The Woodwork Careeer Alliance of North America gained valuable insights into how woodworking instructors transitioned from teaching students in the classroom to distance learning in a COVID-19 survey. Comments received from a dozen high school and postsecondary instructors are summarized in the article Educators tackle challenges teaching woodworking online.

This article expounds on the experiences of five of the instructors. All teach woodworking at WCA EDUcation member schools. Each relates in greater depth they adapted to having to pivot from teaching students face-to-face to doing so remote via the internet. Some of their struggles and successes are captured in their comments.

The featured instructors include:

  • Scott Bruening, Kettle Moraine High School – 'Teaching remote takes longer'
  • Molly Turner, Ignacio School District; UGears to the rescue
  • Christopher Randall, Asheville High School; ‘Never stop learning’
  • Doug Rappe, West Town Community Development Project; ‘Keeping students engaged online’
  • Frank Fetzer, Boyceville High School; WCA Sawblade certification ‘process adds value’

'Teaching remote takes longer'

Scott Bruening, tech ed instructor, Kettle Moraine High School, Wales, Wis.

Editor’s note: When Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an order for all of K-12 schools to close by March 18 in response to the coronavirus outbreak, it was with the expectation that they would reopen on April 6. But as confirmed cased of COVID-19 in the state continued to climb, the governor’s “safer at home” order was extended through April foreshadowing an ultimate decision to keep schools shuttered for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. Scott Bruening is just one of hundreds of high school woodworking teachers who got caught in the cross hairs of COVID-19. Here’s his story.

I taught about 85 students online this spring divided among three courses that included Woods 2, Engineering 2 and Automation and Robotics. Some aspects of our online classes went better than others. For example, about 20 students in m Woods 2 class worked on getting their WCA Sawblade certificate. Fortunately, we did all of the skills evaluation stuff in the first quarter or I would have been in trouble trying to get them certified using the online test that the WCA provides.


Some Kettle Morraine High School students left their projects in the finishing booth on their last day before the school shutdown because of the coronavirus crisis.

I found that getting the kids set up for the online Sawblade test, like everything else teaching remote, takes longer. I used Google Hangouts for one-on-one meetings with my students. It was nice to connect fact-to-face with them. I took inventory of how they were doing, what they needed for the Sawblade test, etc. In some cases, I arranged to distribute measurement tools, including calipers and t-squares to students who didn’t have one at home. We treated the pick up as drive-through style at the high school’s parking lot.

As for online classes, I really drove home the basics like taking a closer look at joinery techniques. What’s a good joint this versus that? What does a rabbet joint look like and when should it be used? These are the kinds of things that you don’t have time to go over in a classroom setting because so much of the time is for the kids to physically work on projects.

We actually shut down just over a week before the end of the third quarter. My students were finishing up one of their first basic assignments. They were finishing up kind of a canned first project. It was a sliding top box. That was their second project for the quarter. Most of them had it done or were in the process of applying a finish. It was a little eerie when I went back into the classroom weeks after the shutdown and saw some of the projects left sitting out in the finishing area to dry. It’s like time stopped for six weeks.

But I can tell you right now that when I went back into the classroom last week, it’s a little eerie of a sight to see some of the projects that were sitting out in the finishing area drying. It was weird to see. It’s like time stopped for six weeks.

I think that one of the big positives that came out of all this is that although we were kicked out of the classroom, we still got kids certified with the Sawblade certificate and that’s sort of a neat thing. We made lemonade out of lemons. That’s all we could do. Another good thing is that we got a crash course of doing things with online learning technology that could become the norm in the next five or 10 years.

I’m sure exactly what to expect when we begin school this fall, but I know things are going to be a lot different. This is my 18th year of teaching. I think I’ll move the sawblade certification from Woods 2 into the Woods 1 class. I’m rewriting that class right now to be ready for the fall so that we have more kids at a younger age – freshmen and sophomore level – get certified so that Woods 2 students can accumulate more hours toward their WCA Green level accreditation.

UGears to the rescue

Molly Turner, high school and middle school wood manufacturing teacher, Ignacio School District 11-JT, Ignacio, Colo.

