The Stone Wall Project: A Reflection on Hands-On Learning and Immovable Objects


EDITORS NOTE: The Stone Wall Project at Guilford Central School in Vermont was part of a long term effort to create and demonstrate the effect and power of hands-on place based
service-learning experiences — for both students and faculty.

School faculty began the project during the second of four local designed and run K-8 Institutes on Service-Learning. Students and community participants finished the wall as a community building effort when school resumed in the fall.

Martina Dancing and Joe Brooks, director of Guilford’s Institutes worked closely with local craftsman Smokey Fuller to find local stone donations and create a working space during the Institute for teachers to learn and participate in stone wall building.

While some teachers were a bit tentative about their own ability in the beginning, everyone quickly dove into the art of building this wall. The clearest evidence of that was how difficult it soon became to get teachers to come inside for their next workshop on curriculum design.

As teachers we may come to realize that our interests and values, our PASSIONS become a critical part of our ability to function as good teachers, parents and community members. My experience in planning and guiding a hands-on learning experience for classroom, specialist, and administrative educators, at The Guilford Summer Institute suggests how this fits for me.

Students Chris Jillson and Bobby Killay, with Carol Killay and Lynn Tobey carefully move a huge stone into position for setting.

The Stone Wall Project was a hands-on learning experience designed to model service-learning for educators. More than forty people (including teachers, administrators, students, and community members) took part in the building of a New England style, dry stone wall. The participants were challenged to work together to move extremely large, heavy stones into place. In the process of creating this large work of art using simple machines, we brought to life the practical application of the laws of physics, as outlined in the Vermont Framework of Standards for Science, Mathematics, and Technology.

The Stone Wall Project and walls in general, also served as a theme for writing and reflection workshops held during the Institute. Many inspired poems and stories were written by our teacher participants. The project was also very successful in the realm of community building, as people worked side by side with others whom they might never have had the opportunity to spend time with.

I really wanted to learn to work with stone and to learn how to build a stone wall. I love the look of stone walls and the strong presence they have. I love how the stone is so OLD. Certainly older than any other building material on earth. I love how stone and rock and walls can be so symbolic, of weight, of stability, of groundedness, of history, of energy. I think stone walls are amazing works of art, like earth sculpture.

Smokey Fuller, local craftsman extraordinaire and our project leader.

In listening to and watching our expert resource volunteers Dan Snow and Smokey Fuller, (the dry stone wallers), and working side by side on our wall with craftsman and community member Smokey, I learned new skills, like using chisel and hammer to cut rocks, and I learned the basics of stone wall building. I loved the physical challenge of moving the big stones around. It was totally engaging and energizing for me.

What we started with.

We made a short video that shows how this type of hands-on outdoors art activity meets Vermont’s Standards. For example, in the Science Standards, listed under Space, Time, and Matter; Matter, Motion, Forces, and Energy, “Students will understand forces and motion, the properties and composition of matter, and energy sources and transformations. This is evident when students: (a.) Sort objects and materials according to observations of similarities and differences of properties (e.g,, size, weight, color, shape, temperature).”

We definitely had to sort shapes and sizes of stones to be able to fit them into our puzzle-like wall. Also, under that same Vermont Standards area, there’s a section that states students will be able to, “apply forces to objects -e.g. inertia, gravity, friction, push and pull, and observe the objects in motion.” I wonder how anyone could accomplish this point as well in a classroom.

Faculty gathering early on the morning stone wall work will begin.

Art & Aesthetics

While I consider the process of the project, the lessons and inspirations connected with the building of the wall, to be of paramount importance, the resulting product — the new stone wall out in front of our school — has also become an important element. It is a new place to be… to sit, to have gatherings or class meetings. It redefines and calls attention to a part of the school grounds which previously did not stand out. It creates an environment, and for some, a kind of sacred space. The stone wall is visually lovely, and helps to bring art and aesthetic concerns into our awareness. It is important to realize that we can make a positive impact on the aesthetic quality of our surroundings. A recent visitor to the school related to the stone wall project as an example of people changing the architecture (in this case, landscape architecture) of their workplace and commented on the empowering effect that can have on us. Indeed, there has been plenty of testimony to the feelings of empowerment and pride that the project has inspired.

