published Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Building math skills one table at a time at Orchard Knob Middle School

Students listen as classroom guest Tommy Hobbs, a furniture maker, speak about practical uses for math in the real world during Buddy Sullivan's 7th grade math class at Orchard Knob Middle School. The table to the left is the one that Hobbs built to demonstrate the use of math in carpentry.
Students listen as classroom guest Tommy Hobbs, a furniture maker, speak about practical uses for math in the real world during Buddy Sullivan's 7th grade math class at Orchard Knob Middle School. The table to the left is the one that Hobbs built to demonstrate the use of math in carpentry.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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The handsome red oak table under the window in Jamael Lett's classroom stands in sharp contrast to the standard-issue metal desks that take up most of the floor space.

On the underside of the table, the students' names are carved along with the phrase "Math Matters," because what makes this desk unique is that it was designed by seventh-graders using wood, screws, fractions, measurements and scale-model designs.

"We wanted to use this project to show the applicability of math skills ... to let them know that what they're doing is important," said Lett, a first-year teacher and Teach Here program resident at Orchard Knob Middle School.

Lett partnered with local furniture maker Tommy Hobbs after the two met in church.

"There's a lot of kids who, school doesn't excite them. It's hard to get them to focus," Hobbs said, "I was kind of like that in seventh grade, like, 'Eh, when will I ever use this stuff?'"

Poll
Are you good at math?

But now he tells students that he uses math at his job every day.

To make the desk, he's visited the students five times since November, guiding them through the same process he uses to design furniture. Students measured their own classroom and drew scale models accounting for space, lumber size and ergonomics.

"We drew the entire room to see how it would fit," said seventh-grader Milan Micochero.

"It was hard at first, but then everyone got used to it," added student Calvin Johnson.

To demonstrate how much planning is involved with construction, Hobbs showed the students the rough, unfinished, unmeasured lumber that he would use to build their new table. Lett said the furnituremaker approached the students' project as if it was one of his professional jobs.

"I was like, 'OK, this is weird. Is this wood shop or what?'" Milan said.

When it came time to finalize designs of their table, students had one specific demand. Measuring Lett's desk, they found that it was 30 inches tall, a height Hobbs told them is comfortable for most fully grown adults. But students wouldn't be satisfied until their table was higher.

When Hobbs delivered the finished table last month, it towered over Lett's by a full two inches.

On Tuesday, students took time out of their lesson -- they're learning algebra by thinking about shopping for a phone -- to thank Hobbs and present him with a framed and signed photo of the class with their favorite piece of furniture.

"It's great, now we have more space to work," said student Courvoisier Bell.

Students say they want to make a bookcase now, and rush to measure the last bit of bare wall in the room.

Lett is ecstatic to see his students using their lessons in real life.

"They see math not as abstract thinking," he said. "Seeing is everything to these kids."

The kids agreed.

"When you're building something, you have to use math or you'll get it wrong," Milan said.

Calvin was more expansive, saying, "Everything you do, you have to know math."

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