By: Sarabeth Weszely, Senior Writer
January 16, 2020
“In our old high school building, there was an empty room we didn’t use, and I went in there one day with two kids and said, ‘what if we had a woodshop’? So I asked our principal at the time, and she was crazy, and she said yes.”
-John Harrison, IAL teacher and founding member (pictured below)
This ‘yes’ six years ago led Mr. Harrison (pictured above) to open within Inwood Academy what is now the only fully-functioning woodshop in Upper Manhattan. Though the shop is stocked with both antique hand tools and larger power saws, class curriculum emphasizes traditional woodworking techniques which require you to primarily use your hands.
Introductory projects focus on hand-carving items like spoons, bowls, and lettering on blocks of wood. Students who are confident in those techniques are then taught to measure and construct items that require more precision, like boxes and tables. “And then I find that if we get through those two phases, I know the kid really well, and I can guide them towards a more independent project,” explains Mr. Harrison, “which a lot of times is an instrument. Most students, especially students that stay with me for multiple years, end up making a guitar.”
Mr. Harrison has been making his own guitars for twenty years now. He champions woodworking’s mental health benefits and slow-work ethic, which are of great value to students who work hard under significant stressors to succeed and break cycles of low expectations in our community.
“I teach the kids how to use their hands because this class is less about growing up to become a carpenter and more about being creative,” says Mr. Harrison. “So there’s no rush. You don’t need to cut that fast, you can cut it slow. Take your time, and breathe.” This emphasis on patience actually inspires a greater commitment to excellence in our students, which they can carry into any future vocation.
“The ability to think of something you want to make, and then solve problems and complete tasks in order to actualize that idea, independently or with others, can be applied to so many areas of life,” explains Mr. Harrison.
For the average student in woodshop, a guitar takes about a year to complete from scratch, without the help of pre-made kits. Mr. Harrison is careful to source high-quality wood for students to work with, since it affects not only the durability but the sound quality of instruments. Some students are currently working with wood up to 200 years old, sourced directly from the person who chopped down the tree. This holistic approach to creativity and construction engages students in ways that can be harder for them to access in academic classes, and it leaves our students feeling deeply accomplished.
In addition to introductory and independent projects, students in woodshop also collaborate to make products for local businesses and clients, such as G’s lunch shop (newspaper stand pictured above, right) and Inwood Gourmet grocery store (sign pictured above, left). The class also made tables for a dog run in Inwood Hill Park, craft cutting boards and other gifts for Inwood Academy’s Board of Trustees, and they annually construct the set for our plays and musicals. If students express an interest in selling their individual work, Mr. Harrison connects them personally to clients and teaches them the entrepreneurship skills they need to successfully sell quality products.
Jasmine and Louis are two graduating seniors finishing up their own guitars this year. Neither are technically enrolled in woodshop anymore, as there is an exceedingly high demand for the class, but they come on their own time to work and decompress.
“I love that I get to build something from scratch here,” starts Louis (pictured left). “You can buy a guitar from a store, but it’s not the same as that piece of wood turning into the guitar you play on a daily basis.”
Since Louis started woodshop his freshman year, his projects have revolved around his long-time interest in music. “I made a record table,” he recounts, “and then from the record table I started making a ukulele, and then I went to the telecaster (pictured below).”
Jasmine shares Louis’s intrinsic motivation for woodworking. “Being here is a way to escape,” she explains. “With the same routine everyday, it can get tiring, so if you ever need a break, you can just come and work on something new.”
Mr. Harrison empathizes with the need many students face for a break from stress at home, in relationships, and even in academically challenging courses. “For some kids, school is really hard; it was hard for me!” he reflects. We celebrate the way students are able to work and rest at the same time in our woodshop, paradoxically becoming more truly productive as they take the time to slow down.
“I always want to work on my guitar,” Jasmine says when asked what productivity means to her. “I want to be here all day working on it. I just love it.”
Both Louis and Jasmine are going to college next year, and they attribute their choices in majors and career paths to the opportunities and conversations woodshop opened them up to throughout high school. Louis plans to study communications and work in the music industry, and Jasmine will study psychology, having discovered a love for behavior analysis and serving others during long conversations in the woodshop.
“I feel proud,” reflects Louis, “ I’m going to carry the things I learned in woodshop with me until I’m an old man.”