Let me preface this post by saying, if I got you to find your way here, I want you to know that I don’t necessarily favor letting kids get splinters.  However, if they get them in the act of doing something super meaningful and fun, I think it’s definitely worth it!

Several weeks ago my colleague, Gary Wendt, shared with me that he had found some benches on Amazon to fit in the music room hallway.  We need benches there because students wait in that hall during the switching of classes several times a day.  Almost impulsively I blurted out, “Don’t buy them!  Let’s have the kids build them!”  Gary is one of the most progressive educators I’ve ever worked with.  He immediately said yes and my mind started thinking about how we could get a bunch of elementary age students to research, prototype and build benches in the few short weeks that remained of the school year.

“We only think when we are confronted with problems.” John Dewey

The very idea might sound odd to some educators, but not at Hubbard Woods School.  We have a long history of kids constructing and solving real world problems like this.

The wagon design is projected onto the screen while students sawed the boards to size. Classroom teachers worked alongside the students to cut, sand, drill and paint the lumber.

 Last year, the second grade built custom wagons over the course of a couple of weeks to transport book sets that the teachers had received a grant for.  It turned out that the second-grade students were ready for another challenge.

Reason Number One: By Solving a Real World Challenge, the Students Became Invested in Both the Process and the Final Result.

We started by talking about why Mr. Wendt saw the need for benches.  The kids all agreed and were very enthusiastic about being given the chance to research and build the benches themselves.  Friday’s Mr. Wendt is at one of our other elementary schools teaching Kindergarten music, but he agreed to Facetime the students in each of the second-grade classes so that they could interview him and find out what he was hoping to put in that space.

We Facetimed Mr. Wendt to ask him questions about what he was hoping to have us build for the hallway.

 After about 20 minutes, the classes were broken up into teams and we set off to analyze the space.  Each team had: a measurer who brought along a measuring tape; a recorder, who was going to record all of their measurements and observations as well as drawings; a documentarian who brought along an iPad logged into our digital portfolio platform Seesaw, and a ‘builder.’  The builder assisted the other students as well and knew that their real chance to shine would be when we started prototyping.  We reviewed how to safely use a tape measure and some key terms: bird’s eye view, length, width, and depth.  

In addition to measuring the space where we wanted to build the benches, we also found some other benches we had in our school already and drew and measured them as a reference for our build.  After gathering all of this information, we came together as a group and reflected on the process so far.  We discussed that the following week we would begin building prototypes using one of our favorite resources, Rigamajig!

The teams were excited to build their prototypes.  They referred to their notes from the previous week and got to work right away.  Rigamajig was not ‘exactly’ the right size for the benches, but we talked about the idea that prototypes are not the final design, they are a step along the way.  After building their prototypes, the teams came together and evaluated the different designs.  What was similar or different.  Again, the students used the measuring tape, clipboard, and iPad to document the process.  Finally, after evaluating the designs, we took them down to see how they worked in the actual space.  

Reason Number Two:  Measuring and Documenting Took On a Whole New Meaning When the End Result Was Something That They Will Use Every Day.

Prior to the actual session when we built our benches, I did a little research and found a bench design that was almost perfect for our application.  Everything about the design fit our parameters.  After double checking the measurements, I set out to visit Home Depot.  I bought all the materials and brought them out to the parking lot.  I drive a Honda Civic.  I can fit boards that are about 4’ long in it.  

I had planned ahead and brought my battery operated circular saw along.  I was hoping to cut the lumber down to size and transport it all in my car.  What I didn’t count on was the batteries not being fully charged.  I got about one-third of the lumber cut before the batteries died.  I had to go back to the store and buy a hand saw to finish the job.  It worked.  

The day of the build arrived.  It was the Friday before Memorial Day; a half day.  I knew that I was going to struggle to find volunteers so I decided that I wouldn’t worry about that.  Instead, I had the kids work through three rotations.  One station was a sanding station.  Another was a pre-drilling and assembly station.  The last was one of their favorite options during the year: Osmo Pizza Co.  Ideally, I would have had all the students participating in some part of the construction project.  

Last year, I had nearly a dozen parent volunteers and all 75 of the second graders working at the same time.  This year, given the situation and timing, I decided to pre-cut the lumber and have the kids focus on finishing.  It was the right decision.  The students LOVED sanding and each student had the chance to use a power drill.  For many of them, this was the first time they had ever done something like this.  I was able to ‘teach’ them some of the tips and tricks that come along with a construction project like this.  I showed them how to use a ‘square,’ mark holes for pre-drilling and more.  

Our entrance monitor was giving a tour to some incoming parents.  She came in and saw the entire library abuzz with activity.  She had seen the students measuring and recording the two weeks prior and so she began to explain the process the kids were completing.  Standing in the center of the library, the floor completely covered in sawdust while several students noisily sanded the planks for the bench, one of the new parents said to me, “You need a workshop.” Without even thinking, I said, “This IS my workshop!”

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

As the school cleared out for the holiday weekend, I cleaned up the saw dust with our shop vac.  I placed the completed bench next to the prototypes the students had created.

 They had done it.  They had analyzed the need, interviewed those who were impacted, prototyped and adapted their designs and then completed the process by building the benches.  I couldn’t have been prouder of the students, or happier to work in a district that supports and encourages learning in this way.   

Reason Number Three:  The Students Beamed With Pride As They Looked at Their Finished Projects; Even If They Had Picked Up a Few Splinters in the Process!

One of the three benches the students created.