Community Relations and a Sense of Place

We were able to enlist the help of a local naturalist/builder/artist Smokey Fuller for the project. This man worked with teacher participants as a coach, demonstrating the use of tools and guiding the work towards successful completion. He proved to be an invaluable resource for our hands-on experience. The stone wall is a reminder to us of all our Institute curriculum design work, and stands as a symbol, or in monument to the ideal of our school and community’s cooperative spirit. One participant calls it, “a very concrete symbol for cooperative effort.” Another testified that, “It made a positive impact on the Institute and by having a positive influence on staff and community relations has made a difference on school community relations.”

The wall also serves to help us link up to a greater sense of place and time, of being part of rural New England where stone walls have been important for hundreds of years. The Stone Wall Project was planned to expose participants to old stone walls in the community through a field trip and stories and picture books.

We also hosted a lecture and slide show of the work of a highly talented and inspired dry stone waller/artist, Dan Snow, who also showed examples of stone walls he had photographed in other countries. Stone wall appreciation is what we were after, and many participants say that now they notice stone walls everywhere they go. I believe that this setting the stage for the project helped to propel our group toward the enriching experience that participants reported.

Impact on Teaching Approach and Strategies

It is safe to assume (and we clearly observed) that a number of teachers were very hesitant in the beginning — new challenges, new skills, and new colleagues in many cases. As anticipated, those participants who were most actively involved with building the stone wall became most invested in and connected with the project. However, even those with a more limited, observation type involvement reported lessons learned and inspiration gleaned through the project. For example, one teacher noted, “I look at the observers and children who hold back, in a different way — I no longer assume they are not engaged when I see the observing behavior.” Another notes an “awareness that even those students who appear less involved may indeed be making connections all their own — we just need to ask them.”

So, What Did We Accomplish?

Teachers report the following ways the project has influenced their own teaching:

• “It confirmed my belief in hands-on projects, whether they be with students or adults. What I witnessed with adults participating tells me this sort of experience is very powerful both as learning and as team building — much better than the “parlor game” approach to team building.”

• “Having students take ownership in their learning-do they become more involved? Definitely!”

• “Inspiration to take on big projects involving many facets.”

• “Outside is classroom, too — always believed that but it legitimizes it as an extension of classroom learning.”

• “The importance of hands-on learning. I loved learning physics this way! It was great to use native resources for a school artistic project.”

• “I’ve become aware, again, of what it is like to be a beginner at a task. I’ve been more aware, patient with my students as they learn new skills.”

  • “I am more tuned in to the importance of our aesthetic surroundings and I am reminded of the powerful, inspirational effect that a visually pleasing environment can have.”

Compiling and reflecting on this information about the Stone Wall Project has been interesting. The project has been successful and important because it has modeled a hands-on service learning activity for educators and had a positive influence on teaching strategies; improved the physical beauty of our school grounds; provided participants a vehicle for personal reflection; and improved our school-community relations. Finally, the wall itself has taken on a life of its own: a simple meeting place, a curiosity, a symbol, a landmark.

Martina Dancing was the Art Teacher, at Guilford Central School for many years. Her vision and guidance led to many place making, hands-on, service-learning projects from the Stone Wall project to community-participatory murals. Martina and Joe Brooks, director of Guilford’s Institutes worked closely with local craftsman Smokey Fuller to find local stone donations and create a working space during the Institute for teachers to learn and participate in stone wall building. While some teachers were a bit tentative about their own ability in the beginning, everyone quickly dove into the art of building this wall. The clearest evidence of that was how difficult it soon became to get teachers to come inside for their next workshop on curriculum design.

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