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Class is in session

High school woodworking program can definitely thrive in the 21st century, according to a handful of shop instructors who shared the success stories of their programs.

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While some instructors have mixed opinions on issues such as whether implementing technology training is necessary at the high school level, the general consensus is that exuding the right attitude is important to obtaining student interest as well as community and school support.

“The thing that vocational teachers face is the constant onslaught from everyone around them of ‘You’re teaching a hobby.’ And, of course, that does not engender very much respect with student enrollment and things like that,” says Mark Smith, national director of WoodLINKS U.S.A.

Some U.S. school districts already have stellar programs at the high school level, perhaps because they’re located in the heart of a progressive wood industry. But as a general rule, shop classes are looked at as dumping grounds and a place to send children that don’t want to learn, says Smith, who provided statistics that indicate only 30 percent of U.S. high schools have woodworking programs.

“There are about 45,000 public high schools in the U.S. and, at best, there are only about 14,000 woodshop programs left in some form or another.”

WoodLINKS, which currently has 85 member schools, including 15 new members in 2008, was established as a partnership between industry and education in the face of a critical shortage of skilled personnel entering the wood manufacturing industry. The program encourages a cooperative approach between the schools and their local woodworking businesses. Individual companies provide advice and materials to update students and teachers about the technologies and processes being used today.

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“As industry gets involved, students get jobs and people see it’s not a hobby; it’s a career option, and that changes the perspective on what the program is in the eyes of students, parents and school administration,” says Smith.

A hands-on approach
Jack Grube, director of career and technical education at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., notes that only about 300 of the school’s 3,400 students take a woodworking class. As a result, his biggest challenge is creating ways to spark student interest and keep the support of his community.

“The problem is, to complete the woodworking program a student has to complete five different classes and most students don’t have the time in their schedule to fit all of that in. So we have hundreds of students when they start here and that tapers off along the way,” says Grube.

Grube believes the No Child Left Behind Act has contributed to the demise of woodworking and other technical and exploratory electives being offered in high schools because schools don’t want to risk losing their funding. Enacted in 2001, the federal legislation requires states to set standards and develop assessments regarding basic skills, which is tied to funding dispersal.

“That is one of the primary things I think we’re doing wrong in education today,” Grube says. “We’re telling kids that what’s important is their sophomore and junior testing, and we’re not telling them to explore what kinds of things they may want to do in life.”

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To keep students in the program, Grube says the school continues to network with secondary woodworking schools that can provide further training for current students. To recruit new students, Pinkerton reaches out to local junior high schools through its career awareness program to let them know woodworking is an option. But in doing so, Grube makes the point of highlighting the benefits of learning hands-on skills with all electives.

“If you focus on just woodworking, you’ll never convince anybody. If you focus on the value of what being engaged in your education with your hands means, whether it be drafting or pottery or anything else, you create a defense for all of these programs.

“When you have unique programs outside of core curriculum, their survival depends on the personalities in the classroom. In my experience, I have seen a program near extinction — but bring in the right teacher and it will be near capacity again in three years, so it really is all with the teacher.”

Grube emphasizes that it’s OK if there is no CNC machinery in the classroom. A traditional approach in teaching hands-on skills is all you need in a program because employers will take it from there. He referred to the thriving millwork industry in southern New Hampshire as an example. The businesses don’t care as much about technical skills as much as they care about someone who is dedicated to the industry.

“If a kid walks into one of these shops and says ‘This is what I want to do,’ the company will take it from there and train. So I don’t think schools should or can really continue to fund the kind of technology advancements that the industry has at the educational level unless you have a partnership with industry.”

And like so many other teachers, Grube says basic hands-on skills are even secondary to “soft skills,” which include a good work ethic and the ability to work as a team.

A shot in the arm
Mark Barron teaches woodworking through the technology-education department at Somerset High School in Somerset Wis., and has been involved in the WoodLINKS program for seven years. He’s enjoyed support from the local community and industry business that have provided material donations such as glues, veneers and moisture meters.

“My goal is to get the kids to enjoy woodworking and if they appreciate woodworking and would want to choose to make this a career, they have some opportunities to do that.”

