Another TGIF from our friend and mentor at Big Picture Learning

November 26th, 2018

Elliot Washor recently spent a week with New Harmony High students for the second time this semester. Washor, who founded “Leaving to Learn” and helped construct our academic model, reflected on his week with students as they learned inside and outside of the building. His insights on what students were doing at school this week offer our followers a unique perspective on how our students explore and learn through community partners. This week, we worked with local artist and canoe-builder, Chris from A Paper Boat Project. Read what he had to say:

“This week I spent 3 days at New Harmony in New Orleans. There were loads of connections to what other schools in the network are synchronously doing around fabricating a sense a place and that felt really good to me. In the case at New Harmony, a great example was the canoe that was being constructed on the stage at the school right in front of where the whole school meets every day. Chris Staudinger is an artist/writer and friend of Kitty O’Connor, Special Education Operator at New Harmony. Kitty got involved with the canoe at a writer’s workshop when Chris presented this idea of building a canoe made out of paper with layers upon layers of people’s written stories and drawings on the papers. This is one of those incredible concepts that gives me pause in so many ways. It is this act of making something that has been made across cultures for thousands of years and telling yet another story in the making. It is a body of work that emerged not from a preset curriculum but from the community.


Chris told me, the idea of the paper boat comes from a canoe builder in Clinton, NY. An article about the canoe in Clinton was up on the wall but the other pieces that Chris added makes this canoe even more unique and connects more to New Harmony. The hand and type written narratives and drawings on the canoe are themed around Katrina. Anyone who contributes gets to use the canoe. Layers of stories from words and images hidden in the many paper layers of this structure tell their own stories and also, the construction of the canoe in and of itself is a story, if you can “read” canoe.


Chris enlisted students from New Harmony in all aspects of the venture. From writing, drawing and constructing everyone could add value to the canoe in the ways they wanted to contribute. His crew also included his father who is a surgeon and originally from Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He and I spoke a bit about this small city that I know pretty well. Woonsocket is the home of our Met board president and BPL board member Stan Goldstein.  It is also the home of Chan’s, an out of the way restaurant and music venue that has hosted most of the major jazz and blues musicians from all over the US. Ask any musician and they will know John Chan. I have been going there for over twenty years.

“Students have spent so much time in front of screens and so little time using their hands that they have lost the dexterity for stitching or sewing up patients.” Dr. Roger Kneebone – Imperial College London

When I asked Chris about his dad, he told me that before he was a surgeon, when he was young, he was a welder and a construction worker. I recently read an article by a professor of surgery in the UK stating that his young doctors don’t know how to use their hands to stitch or sew because they have little exposure to craft skills- He said all they are doing is swiping and texting. Knowing his dad is a surgeon who is taking the time to come and work on the canoe at the school added an extra dimension to how he worked on the boat, how he related to students and how students related to a doctor as someone other than a doctor.

I had the opportunity to watch this work unfold over two days with different students contributing to the work. All in a very quiet, peaceful and respectful way. Every part of the process was absolutely beautiful and done with care. There was little talk and mostly attention to fine detail. There was history, math, science, writing all wrapped up through of your senses touch, smell, sight, sound and taste.  All done in an authentic space for a real purpose in the midst of the school. What is Chris? A writer, boat builder, artist, mathematician, scientist, historian, community organizer, humanitarian? How do you separate them out? What’s the calculus for what students are learning from this endeavor?

When I asked Chris how many hours he had spent on the boat, he had one of those puzzled looks. He took a long pause that revealed he probably hadn’t thought about it and then he said, two maybe three hundred hours. Like Mike Rose stated, “as mastery is foregrounded the clock recedes.”

For me, this was a visit unto itself. This body of work that brought the outside in and eventually will bring what is inside out contributes to New Harmony and the greater community in so many ways. What a great experience for the many students who gravitated to this canoe for all sorts of reasons. It is the kind of work that begins to define what the New Harmonies are and it was so simple to let emerge from Mingling WITH to Muddling THROUGH to Mattering TO.”


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