When I walked into the visual arts room at the elementary campus and heard the sounds of hammering and drilling accompanied by the smell of glue and sawdust, I knew that whatever the project is, some of the Life Skills would be at play, too: Patience. Problem Solving. Cooperation. Organizing.
These Wildwood 3rd graders are learning to weave. What? Hammers? Yes. They’re starting by building their own looms. The idea was kid-generated; often the best projects begin that way. Keep reading.
Day One: Building
Pre-cut wood for the looms
Kids learn basic woodworking skills to assemble their looms, on which they’ll later learn and practice weaving. Each student begins with four pieces of pre-cut wood, laying them together to make a 16” x 14” frame. Two adult helpers—Jeff, a parent, and Tanya, a substitute teacher—drill holes in each frame’s corners. Visual arts teacher, Kendra Elstad, explains to me that “while the kids don’t operate the drill, we do want them to hold it, to know what it feels like.” To secure the frame, students glue and place small wooden dowels in each hole, hammering the dowels into place.
Clara M. sands her loom
I ask 3rd grader, Clara M., if the assembly work is difficult. She gives me a thoughtful, 8 year-old perspective: “This isn’t hard. I go camping. Putting up a tent and living in the woods…. That’s hard.”
The Inspiration: Two Teachers ‘Lean In’
Kusum Nairi, Kendra’s co-teacher, has taught Wildwood 3rd graders to weave for several years now—always on simple, recyclable cardboard looms. But this year when kids asked, she and co-teacher Kendra were inspired to teach their students to build and use their own, long-lasting wooden looms. The catch: it would require Kusum and Kendra to teach basic woodworking skills, something that they would need to learn themselves before teaching the kids.
Teacher Tonya does the drilling for students
Kusum tells me how it began: “Kendra and I were generating a set of classroom guidelines early in the year with one of our classes. One student’s suggested guideline was ‘lean in to the discomfort of a material’ (see photo above). This prompted another student to ask why we don’t do woodworking in visual arts.” Kendra and Kusum pondered this too. Kendra’s focus area is painting and Kusum’s is sculpture. Neither is a woodworker. Inspired, they sought models to introduce the craft to Wildwood students. Both attended a woodworking workshop at the recent Progressive Education Network Conference here in L.A. That experience pushed Kendra further: She looked up plans for simple looms online. They got the necessary materials. The facilities crew (Beto, Claudio, and Joaquin) prepped the wood, and Kendra and Kusum rolled out the project this week.
Day Two: Warping
Warping the loom
“It’s harder than it looks,” I overhear one 3rd grader say to another. “You have to go over and under in a pattern. See? Like this.” I watch and listen as students get the hang of warping—taking several feet of yarn and setting it lengthwise across the loom. As students’ confidence grows, the room begins to echo with their voices as they repeat the warping pattern like a mantra: “Over. Under. Over. Under….”
Ready for weaving
“This step is essential for their weaving tomorrow,” Kusum tells me. “It also taps into some of the skills that kids this age are perfecting.” I look closely and notice that the work requires these 3rd graders to use their fine motor skills—and a level of concentration that their younger peers in the Pods might not be able to muster. They also have to recognize and re-create the warping pattern—tapping their visual and spatial skills. I’m beginning to realize that—by design—there’s more to this project than meets the eye.
Day Three: Weaving
Weaving with a shed stick
“Think about a landscape here in Los Angeles to inspire you—the city, the ocean, even something from your neighborhood,” Kendra tells the students. “What are some colors you think of?” “When I’m at the beach, I see yellow and blue,” a boy says. “Excellent! You can pick out those colors of yarn for your weaving,” Kendra encourages.
Leily K. shows off her work
The excitement peaks soon after as the dozen or so 3rd graders gather around Kusum’s weaving demonstration. She shares the essential skills: establishing a pattern, changing yarn colors, and using something called a shed stick to ease the process. Afterward, the students eagerly take to their looms, joyfully diving into their work—combining their newly developed motor and spatial skills with symbolic thinking, crafting their visions of local landscapes in woven yarn.
Words most often heard? “This is so totally awesome!” I hear that sentiment over and over as I wander the room when I drop in each of the three days. In fact, I hear that quite often at Wildwood at all grade levels; it’s an authentic expression of wonder and insight that tells our teachers that their students are on the right track—for learning and engagement with the subject.
This week these students took on three new skills and prompted their teachers to stretch, too. Together they practiced Life Skills through a learning process that asked them to confront discomfort, see a project through from start to finish, and add skills they didn’t know they were capable of. Awesome, indeed, and a clear example of Wildwood’s commitment to both the content and process of meaningful learning.
~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning