A good old wood shop is re-energizing students to tackle core subjects

A New Jersey district is getting learners fired up about math and English with woodworking funded by COVID relief.
By: | May 5, 2022
Students complete woodworking projects last summer at Denville Township School District in New Jersey.Students complete woodworking projects last summer at Denville Township School District in New Jersey.

Something meaningful to students may have been lost when schools across the nation rapidly intensified their focus on STEM.

Prior to the pandemic, Denville Township School District, a K-8 system in New Jersey, had long since transformed its woodshop into a STEM lab as interest waned and the only qualified woodshop teacher retired. And while the STEM lab remains a major component of teaching and learning in the district, Sandra L. Cullis, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, decided the district should introduce some new—yet also old—activities to re-engage students after remote learning. She was also looking for a way to draw students into acceleration programs to help them bounce back from learning loss.

“Over the last decade, there has been a shift away from teaching traditional handcrafts,” Cullis says. “However, we have found that many students still find them highly engaging. In STEM, kids love projects that involve building. Kids like to be hands-on.”

Cullis’ idea was to offer woodworking as part of its 2021 accelerated summer learning program. She thought an activity such as woodworking could lure students to six weeks of summer instruction that was mainly designed to help them recover learning time lost to the pandemic. Cullis used ESSER COVID relief grants to purchase tools, kits and curricula from New Jersey-based Maplewoodshop and made woodworking the first class of the day for middle school students.

“For middle schoolers, it’s hard for them to get up and come to school in the summer, but they came in excited because the first hour of the day was hands-on,” Cullis says. “Then they were in a better place to take on math and language arts.”
Woodworking helped students get more prepared for math and language arts.

Students made CO2-powered racecars, birdhouses and keepsake boxes, among other projects. Teachers also noted that students practiced more care with the sharp woodworking tools than they generally do with science supplies, like vinegar. The activity helped the district achieve its best-ever summer school attendance. “The teachers who teach summer after summer said they found students more ready to learn,” Cullis says.

The popularity led the district to incorporate woodworking into the middle school STEM club this school year and make it an option during elementary-level enrichment periods. The class will also be offered this summer as the district looks to make up more lost ground. And in fall of 2022, woodworking will become a STEM elective for middle schoolers.

Outside academics, hands-on learning helps students build confidence as they complete projects independently. “It definitely provides leadership opportunities for students who typically are not offered leadership roles or who don’t accept them,” she says. “They were stronger at woodworking and helping peers who needed assistance.”

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