It might be the middle of summer, but
shop teacher Joel Noble of Denver's East High School is still
teaching -- in a manner of speaking.
Starting about 12 years ago, Joel began
hiring a student work crew to help him with the school and community
projects people asked him to take on during the summer. "People
would ask me, 'Could you come to my house and look at my cabinets?' I
was getting overwhelmed with those sorts of requests, and I asked if
it would be OK if I put together a bid that included student workers.
"It's been a win-win. It saves the
school, and the community, money; rather than the school hiring an
architect and a cabinet shop, they can get our building improved. The
kids get a summer job contracted at a good rate of money. Everybody
The kids also learn job skills: to
quality for the summer work crew, which usually consists of 6 to 10
students, they have to go through an interview process with school
and community representatives before the summer starts: dressing
appropriately, answering questions and so on. During the school year,
"One of the first things I tell them is the work they do in
class is part of a job. They work on being on time, following
directions, getting dimensions correct. In the second semester, I
bring in a person who's an expert on writing resumes and has actual
Joel himself did not have a
straight-line career to becoming a shop teacher. Himself a graduate
from East High, he worked for a few years building guitars and would
volunteer in the school's woodshop to help out his own shop teacher.
"My hours of volunteering kept increasing," and when the
previous teacher was ready to retire, he suggested that Joel apply
for the job. In his early years of teaching, he was simultaneously
attending night school in order to get his teaching license.
Now, among other duties, Joel is
teaching two basic woodworking classes, and a third that usually
focuses on guitar making and advanced cabinetry. There's usually 30
to 35 students per class, which Joel says has "gone up quite a
bit" over the years -- but "it's pretty rare to get a kid
who's done any woodworking at all" before starting the program.
During the first semester of the first
year, Joel walks the students through all the machines and techniques
via the projects they build. "Along the way, the earn a safety
license, so they can use all the equipment. We treat it kind of like
a driver's license," including the student's photo on the card,
The first project for basic woodworking
is taking a plank from a cedar fence and turning it into dimensioned
lumber that can be used to cook salmon on a grill; the second
project, designed to engage students' artistic talents, is using a
lathe to turn a magic wand. Via contract with a local toy and game
shop, students' wands that meet certain standards can be sold through
the shop. Another local company, this one a skateboard manufacturer,
comes in and talks to students at the time of the third project, a
The students then go on to spend a
semester primarily making boxes and, at the end of that class, if
they're planning to continue in woodworking, they offer feedback that
helps determine their project for the following year. "The
guitars are really cool," Joel said. "We have kids doing
their first musical instrument that are as good as any you would buy
in a store."
He's also impressed with projects the
students have built during the summer work crew sessions. For
instance, the school library is registered as a historic site and was
restored in 2007. "The students designed, constructed, finished
and installed the tables, peninsula bookcases, some of the wall cases
and the circulation desk. A ton of work went into those things, and
it's hard to believe, looking at it, that it was assembled by a
group of students."
The students working during the summer
have access to the same school shop equipment used during the school
year, including a SawStop table saw, Laguna band saws, planer,
jointer, miter saw, scroll saws and a CNC router with a 36" x
48" table -- plus "a lot of antique chisels and hand
planes," Joel said.
They'll do designs and shop drawings
using CAD and, for this year's project of building two display cases
for the alumni Heritage Hall to hold displays honoring well-known
alumni, the students have planed the raw lumber, jointed it, and run
it through the table saw to make molding. They built the frames of
the cases, were putting the trim on last week and planned to stain
the cabinets this week before putting the glass in. The cases are 25'
long and 9' tall, built from quartersawn white oak; a previous
student group built two cases in 2008. (Other student groups have
also built cases for memorials to alumni who served in World War II
or were killed on Sept. 11, 2001.)
At the end of the summer, the students
have a set of photos of the items they've built. If they've not yet
applied for college, Joel said, they can use the portfolio as part of
their college application. Although one former student pursued
woodworking at Rhode Island School of Design and has recently opened
his own business and design studio, more commonly, Joel said, the
kids who are in the woodshop program at East High School have also
tied it in with other things, like the robotics program, and will go
on to do some sort of engineering. Out of this year's morning work
crew, however, new graduates James and Racia (pictured at the left
side of the photo; Jelani and Hannah are at the right) are thinking
about becoming a shop teacher and going into pre-med, respectively.
Joel notes that his summer work crews
are "50/50" boys and girls. Although enrollment in school
year woodworking classes used to be all boys, total enrollment in
next year's classes is about one-third female.
Since the students have created many of
the projects around the school, they treat them with respect, and
encourage their peers to do so also, Joel said. "It gives them
buy-in to the school. We have a lot of longevity to the projects.
"Everybody wins," he said.
"The kids make more money than if they worked at McDonald's for
the summer." And, for himself, "It's a lot of fun for me.
I'm one of the luckiest people; I get to do a job every day that I
love: design and build furniture, and be around high school students
and see the years go by and see them go places where they otherwise
wouldn't. It makes me really happy."