let’s throw knives: an open letter

In the promotion for his class “Dangerous Done Well,” Josh, one of our Tinkering School crossover staff members, writes: “In a manufactured world of rounded corners and bubble wrap, a child will never learn the complex, empowering and ultimately life-saving process of assessing and managing risk. An 18-year-old who has only ever used a butter knife won’t understand the obvious and apparent danger present when handed a utility knife to open boxes.”

Thus the reasoning behind learning to throw knives during the afterschool classes.

Because we’re Brightworks, though, the cool stuff abounds, and Josh has led sessions of Knife Throwing Club for the past two Fridays during the school day. Lest you think this was just a decision made because of the “cool” factor, we have Josh as guest blogger promoting and legitimizing Friday knife-throwing club:

Dear Parents,

I want your kids to come throw knives. Every Friday morning for the foreseeable future, Brightworks is hosting Knife Throwing Club (KTC) in the workshop.

How It Works

First we’ve set up stringent standards of safety. We make clear to everyone where we throw and why we throw in that location: no risk to others, minimal risk to property, long enough distances to avoid ricochet. The first 20 minutes of the first day of KTC was dedicated to this decision alone. Then we set up safe throwing procedure (as specific as the exact and acceptable responses to a “ready?” call). Our procedures are clear and our students already care for them so much that two students, Evan and Sadie, were reminding other students before I could. The students help each other remember the importance of making sure – not just assuming – that all eyes are on the blade and everyone is focused.

Then, with all this in mind, we throw blocks of wood. What we are modeling here is care, safety, and appropriate escalation. Only once you can throw a wood block safely and accurately 9 times in a row do you get to throw a taped up knife. Only once you can safely (remembering procedure, doing ready calls, etc) and accurately (hitting the pink target sure and steady) throw taped knives do you move on to knives with exposed blades. From there, once you can throw and intentionally blade-stick (knife landing with the blade sticking into the target) the small knives 9 times in a row, you can throw the professional throwing knife. It is important to note that no one, including myself, is yet qualified to throw the professional knife. Any error at all along the way, you don’t move up. Any serious error along the way and in fact you move back down.

Why We Throw Knives

The goals of knife throwing club are many-fold. One is patience. It’s really hard to hit a target that is 20 feet away 9 times in a row. Some 8-year-olds have passed the test while an 11-year-old is still working on it. One is that everyone has different skill levels (see 11-year-old struggling). One is safety, and adherence to procedure (myself and other students do not let error in procedure pass without comment and rest). One is ownership of responsibility (students call out other students because no one wants to be around an irresponsible thrower with a knife).

The most important aspects, however, are the cultivation of a growth mindset (video summary and article overview) and an understanding of the benefits of deliberate practice. The objective nature of knife throwing is dramatic, powerful, and motivating. You are either hitting the target, or you are not. You are either sticking the knife, or not. You are either sticking the knife in the part of the target you are aiming for, or not. There is no wiggle room and no fuzzy edges. No need for adult or peer critique. The action is the feedback. The growth that comes with repeated attempts is obvious and measurable.

The excitement around the idea is palpable. Sure, just tossing a knife is kind of cool, but everything changed once a kid stuck the first knife in the target on a throw. It sat there, blade first in the foamcore target, while the crowd sat silent, stunned even. Everyone wanted to stick the knife. Everyone started trying harder. Then, today, Evan stuck three in a row. If he sticks 9 in a row, it will demonstrate the control needed to throw the professional knife. His hand got sweaty with nervousness. The goal was obvious, the stakes where real, and I didn’t have to say a thing. He didn’t make it. He missed 2 of the 3 next throws. But soon, he won’t miss them. He knows the only thing between him and success is genuine effort, and that knowledge means everything.

All my best,
Joshua Rothhaas
Advising Faculty to Knife Throwing Club

problem solving

Another question Brightworks students face is a distinction between spaces. With the space set up unlike most schools we’re all familiar with, it’s a question worth pursuing with kids young and old.

Shawna’s band and the Hawks have recently begun meeting about the walkway between their two spaces. Since their bandspaces are pushed together, there is a small corridor that leads from the dining room through the Hawk bandspace and into Shawna’s band’s space. Recently, this passageway has been a topic of discussion as both groups navigate communication and differing needs.


Shawna writes that “this is exactly the kind of thing that provides the necessary discourse for building community: this is an opportunity to learn about how to share perspectives and how to receive another’s request. Certainly my group doesn’t want to be seen as disruptors, yet the Hawks are feeling a need to have ownership and agency of their space, certainly a strong Brightworks ethic that we are happy to nurture.

This is an opportunity to have an authentic exchange about respect, intentions, and how to be separate-yet-connected communities whose spaces share a corridor. This is actually a perfect opportunity to work together on a project and create a sense of “ours” in the liminal space between bands: the Hawks plan to put up a curtain to help communicate with us when it is not okay to go through, and they will open it when it is okay (when they are not in their space).”


It’s great to watch the ways in which the collaborators let the kids guide the conversation, with a little help, so that they are able to practice making compromises and working together to create a better Brightworks community.


