Thirty Days of Making: Tracing Board

I’m in Day 18 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor.  (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!).

 Reason for the Project:

Last year, I talked with a group of students about some of the ways that Freemasonry had an influence on early American history. But I’m a Freemason, so there are significant limits on what I could say to them about what membership entails. And so, I developed a little ‘lodge group’ on the fly, called the Society of Successful Students, to explain how a semi-secretive group uses the ordinary working tools of daily life to transmit special messages to its members.  As in the freemasons, these tools were arranged on a ‘tracing board’ to help explain the concepts to new members of the group.

Thirty Days of making: Tracing board
A tableau of tools

The Society of Successful Students (not my best alliteration, I admit) used a tracing board which was a great example of ad-hocracy on my part. Now, a year and more later, I was trying to reconstruct the tracing board for a new group of students, to explain how a system could work. And now I share it with you.
Process and Results:

I knew what materials I wanted to include in the tracing board for the Society of Successful Students, so the first part of my process was finding all of the materials from various places around the school.  Virtually nothing in the assemblage here is mine; they’re borrowed from students and teachers.  I thought about covering all of the brand names and suchlike but that was too complicated.  I wanted to line the edges of the tracing board with colored pencils, but I couldn’t find the right number (although now I know what to look for the next time I want to lay this out… heh heh heh).

The results, I think, are fine though, as they are.   Pretend that you’ve just been initiated as a Successful Student, and listen in as the Master of the Class explains matters to you.  A Successful Student knows that:

  • the three kinds of paper – plain, ruled, and graph – represent our creative, narrative, and analytical selves.
  • the calendar or plan-book represents our intention to begin our studies with the end in mind, and plan our time wisely.
  • the index cards remind us to repeat the knowledge of our studies until it becomes secure in our memories
  • the scissors and tape remind us to cut and shape and assemble our work to suit our plan.
  • the paper clip and the binder clip remind us to organize and sort our work to suit our studies, and to reorganize often.
  • the eraser reminds us to scrub out our mistakes in casual work, while reminding us that every mistake leaves a mark.
  • The three pencils – new, dull, and sharpened – remind us to prepare ourselves and our tools to match the projects we do.
  • the sharpies remind us to broaden our mark on the world when the work will be seen by many
  • The compass, by its quality, reminds us to choose the best possible tools for our work, and to work with precision.
  • By its position on the ruler below it, the compass reminds us to do homework efficiently, in no more than two hours, with breaks every half-hour.
  • The ruler reminds us that, as younger students, we can only devote twelve hours to study
  • but the blue and black pens remind us that our best work should be done mainly during daylight hours, from 7:30 to 3:30.
  • The calculator reminds us to do complex calculations with machine backup; but it’s off to remind us of the importance of doing basic mathematical thinking with our minds.
  • The highlighters, by their presence, remind us to take notes and draw in important concepts; and by their color, to learn to prioritize between the greater, the lesser, and the unimportant.
  • The colored pencils remind us to work with more hues and awareness of color and design than ordinary school work requires — that excellence comes from paying attention to details.

Reflection on My Learning

I’ve built this particular assemblage before.  I’m not sure that I learned very much from it, except that the tools that I expect students to use (and which they do use), have the potential to carry meanings deeper than the simple meanings we assign to them. This is really the basis of symbolic language, and symbolism in general, that I’m showing off to the world.

But maybe, by presenting you my readers with a version of this tableau and the esoteric meanings underlying the items within it, you too can become Successful Students. In a sense, by knowing these deeper meanings, you already have become such.

I also wish that I had thought to glue down the objects that I assembled (or that some of them were not so high-quality, so that I COULD glue them down).  I think it’s an artistic form that warrants further attention, especially since it’s a form that I groove on — the tableau of ordinary objects possessed of deeper meaning than usual.

Reflection on General Learning

There’s a series of videos called “Working To Code” by Tom Sachs that is sort of related to this. I’m thinking of knolling, which appears in the film called “Ten Bullets”:

Part of me wonders if “knolling” is supposed to be a joke I haven’t gotten yet, but I teach kids to do this in the Design Lab.  They don’t, but I teach it.  First, it sets a specific place or space up as a given working environment for a given student.  It says to other students, “I’m working here, leave my stuff alone, and I’ll be back.”  But I think it also helps clue the student into the core concepts of what they were working on, and what they should be doing when they come back to work.  And I think it’s beautiful.  Laying out a tableau or a tracing board is kind of like knolling — it’s a way of adding a spiritual or a emotional level to one’s working tools.


Four of five stars.  I could lay this out again, especially with a photograph, and explain the meanings of the tools. A few students saw what I was doing, and remembered some of the items from last year.  If these objects were glued to a board, or even drawn in place, they’d serve as well as a freemasonic tracing board.  There’s some value in this technology. Overall, though, this is mostly an art project rather than a design project, and it was temporary rather than permanent.  Wanting to make it permanent as a physical object, though, is maybe an unnecessary level of detail.

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  1. I am interested in the power of ritual in the human consciousness, irrespective of any particular Path. I wonder if you could use this assemblage (of ritual implements) as a basis for teaching your theories of workmanship, ethics, design, implementation, etc., simply by teaching the students the mnemonics of the reasons behind each ritual implement and then referring to them often. No need to call this a “ritual” or the components “ritual implements” simply refer to “your pencils” or whatever whenever appropriate. Upon short consideration, I doubt it could hurt in anyway, and the results might be quite interesting… it would be a long experiment… not only the year you have those particular students, but also decades into their futures… an interesting thought experiment at least.

  2. Is it possible that by making it more static (by gluing the pieces in place) that you would lose something of the dynamic energy of what looks like a ritual?

    • I think that thinking of this activity as a ritual assemblage actually makes more sense. Someone on Flickr also said there needs to be a brass pencil sharpener, a graphing calculator, a glue stick and a tube of elmer’s glue.

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