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Barron got involved with WoodLINKS after learning about it at a state teachers’ convention. Woodworking has always been his passion, but while he was going to school and getting his masters degree, the notion was that woodworking was dying and the schools and shops were closing.

“This program on WoodLINKS said just the opposite. It was exactly what I wanted to hear and needed to hear, so I checked it out and, sure enough, people were saying things about woodworking that weren’t true.”

Barron says that before he incorporated WoodLINKS, his shop program was always “hit or miss” in regards to student enrollment. But now he gets to look forward to a full class and annual enrollment increases. He models his program on how an actual woodworking business would operate.

“In my introductory class, I get the students to build a product for a client, sometimes the client is one of their parents, but oftentimes it’s someone here at school. I also put the students in teams of four, and they have to build a project as a team to simulate a work environment.”

Barron does not have high-tech equipment and, like Grube, believes that employers are willing to teach those skills if they’re required. He does incorporate field trips into the curriculum, such as going to the nearby Principle Fixture and Millwork in Osceola, Wis.

Not surprisingly, Barron has learned that other schools in his area have eliminated their shop programs. He has also heard that the administrations wish they hadn’t gotten rid of them, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.

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Providing a foundation
The famous defense line for a prospective shop student is: “How will this help me in the real world?”

Jay Cole, a shop teacher for more than 20 years at The Morgan School, a public high school in Clinton, Conn., doesn’t have to entertain that question often — his lessons are designed to answer it.

Cole offers three courses — Construction Manufacturing, Technologies Math Construction and Marine Construction — that not only cover hands-on construction techniques, but also focus on business, marketing and interpersonal communication skills.

“I want to prepare students for their future, using these courses as a start, so that even if the technology changes, they’ll be able to adapt. I want them to learn to ask questions and get a taste of what it’s like in the real world.”

Offering a future
Troy Spear brought the WoodLINKS program into his shop class four years ago at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. He says the organization helped his dying program and was able to change the perception of what appeared to be a “birdhouse-making” class to an industry-minded class that promotes career opportunities to students.

“WoodLINKS has helped me as an instructor, because prior to this I was teaching the dead-end of high school woodshop. The kids were enthusiastic about what the program was doing, but there was nothing to do with it afterwards.”

The class teaches everything from current trends in the manufacturing process to what’s being done at woodworking businesses locally and nationwide. Spear invites guest speakers when he can and coordinates local field trips to see manufacturing facilities and talk with employees.

“It’s an uphill battle to change the stereotype that’s out there about what a woodshop is in the industry. Everyone thinks about their grandfather’s woodshop in the basement, which might be dirty, dusty and dingy. So I’m teaching my students the technological advances and career opportunities.”

So far, so good. Spear recently got the news that his district superintendent is committed to implementing and funding new technology, so he is currently pursuing the purchase of a CNC router.

A believer
Brian Roesch of Quinter High School in Quinter, Kansas, is a new WoodLINKS member who recommends the program to teachers who want to give their existing programs a better standing.

“I’ve been teaching this class for 21 years and I’m ready to teach for another 20. WoodLINKS has brought that much more excitement back into my program. There are new challenges for me, and that’s what it pushes you to do. WoodLINKS wants you to get out there and talk to the industry and get involved and it pushes you as an instructor — new or old — to be involved in the wood industry.

“We were selected to go to the 2008 IWF in Atlanta for the RTA competition, sponsored by IWF and WoodLINKS, and the students took second to some college kids. They were really excited to see the industry firsthand.

Roesch’s program has benefitted from the donation of a MultiCam CNC router, through Westwind Wood Specialties Inc. in Quinter, Kan., while the school board recently authorized the purchase of a SawStop table saw.

“I’m fortunate enough to be part of a really progressive district that understands the importance of woodworking skills and what kids are going to learn.”

There’s hope
Smith concludes that there is hope for a program near extinction, and add that does not mean WoodLINKS is the only way to revive a program. By making any program relevant to today’s business life and introducing opportunity, any teacher can make their program better if they are willing to adjust a little. A dynamic shift is needed in how the teachers are thinking about their jobs and how they’re getting industry involved with their programs.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over and expecting a different result. The right changes will bring in more students, increase the security of your job, enhance the industry around you and may even bring new industry into the area.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.

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