BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE: Teen woodworkers create foundations on campus and in the community
The quality of work produced by the students of the independent-study woodworking class at Arlington High School is so good that one might think the items were constructed by highly trained – and much older – professional tradespeople. Their creations are installed and used, not only inside the high school itself, but also at the local food pantry.
At AHS, their benches are in the connector, and their sets of stairs lead onto the stage in the auditorium.
At EATS Market — part of Arlington EATS, at 117 Broadway — where food is available for free to ‘guests,’ or all those who need it, the bins the students created and then donated now hold shelf-stable items like dried beans and lentils.
More projects are in the works, which aligns with the program’s goal — creating something from an initial idea to a finished project that gives students a sense of meaning, knowing that they have made something worthwhile that will be used for years to come.
‘Mr. M’: instructor, mentor
Nathan ‘Nate’ Muehleisen, the woodworking instructor, or “Mr. M,” as the kids call him, has been in charge of the independent-study class for the past three years. Such students work alongside others who are engaged in a more structured curriculum.
“Because they have already taken the intro to woodworking, they can do more self-directed projects,” Muehleisen said of his independent-study students.
They can fit their shop time in whenever it suits their schedule, and there are no lectures or homework. There is no set number of projects a student must complete, because some projects are more involved and time-consuming than others.
“Students are graded on their participation and their level of investment in a project,” noted Muehleisen.
Students are encouraged to come up with their own ideas for their projects. But, if they cannot, “I’ll send out an email to people around the building to see if they want something fixed or want something built. We’ll just generate a list, and if kids don’t have an independent project, they just pick something from this list.”
Recently, one student was making custom extensions for desks that students can put their stuff into, and another was constructing a sanding booth for the woodshop itself, to contain the dust from sanding.
Students’ creations used off-campus
The work the students have been doing has been noticed by the off-campus community, including Jane Morgan, an Arlington School Committee member. At a committee meeting earlier this spring, she spoke briefly to her colleagues about Muehleisen’s class.
Contacted later by YourArlington, she explained. “I had heard and seen that there were some new benches in the AHS connector and inquired about who had made that happen,” Morgan wrote in an email when asked what prompted her to share about the program with her fellow committee members. “I heard from students that they love the benches and would love to have even more spaces inside the building to hang out, sit and connect with friends.”
Susan Dorson, program director at Arlington EATS, heard about the program from her two children who attend the high school. What she learned impressed her enough that she contacted Muehleisen about constructing bins to hold produce at the food pantry.
“[Dorson] emailed me with some drawings. The nice thing with the independent-study kids is [that] they’re at a place where you can just hand them a drawing, and they are pretty capable of getting things up and going,” he said. “With the Arlington EATS project, we started at the end of last year, and she asked us for a few more, and we finished it up this year.”
Dorson could not be happier. “Our volunteers love the bins, as they help keep things organized on the shelves and make stocking much easier. Our guests just appreciate that our whole space is professional and well organized.”
Where the pragmatic meets the artistic
Muehleisen considers his job the convergence of his interests and his experiences. “It’s a cross-over between aspects that are definitely old-school wood shop – we make cutting boards, a nice thing you can take home – but it also leans toward art.”
Muehleisen’s background in both woodworking and art allows him to structure the class in a way that mixes practicality with an open-endedness.
“Right now, we’re framing sheds, which is directly trade-related and practical. I try to alternate between sort of more structured projects and then things that are as open-ended as possible so the kids can design things and make things that are meaningful to them. Sometimes in some situations, if a kid wants to make something that’s super practical, that’s great, or if a kid wants to make something that’s more in the category of art, that’s also cool.”
Dan Mota, who just finished his junior year, agreed, “I think this class is really what the students make of it. I like to think it’s an art class with a unique medium, that being wood. The cool thing about this art [is that] there are few limits. It’s often functional. It can be big or small or really anything at all.”
Muehleisen spoke of what the best part of teaching the class is. “I think it’s when you sense that a student has that internal sense of satisfaction from doing something and that they’re motivated to make things that are interesting and useful to them. There are kids right now who will be in here three periods a day, and that’s pretty satisfying, when they have a free block outside of class time or hanging around after school.”
Mota is one of those who is there as often as possible. “I find it to be a very stress-free and anxiety-reducing space. I find it very satisfying to work with my hands. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I spend a lot of time making things just right, and I find that quite enjoyable. I spend most of my free periods there to work on my own projects or lend a helping hand to other classes.”