We are a small rural district with under 1,000 students K-12. I have 36 high school students and a rotation of 25 middle school students. I teach all the 7th and 8th graders over the course of the year. I start teaching WCA safety standards to all my entry classes and I offer the Sawblade Certificate to my second-year high school students as part of their final evaluation for the year. We were getting ready to go through the certification process during our fourth quarter, but COVID-19 put a stop to that and I won’t be able to certify any students this year. I was planning on certifying nine students this year, my first group to earn their Sawblade certificates. My program is in a growth phase and I teach a modified version of The MiLL’s curriculum. I met Scott Nelson (president of the WCA) and was introduced to the WCA through the Teacher Training Academy at the MiLL two years ago.

As far as distance learning is concerned, it’s been a challenge. Student engagement is difficult. Lots and lots of reaching out and very little coming back. We are a rural community and not everyone has good internet. My classes are looked at as electives and treated differently than core subjects. Also, no one had time to prepare, plan, or transition smoothly into homebound learning. It happened so quickly. I’ve spoken with many other trades’ teachers and found it’s a real challenge for everyone. On the plus side, it’s broken down some of the barriers of distance and forced everyone to become fluent in technologies that have been out there for a while, but maybe not used extensively prior to COVID-19: Zoom, Google Hangouts, Google Classroom, etc.


A student of Ignacio School District assembled a UGears laser-cut model as an at-home alternative to hands-on woodworking.

My greatest success has been with the UGears project I created for my students. Each of my high school students got a kit that takes between three to five hours to build and requires no tools. The students fill out a project log as they work. It involves tracking their time, taking pictures, and reflecting on the project. I’m also having them write a brief product review and turn in their completed model for a final grade. The feedback I’ve gotten from students has been great. I even had a mom reach out to me and say that she hasn’t seen her boy this focused all year long. Most of my students who did the project really enjoyed it, and some asked if they can do more. UGears has been wonderful to work with and gave me an educational discount that made the project possible this year.

The two elements that have made the project successful are:

1) Student choice: I gave students the chance to choose which model they wanted out of a selection of similar time/skill level projects, and

2) Flexible timeline: the kits take about four hours and I’m expecting a minimum of one hour a week. Some students got ahead and did the whole project in a weekend, while others used it as a break from computer-based learning and stretched it out for the full four weeks.

The projects hit on many skills needed in the woodworking industry including problem-solving, lean manufacturing design, following directions, attention to detail, time management, CNC laser work, and applied STEAM/STEM ideas. If home-based learning becomes a reoccurring event, I’ll do this project again!

‘Never Stop Learning’

Christopher Randall, Asheville High School, Asheville, N.C.

Teaching woodworking online is a drag. Most of my 48 students have not been receptive to a hands-on elective being taught online. The best benefit is that I am learning new digital skills and will be able to flip my classroom next year (digital homework) so we can perform more hands-on in the classroom. Teaching from a laptop has become a great planning time and reflection on current practices.

My candidates all did the Sawblade certificate performance widget right before we were all sent home. I digitally reviewed so that they could take their online Sawblade tests. I had a handful finish — my dedicated seniors and a handful of my underclassman. I had to badger some to finish. Some are in rough circumstances so I could only press so hard. One of my 10th graders worked with me to find a summer job. I had two great crews in talking to get him a mentor. The Sawblade certificate definitely gave him a leg up!

An Asheville High School student poses with a sheet of nested parts during pre-COVID times.

I also used the free Fine Woodworking archives link on the WCA’s website. Since turnout was low and I was at home practicing social distance and home schooling my own children, I simply filmed videos and shared building projects with my students. They shared back with me what they could build at home.

One of my student’s built himself a half pipe skateboard ramp. Many built raised garden beds and some other garden projects I posted on Canvas, including insect hotels, bird houses, etc. They had limited tools and I only had so many I could loan out before I went into full lock-down myself with my family.

I feel like we are going to start next year in this crisis. School is going to look very different. We as shop teachers need to front load our classes with the “paper work” portion of woodworking so we can hit the ground running when we are in person. I am using this opportunity (if you can call it that) to write the digital (paperwork) portion of my class to front load all the subjects that are difficult to teach in a hands-on classroom. Never stop learning. This can be an opportunity if you make it so.

Keeping students engaged online

Doug Rappe, lead technical instructor, Greater West Town Community Development Project, Chicago, Ill.

This was a challenge for us for sure. We were working with 10 students. They were just about half way through the 15-week training program when (Illinois) Gov. (J.B.) Pritzker initiated the stay at home order. In a matter of hours, our staff did an amazing job putting together resources for our students to take home so they could continue to work on their classwork independently. They left with a few weeks’ worth of pencil and paper assignments including: print reading, shop math, language and measuring work. The students used the online Khan Academy math learning resource during regular classes so they continued to work through self-directed assignments there, too.

