Wood You Believe?

New wood shop at St James teaches valuable lessons.

A new kind of class, one with no textbooks or blackboards, has just finished its first semester in a basement on the St. James’ School campus. In the cool new workshop space, St. James’ high school-aged graduates learn the basics of carpentry from Lenard Haley using routers, saws, and a host of other professional grade tools.

For three months this year, Len has guided four students, the first St. James wood shop class, through the intricacies of woodworking and has been pleased with the results so far. “They’ve really taken to it, even though it’s been tough at first. When you’re starting out it’s all angles and measurements and an idea of what you’re trying to build, but not much payoff. And then they see the finished product.”

So far the students have produced several items, including cutting boards, storage chests, and decorative wooden sleighs, all of which “could easily sell at any craft market on the Main Line,” according to Len. And that financial incentive is another benefit that he hopes will reinforce a profound lesson – carpentry can make for a good living and a lifetime pursuit, paying the bills as well as stoking creative pride.

Len’s experienced those benefits firsthand, as a member of the Master Plan Committee at Episcopal Academy (EA), he oversaw the design and construction of EA’s Newtown Square campus. It allowed him to bring a lifetime of construction skills to bear to accomplish “the greatest challenge of my EA career.”

But he’s also a great teacher, according to Kevin Todd a Director of Graduate Support at St. James. It’s no surprise, given his 44-year career at EA, teaching students in all three schools. “He really has a rapport with the kids. He has a way about him they like. They respect him because he’s got a light touch and he knows how to really engage them on a personal level, which isn’t easy.”

Those skills were evident as he went from joking to dead serious when he introduced a nail gun to the class for the first time. The kids took his cue, focusing completely on the gun and watching the points in the wood where he fired nails to begin making a wooden sleigh. “Mind the thickness of the wood here,” he said, “and check beneath this piece. Think about where the nail is going and how it’s going to join these pieces. You want a strong connection.”

His goal is to have them create “something that lasts, something crafted well.” It’s a seemingly simple goal, but one that entails a consistent, exacting effort. “If you learn at least that much,” says Len, “you’ve got something to build on.”

Teaching lessons through trades is nothing new for St. James. The school offers cooking classes in a commercial quality kitchen, beekeeping through the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, gardening, farming, and other “hands-on” courses. Such classes teach patience, persistence, attention to detail – skills that bolster and enhance the School’s rigorous academic schedule. What’s more, the products of these efforts — honey, vegetables, jams, and other harvested products are occasionally sold to local vendors, helping both the student and the school.

“We’re very happy with Len and the wood shop. We think it has great potential for our kids and look forward to helping it grow,” said David Kasievich, Head of School at St. James. “Len is a great influence on the students and we hope his teachings give the kids skills that will help them in life. It’s one of our primary missions here at St. James.”

About St. James School…
St. James is a faith-based Philadelphia middle school in the Episcopal tradition, committed to educating traditionally under-resourced students in a nurturing environment. The school is a community that provides a challenging academic program and encourages the development of the moral, spiritual, intellectual, physical and creative gifts in its students.

3217 W. Clearfield Street
Follow St. James School on Facebook

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.