Friday, May 20, 2016

Work And Responsibility

On Wednesday, our 4-5's class took a field trip to the Center for Wooden Boats on the south shores Lake Union in downtown Seattle, the lake at the heart of the city. I very much look forward to this field trip and not just because I live in the neighborhood.

First off, I'm an unabashed civic booster and proud that ours is a city that supports an institution dedicated to preserving this ancient utilitarian art form. But more importantly for us, they offer an adventure for preschoolers that involves making your own wooden boat using hand tools and crewing a short cruise paddling an umiaq, a traditional skin-on-frame canoe. When I polled the children yesterday at circle time, most of them reported that both activities were their favorites. 

It's an exotic in-city destination if only because the entire facility is floating on the lake, tethered like houseboats to docks, right there in the shadow of our equally field trip worthy Museum of History and Industry

We do more carpentry at our school than most, I reckon, and the kids were expertly enthusiastic about using brace-and-bit drills, hammers, and scissors to festoon wooden boat blanks with wine corks, bottle caps, twine, and fabric scraps: a wheel-house Woodland Park project. The classroom, with wooden rowing sculls hanging from the ceiling and views out toward the lake makes a great workshop. It's definitely an adults-help-kids kind of activity, which is perfect for a cooperative school like ours with lots of adult hands available for holding nails and tying knots.

The highlight for me, however, is getting out on the water. I didn't grow up around boats, so every time out on the water is special, and I'm especially fond of being on Lake Union. The picture illustrating this post is of us looking back toward my neighborhood, with the core of downtown being just over the horizon, the Space Needle off screen to the right, and our school in Fremont behind us. There are a couple dozen construction cranes visible from out on the water. This is where we live, these families of Woodland Park. It seems that most locals are bemoaning our city's rapid growth, but I like it: indeed, my family has chosen to live right in the middle of it.

Prior to setting out, Skipper Brant, a skipper with whom I've sailed before, gave us an important run-down on the proper use of paddles (not oars), and basic water safety. This is a time when direct instruction is appropriate, because, after all, we were going to be engaging in an inherently risky activity and the price one pays for that is to receive important safety information like how to hold a paddle so that you don't hit other people. I completely loved watching our crew earnestly walking together, each holding her paddle in the proper "oars up" position, while staying in the middle of the dock as the skipper had cautioned. This is when a little drilling is meaningful, as opposed the make-work drilling kids do to prepare for high stakes standardized testing.

Setting out together in a umiaq with our community of preschoolers and parents, it took all of our concentration at first. We strove to row together according the cadence that Skipper Brant had taught us, while holding our paddles properly, staying seated and, of course, keeping an eye out for the float planes we all know reside at this end of the lake. This was not "fun" in the stereotypical sense: there was hard work and responsibility and we, as a community of preschoolers stepped up to it together. Yes, of course, Brant, an expert boatsman seated in the stern provided much of our momentum and all of our steering, but it was clear that the children perceived the realness of their own part in making this happen. No paddles were dropped in the water, no one tried to stand up, no one squirmed or whined or messed with one another, although a few took little breaks to allow their paddles to drag through the water.

When we reached our most distant point, we stopped, placed our paddles in the "rest position," then drifted for a bit, taking in this special view of our habitat.

Yesterday, as we debriefed about our field trip we got excited about the idea of trying to build our own umiaq, a conversation that involved a lot of debate about how we were going to go about capturing a walrus, which provides the traditional hide that is stretched over the wooden frame. When the reality of going to Alaska and then actually killing and skinning a 3,400 pound sea creature sunk in, however, we decided we could instead use "thick fabric" like they do at the Center for Wooden Boats. I wish we had more than a single week left of school: I'd like to see where that enthusiasm would take us.

Instead, we floated our wooden boats in the sensory table, which is how young children have always first practiced being out on the water, but now we did it with some first-hand knowledge of the work and responsibility that the reality entails.

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