by Molly Johnson and Feiya Wang, Features Reporters
photos by Eva Shimkus
During a Tuesday morning A Block, the muted sounds of sanding, sawing and productive chatter fill the hallway, seeping out of the woodworking room in the well-tucked corner of the 9000s. Students crowd around tables with their friends as they collaborate on their creations, working diligently to finish their pieces in time for the winter holiday break. Woodworking teacher Matt Briggs said that the organized chaos of the class is part of the reason behind its unique atmosphere.
“Whether it’s first block or last block, the fact that students are just moving around and doing stuff is better than sitting in a chair listening to some teacher drone on and on,” he said. “[Students] want to work and get going, and they’re always helping each other out. That’s the way it’s really a team oriented approach.”
This term, the class is working on cabinets, about a month-and-a-half long project. Sophomore Anna Wright-Lee said that the project challenges her to think outside the box.
“The door is really new and different for us because it includes hinges and a lot of intricate detail,” she said. “This project is super difficult because we’re learning about not only notching, but different plugs that we’re using, and how sanding affects the wood that you’re using.”
In the early stages of each project, students plan their pieces, a process that includes anticipating materials and designing the basis of their projects. Wright-Lee said that students receive a sheet with directions similar to build-it-yourself furniture instructions, but they decide on measurements and materials on their own, which is the hardest part.
After planning, students get to actually begin building their projects. Junior Daniel Gelbert said that although the tools that they use to build can be challenging to master and sometimes dangerous, Briggs’ careful instruction has made the experience enjoyable. Briggs said he teaches his beginner students how to use the power tools through simpler projects, so that they can apply the skills to the later, more advanced projects.
“As they get better at it and gain a better understanding, they get the ability to have more independence and we build trust especially with some of the bigger power tools. Those are super dangerous … so, if you’re not going to be safe, I can’t have you use them,” Briggs said. “That’s a sense of pride, being able to use some pretty significant machinery that your parents might not appreciate [you] using, but you use it the right way.”
Although woodworking requires patience, as long periods of standing time while working are common and the process of building is often repetitive, Briggs said that the program teaches students necessary skills without the pressure of a normal class.
“These are lifelong skills,” he said. “During the pandemic, where woodworking was really difficult over Zoom, I got messages from parents saying that their kids are going around the house, fixing things and repairing things that they never knew how to do before.”
Gelbert said that being able to learn in a nontraditional environment has been a rewarding experience.
“It’s not a traditional class, and that’s really what makes it unique,” he said. “We get a finished product that we can take home and be proud of.”
Wright-Lee said that the creative aspect of the woodworking curriculum stands out the most to her.
“Woodworking provides an outlet for creativity and allows students to express their artistic side,” Wright-Lee said. “My favorite part is the ability to do hands-on activities … I feel like it’s something that I can put my energy into.”
Sophomore Misha Goldfarb said that watching the entire building process has given her a sense of accomplishment.
“We had a bunch of people coming for Thanksgiving. We’re redecorating all of our rooms, and my parents are using my table that I made as part of the decoration. When I’m walking to the room, I’m like, ‘guys, look at my table that I made,’” she said. “It’s really exciting to see that it comes from random wood, and now it’s a table.”
During a time when teenagers have limited building experience, Briggs said that South’s woodworking program has been able to continue to foster that knowledge in students.
“Back in the 90s, there were plenty of schools that ripped out their shops because they thought that they could just use computers and simulate how to build and how to do things until industry came back to us and said, ‘these kids don’t know how to build anything. They don’t know how to do anything.’ And so luckily, in Newton … we never ripped out our shop,” he said. “We get people from all over eastern Massachusetts who come and visit, and they say, ‘your shop is fantastic. You guys were so lucky to do what you did.’”
Wright-Lee said that the well-established program at South has lasting effects on students, as it is a source of diligence and pride.
“It’s great to look at my physical work and be proud of it, which sometimes is hard to do when you don’t see something that you’ve done, like when you finish a big paper or an essay,” she said. “Usually it’s like, ‘well, that’s just a sheet of paper,’ but this is like you really see your improvement.”
Briggs said that this sense of pride is common for his students, whose pieces will be around for a long time.
“The phrase I love to use all the time is, ‘this project is going to be yours until either you give it away, or it’s taken away, because that’s the beauty about making wood or making furniture.’ It will be with you forever,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of us have furniture from our grandparents still kicking around — there’s stuff that’s 100 years old kicking around your house, [and] it’ll always be around our students, [since they are] able to use tools and skills taught during class.”