Mota also said that Muehleisen has become a great mentor to him. “On complicated projects, he can be almost like a very helpful partner, which is very appreciated. He’s always there when you need him throughout the process of crafting something. It’s cool because questions aren’t really yes or no. There are a billion ways to do something, so if there’s a problem or you don’t know how to do something, it becomes a brainstorming session with Mr. M. That style of teaching extends your knowledge and skills in the subject so vastly beyond [rather] than just telling me what to do.”
Muehleisen spoke glowingly of Mota, noting his internal motivation. “What’s cool is he’ll keep redoing something until it’s correct. It’s only good enough when it’s exactly the way he planned it. Honestly, when he’s done with projects, I [realize that] I couldn’t have executed them better.”
Mota said the class had guided him to consider carpentry a career choice for the future or, at the very least, a longtime hobby.
“I don’t see myself stopping woodworking after high school. It’s awesome to take finished projects home, but it’s even cooler when it’s for someone else. I’ve made a few different projects for friends and family. I made this toy chest for my baby nephews. It’s very finely made, and they’ll probably have it for the rest of their lives, so that’s really cool to me.”
Next project: a canoe?
For the upcoming school year, Mota has expressed interest in building a canoe. Muehleisen says that if anybody can do it, it will be Dan. “I’ve wanted to build a boat in here for a while. And there are some [other] kids [that] if [they] told me they were going to build a canoe, I’d be like, I don’t know – are you going to actually finish it, or am I going to get stuck with a half-finished canoe? But I know Dan is going to finish this boat.”
Being an independent-study student results in a palpable feeling of self-respect. Mota said, “When we’re giving back to the community, with projects for teachers, the school and the town, there is a lot of pride in that.”
So far, Muehleisen has seen approximately 100 students participate in the regular woodworking, architecture and engineering classes in the makerspace over the soon-to-conclude school year. They also use the space to collaborate with the art and science departments. “Each day, we have a lot of individual students who come by for instruction and materials for projects as well.”
Although woodworking is still a male-dominated field, Muehleisen has seen some encouraging signs when it comes to female participation. “Each year, more female students are using the space. The proximity to the art and computer-aided -design programs makes it more accessible. Generally, architecture has about 50 percent female students, whereas woodworking is around 20 percent. I think the culture around the shop is changing to be more diverse, and that trend will continue, which is a good thing.”
“Talk about the shop being supported; I have this giant pile of wood that just showed up, so we’re totally stocked for next year,” he said. For classes starting in early September, 170 students are already signed up for woodworking. That’s a lot of participants and a lot of material, but Muehleisen believes that the space is capable of a lot. “The program is supported in a way where[in] I think it’ll keep getting better as we go.”
Starting in fall, there will be three levels of woodworking established, which can be completed in semesters. Woodworking I, an introduction, will consist of building primarily small- and medium-sized projects. In Woodworking II, students will make bigger structures. “Outside, we have a couple of sheds that we’re building. So, next [school] year, the Woodworking II kids will work on building a shed and kind of a larger structure,” said Muehleisen. Woodworking III will be independent study; these advanced students will have access to the shop, and they can make things. “The whole class is one epic experience,” Mota said. “I’m already making plans for what I’m going to make next year.”
Adjusting during Covid
The present and future of the program appear brighter than in the relatively recent past. Like the bulk of public-school campuses nationwide, AHS was mostly closed during the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic; most instruction across the Arlington Public Schools district was remote for more than a year beginning in mid-March 2020. This particularly hampered hands-on programs but did not shut them down.
Asked by YourArlington to explain this, Principal Matthew Janger replied via email, “As with other classes, woodworking, culinary and arts had to make major adjustments. They managed through a mix of home projects, offsite gatherings and opportunities for students to access the facilities [at AHS] in small groups.”
He added that the current makerspace opened in February 2022, when this and other programs moved into the new Phase 1 building of the still-under-construction campus.
The future may bring yet more new skills, materials and projects for AHS students who, like Mota, enjoy and benefit from hands-on project work. “I started practicing for fabricating bicycle frames,” Muehleisen said. “That’s my new challenge for myself. I’ve been taking lessons, and somebody is giving me pointers who will sell me his old equipment. He’s a retiring frame builder, so I’m going to try and get into that. I’m going to bring the equipment here. And maybe after a couple of years, if kids want to build bike frames, they can do that.”
Janger fully endorses this kind of learning. “Our arts and engineering programs have seen a real explosion since we have moved into our new STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics] wing. We have expanded staff, programming and collaboration, and we are very excited about the opportunities for design thinking that the makerspace and the STEAM wing have provided,” he wrote in a recent email to YourArlington. He particularly commended Muehleisen, whose official title is makerspace lead teacher, and Jon Koppel, engineering and design teacher. “The outreach for community projects has provided great opportunities for students to engage in design thinking and have a real-world impact,” Janger said.