The Muskoka Bench

A story about creativity, hard-work and… more than anything… deep learning:

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a student at Archbishop Romero Catholic High School about furniture that I wanted for my back yard.  I told him that I had seen the Muskoka chairs that they built in shop class and I wondered if there was any way to build a Muskoka bench.  The student told me “no”.  Then he thought about it and said “let me ask my friend Marcelo”

Marcelo is master builder in the making.  He is a craftsman with the spirit of an artist.  He wonders and takes risks while learning.  

On our first meeting I showed Marcelo a drawing of the bench that I had imagined.  I explained to him that  I wanted to create a hybrid bench/Muskoka chair.  "A Muskoka chair cuddling" were my exact words.

He looked at the drawing and said “I think I can do that… I’m not sure how… but I’m sure I can figure it out.”  He asked me if I could go with him to class so that he could introduce me to his teacher Mr. De Santis.  "Yes.  Of course.“ was my answer.

As soon as I walked in, I fell in love with Mr. De Santis’ class.  The room, the students, the flow, the focus… it was magical.

*Worth noting, I grew up with a father that loves to building.  Some of our best father and son hangouts have been spent puzzling over building problems together.  Trying things out, tinkering, playing.  A part of my love with Mr. De Santis’ shop class certainly comes from that bias.

BUT it’s so much more than that.

Imagine a place where students self-select learning, then consult with their classmates and teacher on how to bring that learning to life. Imagine skills that are grounded in big ideas, authentic problem-solving, and a "real-world” that is contextual and student centered.  Imagine purposeful conversations.  Imagine a high degree of focus.  Imagine a place where students can bring their ideas and try them out within a community of supportive peers and mentors.  Imagine the classroom that we all dream and talk about regularly in #edreform conversations.

It exists in room 147.  It takes less than 10 seconds for me to realize that I have entered and educators Shangri-la.

Marcelo introduces me to his teacher, and explains the problem… “Can we make this guy a Muskoka bench?”  What happens next is awesome.  Banter between two teachers and a student, iterating how this might look; how it might be built; how big it might be, etc.  Ideation session at its finest.  At the end of the conversation Marcelo shakes my hand and says, I think we’re ready to start.  And then he walks away.  I talk to his teacher and ask him about his class.  He explains to me that he has a few stock projects for the students to work through, but if a student ever comes in with an idea that s/he wants to build, it becomes his job to help that student succeed.  

I look back at Marcelo and I can see that he’s already in the zone.  I walk over to him with a question and quickly realize how futile it is to ask him anything.  I’ve lost him to his work.  A grenade could go off beside him and he would keep measuring.

Over the next few weeks, Marcelo tracks me down to give me progress reports.  He knows the class that I work in at the end of the day, so every so often he’s stops in.  He shows me pictures; he asks me about finish; he asks if the size is ok. Eventually he shows me the final product.

Here are the pictures that Marcelo took while building.  I asked him to annotate where he felt there was something worth saying.  All italicized words are his.

We had to sand every single piece twice.  After the first sanding we left it on the floor next to the drill press.  Dust from drilling fell on our project and it stuck to the wood and it made it rough again.  Next time we’ll leave our work in a better area.

When we assembled it we had to measure the bench and the Muskoka chair at the same time.  That was difficult. Getting the idea and the lengths and figuring out its look and frame was difficult. The Muskoka chair has a different angle form a standard bench.  Because the bottom beam was so long, it changed all of the other measurements.  We had to re-cut and chop out and angle the back so that it would be flush.

Spacing was off by an eighth of an inch so we had to pull off all of the back slats and put them back on.  (De Santis said “that’s why we use screws”).  This was a pain.  As we put the planks up we had to measure the radius of the back whole time then cut with a jigsaw.  

We flipped it on it’s back and drew a line along the back. Then very slowly cut along the line.  We worried if we were off by the slightest bit we would have to restart the piece.

We pre-stained all of the pieces before assembling.  We marked screw holes with X and Y’s so that we could line everything up.  We sanded off the lines and stain came off with it which messed up the coloring.  Eventually we put on 60 grit and ripped all of the stain off and started all over.

When we were applying the polyurethane we had to use steel wool to scrape off the rough parts but keep the stain.  If you apply poly with rough wood the feel will be very sandpaper like.  To have a smooth finish you have to sand it with steel wool.

Finished product and two builders Marcelo and Orlando.

Finally I asked Marcelo and his co-builder Orlando (whom I only met at the end of the project) one last question.  “Can you describe the learning that happened while building the Muskoka bench?”

“A lot.  Framing skills.  Thinking out of the box.  Creating something that has never been made.  This was the first time making it so it was a challenge.

I knew I was able to create, but never something that hadn’t been made.  The idea of making something fresh, from scratch was challenging.”

When I asked Mr. De Santis about this project and the boys’ reflections, here’s what he had to say:

“I am truly blessed to have students with the desire to learn and build like Marcelo and Orlando because their attention to detail and their pursuit of perfection is unprecedented. Being a new teacher fresh from industry I know what it takes to be successful in today’s work world. I believe kids need to be constantly challenged and not always be told or shown what to do but they need to be asked more often the magic question “what do you think?” They shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes instead take the trial and error approach to learning in order to become a better designer and builder. For instance, during this build I heard them discuss issues that arose and solved them with prior knowledge and sometimes just common sense. They also approached me on  issues as well but the one issue that resonates with me during this build is as follows:

Marcelo and Orlando had pre-stained the back slats before assembly and in order to get the screw holes all lined up to one another they had put pencil marks on all the slats………once assembled in order to get rid of those pencil marks they had sanded only around the areas of the screw holes which obviously made that area lighter than the rest of the slat …..they tried to match it to the rest of the slat but were unsatisfied with their results. I heard  Marcelo say

“not good enough I can still see that it is lighter around the screw holes in comparison to the rest of the slat”….to be honest  most people would not have noticed it but Marcelo and Orlando are very meticulous. They approached me and asked me “what should we do?” Instead of giving them the answer I told them a couple of stories:

1) I repaired a water leak once on a stucco ceiling where I had to cut out a one by one foot section in order to repair the leak properly……..I replaced the one by one foot section of drywall and sprayed it in order to match the rest of the ceiling but no matter what I did I could always see the mismatch……in order to properly complete the repair the whole ceiling needs to be sprayed…..”

2) I replaced a section of hardwood flooring once and tried to match the rest of the floor with the new section but couldn’t do it to my satisfaction…….so I told them I sanded and stained the whole floor again……it was more work but it was done right and I was happy with the job

I finished telling them the stories and immediately walked away from them leaving them to come up with their own conclusion……as I was walking away I could hear  Marcelo tell Orlando…..”get the sander because we are sanding the entire back section to the bare wood and re-staining it again”  Exactly what I wanted to hear!!!

This project showcases not only the skill levels of the students involved, but most importantly, it demonstrates collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving skills that reflect the 21st Century Learning Module. I’m very proud of Marcelo and Orlando not only for completing the task at hand but actually completing it to a level that is well beyond their years.”


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