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Trading-In the School Desk for the Workbench
Robert Oakes, Associate Director of Communications

During this year's May Experiential Learning Program (MELP) week, students in the elementary school were immersed in the industrial arts, learning carpentry skills, gaining experience, and building self-confidence, as they completed several hands-on construction projects. With teachers, parents, and grandparents offering guidance and support, the children worked together in mixed-grade groups and discovered the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. 

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When the elementary school began participating in the March (now May) Experiential Learning Program (MELP) at Rectory several years ago, they had a head start. After all, learning by doing, a cornerstone of the MELP program, has always been at the heart of the pedagogical approach in grades K through 4. As Elementary School Director Maria Carpenter pointed out, “that's how children learn best. Especially at this age, you can give them a lot of information, but their brain can process it more deeply when we create experiences where they can explore and do it themselves.”
 
And it’s even better if they can become totally immersed, setting aside all other schoolwork for large blocks of time and devoting themselves entirely to the task at hand—exactly what they do each year when MELP week comes around. “During ES MELP, Jr.,” Maria said, “we spend a week giving students the opportunity to do something that they wouldn't necessarily be able to do during the school year, to dive deeply into a topic and completely immerse themselves in the experience. We call it ES MELP, Jr. Studios.”
 
While the choice of topic changes from year to year, it always arises out of students’ or teachers’ interest or something they studied in the classroom. “One year, we were studying children’s book illustrator Tomie dePaola, so we infused the week with his books,” she said. “We spent a whole week making all kinds of art, from macaroni art to paper quilts to making pancakes and Italian cookies, and we even brought in a Native American storyteller—all different things that Tomie dePaola models in his books.”
 
This year, the focus shifted from the fine arts to the industrial arts as the teachers transformed the elementary school into ES MELP, Jr. Woodshop Studios. Donning tool belts and safety goggles, with hammers and screwdrivers at the ready, students traded in their school desk for the workbench, learning carpentry skills and completing several hands-on construction projects. Rotating through the project stations in mixed-grade groups, each student had a chance to work on every one of the projects: a lending library, a birdhouse, a mason beehive, a model Nordic village, a wooden car, a latch board, and building blocks. 
 
At Maria’s station, students helped build an authentic “Little Free Library” that now stands proudly outside the elementary school building, its colorful tiles catching the sunlight and its little wolf figurine perched on top, howling at the sky. At grade 2-3 teacher Willa Gustavson’s station, students made birdhouses out of kits assembled by parent volunteers. Another volunteer, a student’s grandfather who happens to be a functional wood sculptor, helped the kids build beehives designed especially for mason bees, which are soon to be hung around the Rectory campus. And at her station, grade four teacher Melissa Zahansky guided student groups through the process of making and painting latch boards. These colorful wooden boards, covered with hooks, keys, and hinges, are meant to help young children develop their fine motor skills. At the other three stations, including Hayley Finnegan's Nordic village station, students created villages out of heavy paper, decorated little wooden cars, and made whatever they liked out of an assortment of wooden building blocks. 
 
It was Ms. Gustavson who first proposed the idea of a woodshop MELP, Jr. Said Maria, “Last summer, Ms. Gustavson went to a week-long women's construction course in upstate New York to get out of her comfort zone, learn how to use tools, and try something new.”
 
Inspired by Ms. Gustavson’s adventure, the teachers wanted to give their students that same chance to learn to do something they never knew they could, something that many adults believe is beyond them.
 
“Our philosophy is that, if you create experiences in a developmentally appropriate way, even though they’re little, children can engage in things that people don’t usually give them the opportunity to try.” So, with careful guidance from teachers and family volunteers, the kids learned to use saws, power tools, screwdrivers, and hammers, with plenty of time set aside for practice. Indeed, a stump on the patio was absolutely riddled with flat metal nail heads after students practiced their hammer skills by driving nails into the wood.
 
“We could have chosen to hammer in all the nails and have everything pre-setup for the children,” Maria said. “But we felt it was important to have them nail their projects together and learn how to use a hammer. By having that experience, they were able to understand how it feels for themselves. Plus, it gives them responsibility and confidence to know that we believe in them enough to let them have a saw and do it themselves or have a hammer and be able to use it safely. We tell the children, if they use the tool appropriately and make good choices, they can use it.”
 
One of the great benefits of our ES MELP, Jr. week is the chance it allows for parents and grandparents to share in their child’s experience. “We love welcoming parents and grandparents into the classrooms,” she said, “especially if they can share something that they’re passionate about with the children. So we invited them to come in and help us,” and many answered the call. “A few parents went shopping for supplies and pre-cut all of the wood; some came in and spent a part of their day with us,” and some with carpentry skills were happy to share their knowledge and experience to teach the children how to use tools safely.
 
Maria believes this engagement is as meaningful for parents and grandparents as it is for the children. “We feel it's important that the children see that they're surrounded by adults that are all interested in helping them grow,” she said. “And the parents and grandparents are so grateful to be able to come in and be involved with the children. It allows them to see their children’s experience in the classroom.”
 
