Dan Schnau

Syntax to Sawdust: Lessons from Middle School Woodshop

My fiancé's job is to provide middle schoolers with hacksaws, orbital sanders, drill presses, solvents, paints, and lumber, and then guide them in the safe usage of these tools and materials.

With my recent funemployment, I've been spending time helping her woodshop students. I learned a lot along the way.

Me, with a mitre saw.

Working In Person Makes A Difference

I've worked remote for half a decade. Going into the woodshop and working with students at first felt like meeting concrete face-first. By the end of the first class, I was excited and exhilarated from communication and human connection. I have to admit that this, delightfully, surprised me.

Being on my feet, moving around, shouting, using body language. It is great fun compared to sitting in the same chair talking flatly into the same headset. My health app on my watch was happy about it too.

Not Everyone Is At 100% All The Time

Some students showed up and worked hard and were at their best one day, and the next they were quiet and lethargic. It became apparent that, just like adults, kids have good days and bad days, and that's nothing to be ashamed about.

Making Something Just Because It's Cool Is Fine

I worked with the kids sanding wood, applying stain, and pounding nails. I began a side project - sanding blocks of wood to be made into bathroom passes - and I'm excited about it. Slinging code is fun and rewarding, but sanding blocks of wood so students can go use the bathroom during class in an organized fashion is as well.

Respect Goes A Very Long Way

I noticed that the students would initially misbehave to test my response. When I could respectfuly correct a student, I observed them putting in more effort in class and showed more respect to both myself and their teacher.

Students who chose not to show respect, including those with prior woodworking experience, were not allowed to participate as their behavior disrupted the rest of the group. It reminded me of the stereotypical 'jerk' ace programmer who looks down on the rest of their team.

A Group Of People Can Get A Lot Done Quickly

In the mornings before classes began, I would prepare work pieces for children (using the mitre saw, pictured above). I'd need to prepare about 150 pieces, and it would take an hour or two. Last night, my fiancé and I wound 150 spools of thread with a power drill and it took more time than the length of the film Anchorman.

But during class, many hands made for very short work. While it takes me time to do the same thing 150 times, 150 students can do it in 20 minutes. It was easy to see that given a large enough group, well divided work, and strong leadership for that group, A lot can get done quickly.

Thank goodness I didn't need to sand all 150 pieces of wood by myself.

Note: While I would love to share photos of the students working on their projects, I will not, in the interest of respecting their privacy.