One of the trickiest questions our collaborators face when doing the Brightworks arc is knowing when explicit skill building needs to happen to help the kids’ explorations make more sense and become more meaningful.

Last week, Mackenzie’s band faced such a conundrum when they tried to measure the distance from Brightworks to the park using multiplication for estimation:

Mackenzie writes, “The most interesting problem of the week was inspired by the meridional definition: the meter is 1 ten millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole. I gave our group a similar challenge to the one faced by the mathematicians who had to figure out the actual distance from the north pole to the equator.


I asked our group to figure out the distance from BWX to the park without leaving our city block. There were two main approaches to this problem. Half of the group walked heel to toe from one corner of the block to the other keeping count all the way, while the others measured a single paving square then counted how many paving squares in a block. Gathering the information from the city block had several challenges; however, the part that was most difficult for the group was the long addition and multiplication needed to estimate the distance beyond our city block. We had come to an impasse because the group didn’t have enough practice in the tools they needed to solve this problem.

This led me to grapple with one of the questions we face as we develop a BWX math program: How do we provide for the repetition and explicit instruction needed in building math skills while keeping in the spirit of exploration?


This week I decided that our group would take a detour into some explicit skill building with base-10 blocks. We spent three days this week using ‘base 10 blocks’ to build their understanding of place value in long addition and create arrays to help symbolize multiplication problems.”


This week, they are picking the exploration part of the problem back up and collaborating with Lili’s band to make estimations from here to the park and here to Dolores Park.




friday experiences

Today – another great Community Friday:

Lili and a group of actors rehearsed a scene and made a plan for creating a play about sirens. They’re planning to write a script, make costumes and a set, and rehearse for several weeks to create a real show!



Sean and Ian are working on a Chromebook way-station so we can all keep track of the pesky laptops that get checked out from the office and never seem to make it back…


Shawna set up clay in the dining room and brought several books in to impart inspiration.



Harry brought his 3D printer to school and asked Phillip to help him get it working again.


The Exploratorium does a Tinkering Social Club every month and invited artist Jesse Genet to do light painting with them. Luckily, we have Gever, an expert in finding expert creative people out in the world and inviting them to school. Jesse visited for the morning and guided groups of kids through the process of making their own clothes using ink and the sun to print pictures on their shirts, using Inkodye to do so. (Check out the website here!)




Josh hosted the first day of Knife Throwing Club, where he will be teaching the kids how to, extremely safely and with widely-known and accepted rules, throw knives. Today they practiced with wood, one at a time, and went over and over what it means to be safe in this club.



Sadie tried to teach Ramses her own version of chess.


Edwin, Bruno and Natasha’s dad, came in to make hot lunch! He made grilled cheese sandwiches of various varieties and food tolerances and tomato soup, and had lots of kid helpers during the morning.



pendulums and bridges

So many good things have been happening at school! This first arc, Rulers, was designed to allow the students to get to know Brightworks and the community, but of course it has its academic advantages as well. Each band has been approaching Rulers with a different spin, but all have been experimenting and exploring units of measurement and the ways people measure the world.

Mackenzie and her newly-named band, the Hawks, have continued to work on their chair-building project this week, using their chairs as a provocation for understanding the declaration process at the school. They are looking at the history of discovering standard units by recreating an experiment that tested the length of a pendulum’s swing, asking “Can the length of a meter be one second of a pendulum’s swing?” They tested out this hypothesis on the bridge in the workshop.


Their mission was also to discover if the weight of the pendulum affects the length of its swing. Ben reported that the answer blew everyone’s minds – because it had no effect!


Sean said that Natasha and Lola sought to increase the precision of their measurements by using a ruler on the floor to measure swing length, doing multiple trials at each swing length to eliminate timekeeper error, and timing ten cycles, rather than one, to reduce timekeeper error.


Christie and Phillip’s band have embarked on an exploration of bridges during the Rulers arc and are looking at their history, related units of measurement, engineering and planning, seismic planning, and architecture styles. Their all-band project will be building a bridge from the top of their bandspace to the second floor of the mezzanine in the Brightworks space, all the while learning about tools of measurement in a literal sense and how to build connections throughout the community in a metaphorical sense.

First, though, they had to finish their curtain and create a second iteration of the project, since the first one turned out to be uneven and missewed and not what they had planned!







The band has also started writing blogs! Each student has blog post requirements for reflection. There’s no easy way to link all of them to the main school blog, but I will quote and link as the kids write more.


This week has been a whirlwind of great new things – more in-band experiences, a great Back-to-School night last night, a second community Friday today. We’re learning each other’s habits and preferences, strengths, humor, and ways that we need and want to support each other.













shawna’s band

Shawna and her band have been exploring the world of Brightworks in their own way for the past week and a half, looking closely at the floor of the building, asking questions about our brains and how they work, and wondering what our bodies are made of and how long orca whales can grow. Her experiences as a teacher have taught her to let the kids’ interests lead the way and direct their own curriculum (with gentle guidance in the right direction) while still exploring the world of measurement and rulers as part of the arc.