Another benefit of ES MELP, Jr. week is the chance it gives kids to mix with other grade levels. “We felt it was important for the older students, the fourth graders, to help the younger ones, so we mixed the groups. And it was a wonderful opportunity for children to step up and work together. Instead of sitting with your friend, you might have to help a little kindergartner who needs to learn how to hammer. And they loved it. They all were shining. They were wonderful.”
 
So what did the students think of ES MELP, Jr. week? Some said they enjoyed having the chance to do something they don’t usually have time to do. “It was fun because I never really get to build with blocks a lot at my house because I'm always busy with sports,” said second grader Connor. His classmate Trevor agreed.
 
Nathan, also in the second grade, said MELP, Jr. week gave him the chance to do something he always wanted to do. “I like that we built a lending library because I have always seen them around places, so I've always wanted to build one. But I never knew we were going to build one at Rectory.” And like many students, Nathan was excited about how much he had learned. “I learned how to use a Phillips head screwdriver because otherwise, I would just bang screws, but you're not supposed to do that.”
 
Second grader Will gained a new appreciation for carpentry, saying, “I learned that woodshop is a very hard thing to do,” but now that he knows how to sand, he feels more capable. Edvin in the fourth grade was similarly excited to learn “how to use tools like screwdrivers and hammers and how to build easy stuff and fix things.” Edvin was emphatic when asked whether he would like to try some more woodworking in the future. “I’d love to do it again,” he said. 
 
Edvin’s classmate Danny said he was most excited to learn to use a wrench screwdriver and that his favorite project was the birdhouse, which is already up in his backyard where a bird has taken up residence.
Fourth grader Abigail said, “I learned how to take out a screw with a drill, because I could never figure it out.” And now that she knows, “I get to use that to build more things,” which she said she plans to do.
 
Second grader Trevor said the most important thing he learned was “to keep your hands away from the hammer.” 
 
And indeed, the hands-on nature of the workshop taught all of the kids to stay alert. Jackson, a fourth grader, said it was that element of possible danger that impressed him the most. “Usually, when you're in school, it’s not really dangerous that much,” he said. “But when you're out there, and you have a hammer, and you're nailing something, you can almost accidentally hit your hand,” which means you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing. “You can't be side talking and looking off while you're nailing something. You need to be focusing.” And Jackson liked having the chance to prove himself, saying, “I really liked how the teachers were able to trust me with those tools.”
 
Jackson’s classmate Mary Alma said she gave herself a little nick but that she thinks of it now as an important learning experience. “It’s taught me to be very careful when working with tools,” she said, “especially some that are very dangerous and could hurt you.” But Mary Alma said the experience has not left her feeling afraid to try again. In fact, it’s the opposite. “If you make a mistake, then you’ll learn from it. Because after you realize that you did that, you’ll learn how to never do it again.”
 
Huxley, in the fourth grade, said his greatest challenge was learning to drill straight, which he said he did learn to do by the end of the week, and now he can’t wait to work in his family’s woodshop at home with his grandfather, a master carpenter. Huxley also said it was most satisfying to put the pieces together and see how something that he made himself looks.
 
Many students also enjoyed the opportunity to mingle with the other grades. Sophia in the second grade commented that “it was nice,” while fourth grader Axel shared, “I liked it because it showed everyone's experience, and you could help people. It really brought the Rectory elementary together as a community. And since we're in the fourth grade, it gave us the opportunity to show that we were the elders in the elementary.” Edvin echoed those sentiments, saying, “It gave us time to be a leader because we had other grades working with us, and since we’re in fourth grade, we had a chance to lead and help all of the younger kids.”
 
The leadership opportunity also meant a great deal to Reese, who said she rarely gets that chance. “I'm the youngest in my family, so I like to be kind of on top in some stuff and lead people,” she said. And because Reese has often worked with her father in his woodshop, she had plenty of knowledge to offer her classmates.
 
Fourth grader Mary Allegra said that the group work presented both challenges and opportunities, which ultimately led to a positive outcome for all. At the Nordic village model-making station, her favorite, Mary Allegra said that not everyone saw eye to eye. “A lot of people disagreed,” she said. “But when people disagreed, we talked and we shared our ideas together. And then we came out with a lovely neighborhood.”
 
For fourth grader Ellen, the best moment was when they brought the latch boards they had made down to the K-1 classroom so that the kids could pick the one they wanted to keep. “They all got around us, playing on the floor,” she recalled. “And it was just nice to see their faces.”
 
Second grader Pippa also enjoyed having the parents and grandparents in the classroom, saying, “It was nice to see that they could see their own children.” And Edvin was thankful. “It was nice that they wanted to help us,” he said.
 
But what was it that truly made MELP, Jr. week unlike any other week? Why, the Friday afternoon dessert, of course! When asked what it was, second graders Pippa, Wren, and Sophia sang out in a three-part chorus: “Ice cream! Ice cream! Ice cream sundaes!”
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