It all started when the eighth grade students came back from retreat with an “awesome” new game. “Mr. S! Have you ever heard of Gaga?” After a brief and excited explanation, I knew I had my next project. Gaga, a fast-paced game also known as Israeli dodgeball, is played in a small octagonal arena or “pit.” During our school’s intersession—an intensive 2-week project-based experience selected by students—myself and an excited group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders would build the pit.
As a teacher I love to have kids “doing.” It’s the way I learn. The projects I remember doing in school were the ones where I built things. Mr. Jackson and the robots we built in third grade were the highlight of my school career. I built something other people used and liked; and we donated the robots to a local orphanage. I wanted to take that idea to my own classroom. I wanted my students to create something larger than themselves and experience giving back to the community.
Before I could teach the kids about construction, I had to learn the basics myself. I read through many home improvement books and consulted a few local experts. I then practiced building several things at home, to make sure I knew what I was talking about. One thing that immediately became apparent was the importance of safety. Power tools and eighth graders was a challenging combination. I enlisted the help of several adults who have spent a large part of their lives in construction to help the students understand the importance of safety. Larry Rosenstock, a former carpentry teacher and the CEO of High Tech High (HTH), spoke about the importance of respecting carpenters’ tools and told stories of his days in the classroom. Will Spencer, head of facilities at HTH, scared the students by telling them that several of his fingers were cut off while using a power saw when he wasn’t paying attention. After that, the students understood the importance of safety and respect!
Planning for the Gaga Pit provided the occasion to “live math.” In construction, there is a lot of math to know and understand before you can build. We began with the basics, making sure that students could use a ruler, measure in metric and English units and add fractions. We then studied geometry and talked about angles of regular polygons. We focused on octagons because that would be the shape of the Gaga Pit. Finally, I taught the kids about reading pieces of lumber and understanding actual lengths versus what they are called. For example, a 2”x4” is actually 1.5 inches x 3.5 inches.
To test students’ math skills, I let them practice measuring and cutting with a handsaw. After a brief but vigorous presentation on the concept of “measure twice and cut once,” I gave each student scrap wood and a list of lengths and angles of varying complexity. Their goal was to cut each piece of wood to specific lengths and angles and let me measure for accuracy. Motivation to be precise was strong; once students passed this test they would earn the right to learn to use power tools.
The facilities staff at HTH set up a safety training day to teach the kids how to use power tools, from chop saws and circular saws to power drills and power hammers. Students learned how to cut angles, straight lines and curves. Students also learned to be efficient in their work and to respect tools and the people using them.
Once they were ready to work on the pit, students were divided into crews of three. Each member had an important role. There was the “Architect” who helped design the Gaga Pit. One person was the “Supply Manager” who ordered the supplies from Home Depot. Finally, the third person was the “Site Supervisor” who ensured the tools and materials were supplied and accounted for at the start and the end of the day. Each member of the crew had to work with their counterpart in other crews so we didn’t design different things, order too many of a product, or take each other’s tools. And each member would take an active role in constructing the pit.
The materials showed up at 9 a.m. one morning and the kids were ecstatic. The fork lift dropped off 10 sheets of plywood, about 50 pieces of cut lumber and hundreds of screws. With the materials lists in hand, the Gaga Pit crews divided out all the materials and created four work stations. Each crew set up tarps, laid out their lumber and marked each piece with their crew number. With the help of the facilities crew at school, the students measured each piece of lumber and labeled the purpose of each piece. Then we began cutting.
Cutting was the most stressful part for me, but the most exciting part for the kids. I felt like an overprotective parent, making sure kids tucked in their shirts around the heavy machinery, rolled their sleeves up, and weren’t trying to talk to each other while one person was working with a power tool.
Watching the kids work in teams was a beautiful sight. The crews looked at scaled plans, made measurements, re-measured, then cut. Rinse. Repeat. They were on a roll. For three days, kids were cutting lumber to create a play area for the community. It was a moment of joy for me. Four days earlier I was trying to figure out how I was going to coordinate this. Now, the beast was loose and the kids were working harder and with more enthusiasm than ever before. Kids who were quiet and reserved in class spoke up and added their voice to the project. Kids who struggled to add integers on paper were easily adding two pieces of lumber that were 8’2” and 6’3”. They were living math. Painting was the next step. After cutting, the kids learned about surface area. They had to calculate exactly how much paint to buy so we wouldn’t waste money and get too much, or waste time and need to get more. The crews were careful in their calculations, competing to see who could be more accurate.
“We need six cans of blue and four of yellow!”
“No! Five of blue and three of yellow!”
Once we agreed on the amount of paint, I went to pick it up during lunch. When lunch ended, it was full paint ahead. We began painting each piece either yellow or blue (HTH colors) to create a beautiful looking Gaga Pit. The students had decided to paint the walls yellow and the external frame blue. This took three days, because we needed three coats of paint and we needed the paint to dry. After the paint dried, it was time to assemble the parts. We spent the first half of the day in the classroom looking at angles and studying basic trigonometry. We looked at the issues we would face outside and attempted to solve them before we began assembling.
One student said that this was his favorite day—he and his crew worked hard to figure out the dilemma they were going to face and solve it in class. He was proud of the work they did and the solution they discovered. He connected math to a real life challenge that had immediate applicability.
Once we were outside I modeled several ways to use a power drill and power screwdriver. The kids practiced a few times on scrap wood, and then they were ready. The students owned this project and they knew exactly which pieces went where. I encouraged them to take their time; precision mattered more than speed. It was beautiful seeing everyone working together. Crews were helping other crews. After two days of construction, we were ready to paint on a title and play. We named it “The Pit.” We signed it. We played.
Gaga was the newest thing to hit High Tech High schools. It was the Gaga Revolution! Kids lined up 50 deep to play this game. My Gaga crew explained the rules and opened the pit to the waiting crowd. Instead of playing, they took turns being referees to ensure that the new players were following the rules and respecting the space.
The next day I asked the students to reflect on the experience of planning, constructing, playing, and refereeing. Many students said it was the best thing they had ever done. Many students had never touched a power tool before, let alone used one. One student said, “It was cool to do the math in class and actually use it later that day in the construction part.” Another student wrote in his blog, “I think that the best day was when we had to find out the measurements of the studs, we had to measure the distance between each stud for each wall. I think it was the best day ever because we all started to bring out calculators and we all started writing on the board a lot of equations and we started solving them but what made it so cool was that we all cooperated and we all solved the problem together as a team.” Another student spoke with me privately and simply thanked me for the experience, saying, “This was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I can’t believe we did it. I honestly didn’t think it was going to happen. Thanks for pushing us and teaching us.”
For me, this project instilled a passion for construction and helped me recognize the power of direct application in the classroom. Construction is deeply rooted in math and physics. Allowing students the opportunity to make connections between classroom exercises and building applications inspired them to recognize the importance of math and provided hands-on learning opportunities. After witnessing the success of the Gaga pit, I’ve made it a point to incorporate construction projects into my classes every year. I still worry about power tools and middle schoolers. I am still cognizant of the time it takes to train and prepare students for hands-on construction. But these concerns are secondary when compared to the learning and satisfaction that come when students design, build, and share their construction projects.
To learn more, visit Marc Shulman’s digital portfolio at http://dp.hightechhigh.org/~mshulman.