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Upper School Students Leverage Wood Shop Skills to Build Community

Friday, December 4, 2015

The El Sitio Feliz community garden, located on 104th Street and Lexington Avenue, provides a space for community members to express themselves through music, art and growing their own food. Manhattan Country School has maintained a relationship with this community garden for many years, as it has been an invaluable resource for nature education and outdoor learning in an area where green space is hard to come by. 

This fall, four students in the Upper School and I engaged with this local community through the El Sitio Feliz Community Garden Elective. Presented by the garden’s director with the problem of a “defunct” composting system, we attempted to help revive their compost system through a woodworking project. These students used their knowledge gained in wood shop classes to construct a wooden worm-composting bin from scratch for the community garden’s use.

What first was thought to be a one or two-day construction project spanned the course of five class periods, with revisions and changes made to the original design. I was impressed, but at the same time not at all surprised, with how this group flawlessly navigated the woodshop, often teaching me how to operate tools that I’ve never seen nor heard the names of. After constructing the worm-bin, which we discovered is big enough to fit two seventh graders inside at the same time, we lugged it down Lexington Avenue much to the curiosity of passersby. Once in the community garden, the box was decorated, instructions for its use were painted on its lid and two pounds of red wriggler worms were added along with paper bedding, leaves, a little soil and a variety of different fruits and vegetables. The worm bin is currently in use at the community garden and insulated to protect the worms from a cold winter. 

Throughout the construction process, problems arose from the point of first putting the worm bin together to deciding how to proceed in decorating the bin in a way that would best explain its use. Questions came up, such as why certain foods belong in the worm bin while others don’t and how community gardens such as El Sitio Feliz impact urban areas and the people who live in them. These were all times for us to pause, hear each other’s thoughts and ideas, discuss them and then proceed. Our questions and curiosities pushed our conversation further, and we used each other as resources in gathering information.

Looking back on the elective, it was really an amazing experience to be working along side this group of students. The work that we were doing had a simple purpose—"let’s create something with the skills that we have that will help others." With this underlying motivation and goal in mind, the learning that inevitably followed was seamless. For me, this was a first-hand experience of the power in project-based learning.

In response to the question, “What was something that you took away from your experience in this elective?” Ama (’17) replied, ”It was a valuable experience to help and contribute to a community. Creating the worm bin was fun though it took a lot of work, but it was worth it in the end because we were building something that would help others.”

Through this project, students put their art skills into action and experienced how their collective efforts could benefit a community. We plan on continuing to build our relationship with this community with a mural project in the spring!