Best children’s books: How do we get to work?

In our series on “Best Children’s Books,” we’ve already recommended new books on William Shakespeare and the delightful duo of Bear and Mouse. Today, we’re recommending a book far less prominent than those first two “best books,” which are fairly easy to find this season. However, today’s recommendation of “It Wood Be Fun: Woodworking With Children” could change your life—and the lives of children around you.

First, let me explain that today’s photographs of Edward Noll, a retired school teacher from rural Metamora, Michigan, are not a part of this particular new book. We’re including Ed Noll’s story with our book review today, because there’s an obvious spiritual connection here: Get kids working on simple wood projects and the lifetime result of that effort can be enormous! Even in retirement, Ed remains very active in the global movement to build sturdy vehicles for the many men and women around the world who have lost the use of legs. In a moment, we’ll share Ed’s inspiring story, but before we do that …

Review of “It Wood Be Fun: Woodworking with Children”
by Michael Bentinck-Smith

With educators slashing budgets across the U.S.—and an intensifying focus on core curriculum in reading, math and science—one of the really essential elements of a good education is becoming an endangered species. I’m talking about what most Baby Boomers once knew as “Shop Class.” While vocational education is alive and well in many communities, we still need a whole lot more “hands on” programs for kids to start working with tools.

Many community groups are filing this gap. Scouting groups help. But religious groups can get involved, as well, if adults get some help in how to organize equipment, supplies and basic projects. The number of adults who know how to do this is also a rapidly dwindling circle. So, a huge “thank you” to Michael Bentinck-Smith for producing “It Wood Be Fun.”

Michael Bentinck-Smith was the woodworking teacher at Lower School of Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, for 41 years. He specialized in teaching children from kindergarten through 6th grade. His new 120-page book is as clear, as logically designed and as productive as his classes.

The chapters are geared for adults working with 5- to 10-year-old children. First, he describes how to create and equip a work and storage area. Note: This book is geared toward teaching kids to use hand tools, so he’s talking about tools like a plane, hammer, rasp, coping saw, crosscut saw, hand drill and chisel. He also describes raw materials to gather for these projects that most congregations will find easy to collect or purchase. The projects, which include detailed plans and instructions for teachers, include things that many of us may have produced back in school, including: a bookshelf (or video-game shelf), a lamp, a rocking horse, a dollhouse, a chair or a toy castle.

Our recommendation: Order a copy of “It Wood Be Fun: Woodworking With Children” from Amazon, read through the material and see if you can’t inspire someone—perhaps you—to get busy and help some kids in your community learn a skill and a creative vision that will grow with them throughout their lives.

The Story of Ed Noll and His Simple Carpentry for PET
(Personal Energy Transportation)

One of my own favorite stories I’ve reported over the years is the following story about retired educator Ed Noll and his work for the Personal Energy Transportation movement. This story originally was published (and the photographs were taken) in 2007. Since that time, the story has echoed around the U.S. Most recently, I found a copy of it on a New England-based website.

Here is the story …

In the workshop behind his home in Metamora, Mich., Ed Noll has built a host of gizmos to help the world.

Lined up on his shelves are cleverly designed wooden toys such as helicopters with little propellers that really turn and small chairs shaped like friendly cats—wonderful gifts that charitable groups give to poor children in the Flint, Mich., area. But the latest production run from Noll’s workshop is the one that his friends commemorated recently.

At the age of 81, when most retirees have slowed down considerably, Noll and 35 friends celebrated the completion of 1,000 wooden frames they made in less than a year for a hand-pedaled wheelchair called a PET, or Personal Energy Transportation cart.

Noll’s group donates the frames to a group of volunteers in Columbia, Mo. That group adds wheels and a steel steering column and chain drive that volunteers in other states have made. Then, various charitable groups ship PETs to victims of land mines and other tragedies in 58 countries.

“Each PET has this extra area beneath the seat that’s like the bed of a wagon, so that people can haul water or tools or whatever they need,” Noll explains. “It’s very practically designed. I like that.”

There are thousands of religiously inspired volunteers whose work should be celebrated. But Noll’s work goes beyond volunteerism. He’s a teacher. About two decades ago, he retired from his job as an agriculture, shop and science teacher at Goodrich High School, but he and his wife, Vera Noll, 79, still are teaching people about the practical side of spiritual life.

“A lot of people make life more difficult than it needs to be,” Ed Noll says as he demonstrates the PET to friends and volunteers at Goodrich United Methodist Church, where most of them are members. “What you should try to do each day is just wake up in the morning and get busy with the work in front of you.”

That’s his first lesson: Keep busy—step by step.

When the Mississippi River flooded in 1993, Noll joined a Mennonite volunteer crew and got busy helping people in a rural area along the river. First, he saw that farmers wouldn’t be able to plant until debris was dragged away. Then, after clearing fields, he saw that homeowners had lost their front yards to the high water, so he turned to landscaping.

But there’s more to his brand of spiritual fuel than hard work. As he stands in his workshop, feeding more boards for PETs into his band saw, a hand-lettered sign hangs on the wall beside him as a constant reminder of this lesson: “Sacrificial Living Makes Sacrificial Giving Possible.”

The Nolls’ home is warm and the flowerbeds surrounding it look like they overflow with blossoms each summer. But there’s nothing fancy about the place—except perhaps the flourishes on the wooden toys.

“I think the way we live our lives is shaped by the fact that we’re strongly Methodist,” Vera Noll says. “We truly try to follow what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used to say: `Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can.’

“Sometimes I forget some of those words, because it’s so long, but I remember how it ends: `Do all that as long as ever you can.”’

“How long can we keep going?” asks her husband. Then, he shrugs, as if that question didn’t worry him at all. “We don’t ask that question, do we? We just keep going.”

OUR QUESTION TODAY is not: How do we build more PET vehicles? The real question is: How do we build more Ed Nolls? The answer is: Well, we get to work! One way is ordering a copy of “It Wood Be Fun: Woodworking With Children” from Amazon—and getting busy … right where you live!

We want our “national conversation” to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture recently. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

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