Consider a door knocker — its form, its purpose, its basic requirements. Could you manipulate wood so the sound of your door knocker tells the world who you are? Could a door knocker portray all the complexities of a person?
It seems like an impossible feat, but Ethical Culture Social Studies Workshop teacher Leonard White teaches his 3rd graders to do just that.
For their first project in his workshop class, the students make inventive door knockers-as-self-portraits, pouring themselves into something deceptively simple and producing unique, playful, and charming objects — all while fulfilling the requirements of functional design. White asks students “What is one thing you want the world to know about you?” The answer might be: “I love hamburgers” (as in the case of a door knocker rigged with an elaborate pulley-system so that a visitor announces themself by dropping a burger into an open mouth). Or it might be something more abstract like “I’m funny” (this produced a bobblehead). “It’s a range of people who are expressing their sense of humor, expressing their interests, or just sharing a quiet moment that they appreciate in life,” he says. “It says a lot about them and where they are. It allows them to connect individuality with the world around them.”
Born in Ontario, Canada, White and his family moved to Syracuse, NY when he was four. His British mother was born during WWII — and has stories of the Blitz, including being born while a bomb went off down the street. She was a nurse, and White calls her “the epitome of selflessness, patience, perseverance, and generosity.” When White was a child, his mother ran a daycare center out of their house, a “natural extension of her patience, her creativity, and her motivation to create an environment that met kids where they were and created a community that celebrated them. She exposed me to the tenets of progressive education long before I knew what that meant.”
White’s father, an engineer and inventive builder with an easy smile and an affable personality (he “may be the origin of all dad jokes,” White says) has a remarkable ability to disarm the prejudices of those he meets. As a 90-year-old black man who grew up just over the Canadian border from Detroit, MI, he has faced every form of racism. “The example that he has set in forcefully confronting discrimination and confidently asserting himself and his abilities — undaunted by the intolerance and ignorance he has faced — has had a lasting impact on how I have learned to navigate this world as a person of color,” White says.
His parents had an artistic bent and fostered creativity in White and his older brother, Ken, who is a musician. “I grew up in a very maker-based household,” White says. His mother always made art and wrote poetry “unencumbered by pretense.” She’s a prolific knitter and creates stunning blankets with landscape scenes and inventive textures, not to mention every article of clothing imaginable. White’s father’s passion has always been building, and he built ambitious projects at every home they’ve lived in — a two-car garage, a tiered patio, a treehouse for the kids. “The empowerment that he embodies as a builder is a source of inspiration for me. He finds joy in repairing and renovating our home and has always generously offered his talents to almost everyone he knows,” White says.
White attended his neighborhood’s public elementary school, where he began to “recognize [himself] as having a talent in art.” In high school, his parents moved White to a school with a more established arts program — but where he didn’t know anyone, leading him towards an ever-relatable period of sullen teen angst. He found solace in the art department, enrolling in multiple art classes and spending every study hall drawing and painting in the art room.
White entered the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI as an illustration major. He was “very self-conscious in art school,” especially compared to the immense talent displayed by his peers, he chuckles. “I’d been a medium fish in a small pond, and now I was surrounded by the best talent in the world.” He also struggled with the “singular nature of being an artist,” and yearned for a way out from the isolation. It was from that desire that he came to woodworking and a change of focus to furniture design. “All of a sudden, you’re not the only variable to consider. It was the material that was available. It was the people that are going to be interacting with the piece. It was the problem that needed to be solved.” White had discovered that artistic expression didn’t have to be a solitary pursuit, and from there sought out collaboration whenever possible.
After graduating in 2002, White moved to Portland, Oregon, where he worked in a cabinetry shop and later ran the woodshop and served as the visiting artist at the Pacific Northwest College of Art — co-teaching classes with his wife and frequent collaborator, Rainy Lehrman. (Lehrman and White met in the RISD Furniture Design Program in their sophomore year. Together, they’ve built everything from professional commission work to home renovations to gifts and favors for friends and family, like a crib for their niece and a playground for their kids’ daycare. “Having a partner to share a creative experience with is invaluable,” he says.) After four years, they moved back to the East Coast so Lehrman could attend graduate school at the Pratt Institute, and White found work in a Brooklyn furniture design studio. But over time, the work became taxing and the studio claustrophobic, and White longed for new ways of collaboration.
Enter: teaching. White started a job as an assistant teacher at Village Community School in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, an experience he found revelatory. “There was something really remarkable about the way that kids think. It was uninhibited and unhindered by physics. I’d say ‘Let's make a chair’ and their first reaction was ‘Let's make it hover. I was smitten,” he says. He spent four years at Village Community School, did a one-year stint teaching at Bank Street, and joined Ethical Culture in 2012.
The workshop is absolutely bustling today as a 5th-Grade class hurries to finish up an expansive project redesigning classrooms with an eye towards health and wellness, co-taught and collaboratively conceived by a team of Science, Technology, and Math teachers. One student slices cardboard like a surgeon, as another student hands her the tools she needs. Across the room, three kids inspect blueprints with furrowed brows. Another student measures and saws a piece of wood. Conversation is raucous and urgent, and punctuated by a constant chirping of “Leonard? Leonard? Leonard?”
White triages issues like a missing roll of tape or a disagreement about converting units of measure, asks questions instead of giving away answers, and cheers on students. He seems to have infinite patience — a trait he says he doesn’t always recognize in himself. But for the better part of an hour and a half, he calmly and clearly responds to an assault of demands for his attention by children in the room.
As the Social Studies Workshop teacher, White’s curriculum presents students with three-dimensional problem-solving challenges that introduce them to the design process and often overlaps with what his students are learning in their social studies classes. Learning about history in both academic and creative settings gives kids “a much more nuanced view — it’s not so much about dates and major events but more of the minutiae of everyday life. It’s a chance to focus on the crafts and objects that filled out the lives of people.”
The collaboration and generosity White learned from his parents and developed in school is still the foundation of his educational philosophy. In the first grade, students learn about the shop space — safety, routines, expectations, and how to use the tools. They also weave in their social studies curriculum, focusing on Central Park. When they return to the workshop in third grade, they do work related to indigenous American cultures, building dioramas and models of housing structures and canoes. They also design and build furniture customized for their own needs — it’s extremely self-reflective, taking into account their specific measurements and aesthetic preferences. “It was another way of engaging them in the process so that they’re creating designs unique to them, rather than just having them make a chair for the sake of making a chair,” he says.
In 4th Grade, students turn their attention outward and pursue an “empathetic design route” — taking requests from Ethical Culture community. They’ve built everything from magazine stands for the Communications office to a donation box in the front hallway of the school. The purpose is to give back to the school first and foremost, and White calls it a “legacy project — they are placing their footprint on this community.” In fifth grade, students broaden their focus to their community at large, designing a new, hypothetical workshop, for example, as part of a collaboration between White and science and technology teachers.
At the core of every assignment is the idea of intention — of being deliberate in your choices. White is clear that design is a responsibility, one that comes with great power. “I’m very interested in design as a deliberate process, especially as a means of being a changemaker in the world,” he says. White talks to his students about the impact design has on the world around them: how something poorly designed — like the Cross Bronx Expressway — can disadvantage, displace, and harm communities, or how something well designed — like an app that helps families seized by ICE — can empower people without resources. White is teaching his students that design isn’t just about creating something aesthetically pleasing, it’s about the power to craft a better world — even it it’s just a one-of a kind doorbell that makes someone smile.