardless of age, the project is a difficult project for a beginner to undertake. Teachers often get frustrated with their students as they watch them struggle, until they try it themselves and see that the work is hard. The end project is a usable boat that is donated to camps reinforcing the fact that the quality needs to be sufficient to have hundreds of other kids use the end product.