“So what do I do once the head of the screw just keeps spinning?”
This is perhaps one of my all time favorite questions posed by an Outdoor Academy student in the process of making a small tabletop inkle loom. After completing the looms, students would go on to use them to weave belts or small straps for cameras or guitars. Before that, however, they first had to build them using mostly salvaged hardwood lumber. As this particular student was nearing completion of their loom, things began to go downhill. This student began to strip multiple screws due to poor technique with the electric drill. As is often the case, the student wasn’t applying the appropriate amount of pressure to ensure contact with the screw for the whole length of its drive.
Not a concern, I told them, “We’ve got plenty of screws for you to practice with.” And I proceeded to show them a few ways I like to hold the drill to screw precisely and predictably. To my surprise, instead of jumping back into the project, the student actually took my half-joking advice and began to practice driving screws into scrap pieces of wood only to remove them to start again. After 10 minutes of practice, the student was confidently screwing the base of their loom to the weaving arm. Not to my surprise, the first two screws went in beautifully. The third, however, did not go according to plan. The student was so eager with prior successes that they overdrove the screw so much that the head simply snapped off and was spinning aimlessly in the hole. A moment of complacency resulted in yet another setback.
More than a little frustrated, the student turned to me and asked, “So what do I do once that happens?”
I looked them square in the eyes and said, “We fix it.” I searched my toolbox for one of my favorite tools to get out of a bind, vice grips. Those who have been lucky enough to use a pair of vice grips know of their unmatched ability to hold onto just about anything that fits in their jaws. I am a firm believer that vice grips, duct tape, and zip ties hold the built world together. I showed the frustrated student how to confidently clamp onto the head of the screw so we could hit it out with a hammer. After a few unsuccessful attempts we freed the defiant piece of metal.
You see, the most important part about failure is learning how to fail forward. In my inkle loom craft class, students found more failure than they did success. While this isn’t necessarily by design—as an instructor I strive to find tools and procedures that will set my students up for success—it is a simple byproduct of doing something challenging. This project had challenges that students needed to overcome with both ingenuity and persistence when things didn’t go according to plan. For me, it’s more important how students respond to failure than the quality of their finished product.
Weeks after finishing this project, this student thoughtfully thanked me for helping to teach them an important personal lesson from their semester at The Outdoor Academy—learning to fail constructively. I shared with them that I too have always been immensely grateful for the opportunity to work with teenagers who rise to the challenges set in front of them rather than stepping back when things get tough.
Later in the class, out of the corner of my eye, I catch the enlightened student helping a peer hold the base of their loom while screwing. At the end of driving the screw it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong and frustration wells up in the other student to the point of tears. Without missing a beat, the student immediately comforts their friend and says “Don’t worry, we can fix this” and begins to dig around for my vice grips.
By Jeffrey Prado