Learning more than simply how to build a chair

Chair building at Jefferson

Bloomington Jefferson ninth-grader Danny Voelk explains the steps involved in building a chair out of wood in his transition skills class. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)


On the surface, they’re building chairs. But the skills they’re using to build those chairs are meant to carry them far beyond the high school classroom in which the chairs are being constructed.

Mike Amos is an emotional behavioral disabilities teacher at Bloomington Jefferson High School. He works with a variety of students throughout the day, teaching a variety of subjects to smaller student groups than found in a traditional classroom.

Many of his students spend three periods of their school day, or less, in an emotional behavioral disabilities class. A student with a learning disability in math or English, for example, might have Amos as their instructor for that one subject, and go about the balance of their day with the rest of their classmates, he explained.

One of the classes he teaches is transition skills. Students in that class learn about post-secondary programs and opportunities provided by an array of colleges, vocational schools and apprenticeship programs.

Some of his students will face a negative life trajectory due to the circumstances in their life outside of school or the issues they deal with in their day-to-day lives. The transition skills class provides a window into the options available to students after high school, but Amos wanted to provide more than lectures and wisdom in educating his students about the opportunities that await them.

Some of his best memories from his childhood are working on home improvement and construction projects with his father, and Amos wanted his students to have an opportunity to experience the satisfaction of turning a pile of wood into a table or chair. So he devised a program to do just that.

“The students get an opportunity to do tangible, meaningful things, such as using tools,” he said.

Amos received a grant of nearly $3,000 from the Education Foundation of Bloomington and American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation, allowing him to purchase materials and tools that he and his students could use for simple construction projects in his emotional behavioral disabilities classroom.

His tools aren’t the bulky machines that fill an industrial arts shop. Using drills, hand saws and hammers, students learn a variety of skills associated with building a chair out of wood, he explained.

Beyond purchasing tools and equipment, Amos sought the assistance of the Bloomington Home Depot store in developing his curriculum. The store responded by providing introductions to a variety of skills through presentations in the emotional behavioral disabilities classroom, typically twice a month since the fall. The presentations show how basic skills, such as math, apply to real-life situations, according to Doug Wentzel, the assistant store manager of the Bloomington Home Depot.

In addition to showing how basic skills are used in home improvement projects, Wentzel has brought a store employee to many of the sessions, who speaks on his or her area of expertise. The store has also donated wood, safety goggles, gloves and tape measures for students in the class, he noted.

Many of Amos’ students have had little to no exposure to the basics of home improvement. Ninth-grader Danny Voelk is an exception. He has worked with his father and his father’s friend on home improvement projects, but that didn’t mean he was the resident expert in Amos’ classroom. From using clamps to hold wood in place for drilling to seeing the value and importance of measuring the pieces needed to assemble a chair, Voelk has learned many news skills in the transition skills class, he said.

Beyond the math and hands-on techniques required to build a chair, Amos also emphasizes teamwork. The student will be building chairs this spring on an individual basis, and in preparation for that, they’ve been working together to build a chair.

Voelk has enjoyed working with classmates in building group projects, as well as the hands-on aspects of their projects. “It’s my favorite class,” he said.

Many of Amos’ students have enthusiastically embraced the opportunities the class has provided this year. Although they’re being told to follow directions when it comes to building a chair or table, Amos admits that his program didn’t exactly come with its own set of instructions.

“I didn’t have a template, I had an idea in my head,” he said.

His curriculum may be a work in progress, but Amos’ goal is clear.

“I want these kids to leave here with an actual skill set that they can take out into the real world and apply in a meaningful fashion,” he said.