Classroom of the Week | Breaking up the routine helps build better students
CHESHIRE — To keep learning exciting for teachers and students, sometimes you have to break up the routine.
Blair Mahar has been teaching biology at Hoosac Valley High School for more than two decades, and has been a longtime soccer coach there as well. But he's also an avid fan of being engaged with the world and activities outside the classroom and school.
In addition to being an integral member of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners group, Mahar also enjoys working on low-tech projects in which he can build and repair things. In the 1990s, he had begun learning about the craft of timber framing, a centuries-old style of construction developed in Japan and Europe that involves carefully cutting, chiseling and fitting joints in heavy beams of timber and securing them only with wooden pegs — no nails or other kinds of metal hardware. Timber framing also relies on simple but effective hand tools versus power tools, thus requiring a lot of time, skill, strength and patience from the craftsman.
About eight years ago, Mahar finally built and raised his own timber frame structure at his homestead in Savoy.
"I think [my interest] stems from the same passion I have for the Thunderbolt trail skiing. It's old-fashioned, it's old school, it's an old craft that's enduring. It's how the Amish built, and how things were done in early Europe and ancient Japan," Mahar said.
In 2012, when the newer version of Hoosac Valley was reopened, Mahar felt excited for his new biology classroom but said he was sad to see things like wood shop, metal shop and auto mechanics class spaces left behind.
"It was too bad, but then I thought, maybe I could bring my love of timber framing to the classroom. So I told Vinnie Regan, who was principal then, that if you can find me the time, I'll find the money for the class," Mahar said.
The support comes from grants from the Adams Cheshire Educational Partnership school enrichment fund, managed by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.
At first, Mahar would find a buyer via the Craigslist website. They money then got reinvested into new, locally harvested and freshly cut timber for the class the next spring. But two years ago, a structure was raised for the Bowe Field Faigrounds, home to the Adams Agricultural Fair. Last year, a structure was erected at the center of Ramblewild park and recreation center in Lanesborough. There's no buyer yet lined up for a spring 2018 raising, but Mahar said he hopes to once again partner with a community organization.
When Jeremiah Ames, who owns Ames Building and Remodeling, came on as principal in 2014, he was glad to continue supporting the spring elective, which has grown in class size from 10 to 12 students.
"It's such a good opportunity for our students to learn something new," Ames said.
"There's enough interest where I could probably run two sections," Mahar said.
Starting in January, the newest timber framing class will prepare to build the program's fifth structure. But first, Mahar has to teach students, who come from all grade levels and levels of building experience, what timber framing is all about. So, they'll begin by studying the history and uses for timber frame structures. Then, from February on, the students will work on honing their skills in a downstairs workshop at the school.
They'll first learn how to safely handle and move around 16-foot heavy timber beams, then learn about the tools, including razor-sharp chisels, hefty mallets, handsaws, and measuring and planing tools.
"The kids are always hearing from me that it's all about precision and grace," Mahar said. "They're using super sharp chisels to remove small layers of wood off at a time. I don't want tenons that are 2-and-three-fifths of an inch, I want 2 inches. When you're dealing with 15- and 16 year-olds, this level of detail is something so different for them."
The science and math done in this class is done outside databases and Google searches. The students have to learn together and become self-confident with and reliant on the skills that they've built. Get distracted, and you can slice yourself pretty good. Get lazy, and your timber frame, the final test and testament, can collapse.
Over the years, Mahar said, he has loved watching how students will finally find their groove and tempo in chiseling and planing, and perfecting their joinery. He said some students who might struggle academically have found a way to succeed in this class.
Ramblewild park Manager Rich Adamczyk, who worked with Program Director Luke Bloom to coordinate a structure-raising at the site, said the philosophy of the class and of the park are "a perfect match," aiming to use minimally invasive building techniques to educate people and share opportunities with the local community.
Adamczyk, Mahar's fellow Thunderbolt Ski Runners member, had previously helped Mahar raise the teacher's own timber frame structure, and said he became intrigued when he heard Mahar was holding a class at Hoosac.
"There was never anything like this when I was a kid, and I might have enjoyed it even more than some of the other classes I had to take," Adamczyk said.
Last spring's class was rewarded with passes to come back to Ramblewild and see all the community and school groups that convene in the place it built.
Senior Micah Tassone took the class as a sophomore, and junior David Lennon and senior Matt Hall took the Hoosac Valley Timber Frame class last year.
"I thought it would be something I could carry with me for the rest of my life," Tassone said about his interest in trying his hand at this work.
Hall said it was a completely new field for him to study within. Despite still having a scar on his leg from the last class, he will return to serve as a teaching assistant for this year's class.
Lennon, an aspiring carpenter, felt this could give him a leg up in his growing skill set.
Asked for advice to give to the next class, Lennon said the old "measure twice, cut once" rule will never fail, nor will taking your time and paying attention.
He and Hall also advise: "Don't be scared of it."
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