By Bob Skolnik
At a time when such programs are becoming increasingly rare, Komarek School in North Riverside and S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield still teach old-fashioned woodworking to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders.
To step into their classrooms is almost like stepping back in time. Wood shavings flutter about as students use a variety of saws and other tools. The programs at the two schools have much in common but also have some differences.
At Komarek, shop and home economics are a required sequence for every sixth, seventh, and eighth grader for one quarter each year. At Gross the shop and home ec classes are electives and last for a semester.
"It actually challenges you a lot," said Komarek seventh-grader Joevann McCottry. "It's better than doing paperwork all day. You get to actually do stuff."
Komarek eighth-grader Carli Delmonico agreed.
"It's a fun class," Delmonico said while taking a break from planing down the wood for the bookshelf she is making. "I like getting to do what I want, like getting freedom, being able to know what I'm doing, being able to control the different tools."
Students learn to use a variety of saws and other tools, even a drill press, and, at Komarek, a lathe.
The whirring of the saws, power sanders and other tools can sometimes make the Komarek shop classroom, located in the basement of the school, sound like an old-fashioned factory floor.
Kids who are at first scared of power saws quickly develop confidence and soon are working on the power saws independently.
"At first I was really nervous about this class, then I was like wow, this is really fun," said Komarek sixth-grader Sam Egan.
Egan's classmate, Claire Cervi agreed.
"I would like to become an architect so I think it's really fun," said Cervi, an advanced student who was working independently on the jigsaw making latches for her entire class. "It's really scary, but really fun once you get used to it."
Building confidence is one of the best parts of the shop class, said Tim Rost, who has taught industrial arts at Gross School for the past 24 years.
"Kids look at these machines that roar when you turn them on and they get scared by them, and they learn they're nothing more than a tool that's there for you to work," Rost said.
Students in shop class also learn mechanical drawing and basic drafting. They utilize their math skills. Before they build something they have to make careful drawings and make precise measurements. They work with fractions.
"It's pretty much instant application of all that stuff they're learning in the other classes, especially with the math," Rost said.
At Komarek sixth-graders build a bird feeder and eighth-graders build small bookcase. At Gross, the sixth-graders build a napkin holder and eighth-graders design a house and then build a small scale model of their design.
About half of students at Gross elect to take the shop class, choosing it among electives such as home ec, Music, band, and foreign language. They can take it for one, two or three years.
"It is one of our most requested electives," said S.E. Gross School Principal Ryan Evans. "I think that's a credit to Mr. Rost, but also the hands on nature of it. Many of those skills are still needed in the students' real world."
However, the future for the programs at Gross and Komarek is uncertain. In an era where technology and computers are all the rage in education, some see old-fashioned woodworking as a quaint anachronism.
No standardized tests measure how well you can build a bird feeder, so administrators are tempted to invest in areas that can yield returns in the standardized test results that schools are often judged on.
At Gross School, the cramped shop work room is in the part of the building that will become a new cafetorium, a combination lunchroom and auditorium, part of the addition and renovation that voters approved in an April 4 referendum.
District 95 administrators say that while they value the current traditional shop program they know it must be modernized to include more technology.
"We've had initial conversations about whether or not industrial technology would get reshaped to something more STEM related," said District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski. "It's an incredibly popular class for students. They enjoy being in there. It is well-received by our students and there is some value to that set of skills, but it also has to mesh with space issues."
Evans said that the shop class, while popular and valuable, needs to be modernized.
"If we are going to continue on we need upgrades in that program," Evans said.
At Komarek School, shop teacher Dan Kartje has begun incorporating computers into his classes and more of that is coming. But the traditional aspects of the Komarek shop class will remain.
"It's a cool opportunity to fuse who we are now and the way we're going," said Komarek District 94 Superintendent Brian Ganan said. "The shop here, I don't see it going anywhere. We're just kind of evolving it."
Many districts have eliminated old fashioned wood working and home economics classes. At L.J. Hauser Junior High School in Riverside, those classes were last offered in the 2005-06 school year. This year, Hauser debuted a STEAM class that combines science, technology, engineering, art and math.
Riverside-Brookfield High School offers a few industrial technology sequences such as an engineering, architectural and automotive sequences that are heavy on technology and computer-aided design, but no traditional wood working classes. Lyons Township High School offers automotive, aeronautical, and furniture making classes.
"LT still has a thriving program, very traditional, very similar to probably what I took in the 1970s when I was in high school," Rost said.
Both Rost and Kartje came to teaching after woodworking for a while. Finding new industrial arts and home ec teachers can be difficult because as the programs die off there are fewer universities offering teacher certification in the fields.
"I've never had a student-teacher," said Rost, who is 58. "The college programs just don't produce that many industrial arts teachers anymore."
But Rost hopes that woodworking can survive even as schools and kids are seduced by technology and gadgets.
"It's just fun to create things," Rost said. "Especially at this age group, I think it's good to get kids being creative because I think it is much easier for them to tear things down than to build them up. I certainly believe that the longer we can hold on to the program, the better it is going to be for the kids."