As the stay at home order was extended, we were able to shift some instruction to Google Classroom, a great resource for creating, organizing and disseminating classwork including videos and quizzes. It also allowed us to host live interactive remote classes about three days per week. The live classes are fairly well received and well attended. For the disadvantaged population that Greater West Town serves, home computers and internet connections are not a given and we spent considerable effort getting computers and internet hotspots out to the many students that needed them.

If there is any upside to this it will be that we are developing more teaching materials and expertise that will allow our students to work in a more independent and self-directed way: whether on a computer in our facility or at home. I am sure that some of the work we are doing in Google Classroom will be put to use for future classes for instance so that a student who needs extra review or misses a class can work on his or her own to catch up.

Doug Rappe of the Greater West Town Community Development Project used this setup for teaching a Google Classroom remote wood identification class.

We struggled to get one or two students engaged with the work. Many already had serious challenges in their daily lives. Some needed to find work immediately and were just not as available to participate in the live classes. In addition to instruction, our staff worked with students on a daily basis to make sure they could access the resources they needed whether it be health care, food or housing assistance.

While there are obvious limits to learning woodworking at a distance, our goal was to keep our students engaged and ready to return to training as soon as possible. Once students return to in-person classes, the entirety of their time will be spent hands-on in the shop. Typically, students would rotate in and out of the shop during the course of training. Our goal now is to have their remote learning cover their classroom hours and have them full time in the shop once they return. Not ideal, but probably the best we can do.

Because we run classes year-round, we have some flexibility to push back graduation until students return and complete training.  And of course, once they return we will have all of the challenges that any woodworking shop would have; ensuring that students and staff can work safely together in the shop with the ongoing risks of COVID-19.

Meanwhile recruiting and job placement activities have to continue too!  We are on Facebook Live a few times per week promoting the program and keeping in touch with our employer partners as much as we can too.

WCA Sawblade certification 'process adds value’

Frank Fetzer, woodworking, engineering and math teacher, Boyceville High School, Boyceville, Wis.

I instructed around 70 students online, only nine of which were enrolled in Advanced Woodworking, which is my WCA Sawblade certificate course. Some of the students had limited internet access.

Students with internet received videos demonstrating home maintenance assignments along with their instructions each week. Most of the videos already existed on YouTube; I only made a couple. These tasks were not necessarily woodworking related but they gave students a chance to do something hands-on at home while preparing them to be homeowners. These assignments also gave students an opportunity to connect with their parents while discussing the tasks.

We used the archives of Fine Woodworking and Fine Homebuilding (available to WCA EDUcation members) on the WCA’s website. A lot of the articles were chosen by the student. This allowed them to pursue a path that interests them the most. For instance, one of the students consistently chose articles about the processes in building sheds because he is interested in building himself one. One of the videos I assigned was on the use of shellac. The reason it was assigned is because it is something we don’t normally use in my class. We mostly use oil bases stains and polyurethanes. This video allowed them to see something new and possibly spark their interest in using a new technique.

The access to Fine Woodworking and Fine Homebuilding were a valuable resource to keep students learning new things during their time at home. I could have found videos or articles on YouTube or created them on my own, but having the videos come from Fine Woodworking gives them credibility over random videos from YouTube. It also saved me from having to create them on my own, which would be difficult because of my limited access to my school shop.

All nine of nine eligible students completed their Sawblade Certificate. All of the machine operation testing had already been completed during the third quarter of school. All that was really left for them to do was to complete the final online test. I would have preferred some more classroom time before they took it because there were a few things covered on the test that we had not covered yet. A couple of the students did great right away and a couple of them had to try a couple of times. After taking it once, they were able to ask me questions or do research on the test content that was new to them and eventually they all passed at an acceptable level.

I believe that the Sawblade Certification process adds value to my Advanced Woodworking Course. The certification is something my students can use on their resumes. If they choose to, they can use it to follow a path in woodworking. If they find out that it is not a career path they want to pursue, the skills that they have attained can carry over into many other trades and career paths. They can use it to demonstrate that they have these skills to future employers. Of all of the requirements, I believe the measurement standards are the most important. They provide the base for everything. I do not know that it would have been possible to meet the Sawblade requirements if we had been in a different part of the testing when the stay home order began. Luckily, we were at a place in our curriculum that we were able to make it work.

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