Students in eight classes at Hawley Elementary School were introduced to The Willow Reindeer Project last month, thanks to a two-day visit by the project’s founder. After the two-day visit, the students had created eight small-scale reindeer sculptures under the guidance of Willow Bill, who told each class that it was up to them to decide what to do with their reindeer.
“Many teachers have their students sign their sculpture,” Willow Bill told Hawley School first grade teacher Jennifer Pirone on May 20. “Some teachers decide to put their reindeer outside their school, others keep them in their classrooms. It’s up to you,” he told Ms Pirone, “and your students.
“You guys are the ones who made this,” he continued, motioning to the children seated around him that afternoon. “This is your reindeer to take care of.”
A resident of Carson City, Nev., Willow Bill made a trip to Newtown in May while on the East Coast to visit his father, who lives in upstate New York. He had been in town 15 months earlier, also on a side trip while visiting his father, and had promised many of those he met at that time that he would be back.
He had hoped last year to catch up with those who were placing Hearts of Hope in public places in time for Valentine’s Day. While that plan did not fall into place for him, Willow Bill did meet and befriend a number of residents during that trip, and he kept in touch with many during the past year, he said.
On May 19–20, he spent time with Hawley School’s second grade students. Seated on a blanket that doubles as his poncho, Willow Bill led hands-on workshops so that the children felt ownership in their creations, he said. Students used battery-powered drills to put screws into place, connecting pieces of willow that had been brought into each class for the project.
As each piece of wood was assembled, Willow Bill would ask questions such as, “Which ocean is closest to Connecticut?” “What is the fourth letter in the word utility?” “What is 3½ plus 3½?”
When a student answered correctly, he or she was invited to join Willow Bill in the center of the circle to attach another piece of willow to the reindeer being built. Willow Bill made sure every student had a chance to participate during his visits, and even invited the teachers and a guest visitor to Mrs Pirone’s classroom to go hands-on with the drill.
Tool safety and the control of materials was also addressed during the sessions.
“What’s the number rule?” he said at one point.
“Safety first!” the children responded in unison.
There were also a number of life lessons snuck into the visits.
As students cheered for one girl after she ran the drill, Willow addressed the children, saying, “This world needs you all to support each other.”
Once their reindeer had been completed, Willow Bill asked the children in Mrs Pirone’s class if they thought it would be strong enough for him to sit on. Very few thought it would be — minutes earlier, after all, these were only sticks — but Willow Bill surprised the children when he sat on the reindeer sculpture. Lifting his feet up, putting all of his weight on the small sculpture, he declared, “The willow is strong!”
The project began in 1998, Willow Bill told The Newtown Bee, when his son was still in preschool.
“He was 4, and I wanted to spend more time with him,” he said between two of his presentations on May 20. “His teachers let me visit the class, and we all made a reindeer out of willow.
“After that first class, friends of mine were like, ‘Hey, come visit my kid’s class,’ and it went from there,” he said. “It started as ‘Hey, let’s make a reindeer,’ and it has evolved into kids getting to use small tools, learning math, geography, and respect.
“When you put a drill into a kid’s hands and let them use it, that’s kinetics,” said Willow. “This project teaches children about being on teams, having manners, showing respect for each other, and being challenged.”
He now visits approximately 200 classrooms in Nevada between September and December, he said. The project has also turned into an evolving, growing work of public art.
Last winter, he said, more than 200 businesses in Nevada were given reindeers made from willow. Residents and travelers were able to see them, he said, for a 60-mile stretch.
He was honored, he said, to be able to visit Hawley School.
“This school gets it,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of schools, and see a lot of dynamics, and this is a really good one.
“I am blessed, and honored, that I got to come do this,” he said.
Now that Newtown has what he calls a “starter herd” of eight reindeer, Willow Bill is hoping to return to build more. He would like to return in November to create a sleigh for the holidays, and more reindeer with other groups. The reindeer that have been built and displayed in Nevada, he said, have been respected. Most have been left alone.
“We’ve put out more than 1,000 reindeer over the years,” said Willow Bill. “When you put out that many sculptures, and no one steals them, there is something magic there.”