The workshop at PS 721, a District 75 school in Gravesend, Brooklyn, is humming with activity: Students are focused on hammering, painting and gluing at different workstations — what you’d expect in “shop.”
But they’re not creating a small art project to take home and place on a shelf. They’re building furniture for their new school library: a couch, stools, footrests, even iPad holders and bookstands. Their materials: sturdy cardboard, brown paper bags, grocery store boxes and plastic.
“Everything is made here, and it’s student-driven,” says Charles Brown, the technology and workshop teacher, who oversees the workshop class twice a week. “They know what the task is.”
Brown’s workshop was inspired by the Adaptive Design Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes “cardboard carpentry” to customize everyday items for children with disabilities and to train older students in workplace skills. After taking a workshop sponsored by the association, Brown was determined to bring the program to his school, also called the Brooklyn Occupational Training Center.
The school had no formal library — just a reading room with mismatched furniture and books that had never been inventoried or tracked for use. And there was no furniture or accessories customized for students with physical disabilities. When the new library opened earlier this year in the same reading room, Brown’s workshop produced the chairs and stools.
In addition to the library furniture, students in Brown’s workshop built customized armrest desks for students in wheelchairs and boards to help students sit up straight. At the same time that they are learning carpentry, the older students with disabilities who staff the workshop are learning teamwork and communication that will help them prepare for off-site job training at local businesses, hospitals and nursing homes.
“It gives them a lot of independence and they see the possibilities of creating something,” says Richard Johnston, a paraprofessional and the school’s chapter leader. “It’s a new world of self-esteem.”
For furniture such as library couches and stools that will take the heaviest student use, the workshop uses the thick cardboard deployed for soundproofing walls. Regular cardboard is used to reinforce the furniture, as well as for other accessories such as iPad holders and cartons for returned library books.
The nails are fashioned by the students out of flag sticks donated by a local business. At one workstation, students Gabriela and Kyle work together: she cuts the sticks down and Kyle then sharpens them into “nails” for the furniture.
At another workstation, Kevin is hammering a nail into a stool. Nearby, Anna is carefully applying lavender paint to a couch that has already been assembled.
“The furniture workshop promotes communication by pairing students on the assembly line,” says Brown. A few seconds later, Brown directs a student asking for more nails to Kyle.
“They’re learning independence, concentration and motor skills,” says Jacinta Asillo, a paraprofessional who guides students in gluing strips of brown paper that will reinforce the edges of the newly constructed stools and footrests.
Throughout the day, thick boxes are delivered to the workshop. The culinary program in the school saves boxes from Costco and local businesses also send in used boxes. Thick paper bags are saved, too, for the strips to reinforce the edges of the furniture. Even the sawdust from the cardboard cutting is saved; with a dash of glue, it creates putty that can fill in punctures in the cardboard.
“Nothing goes to waste,” says Brown.
Brown matches students with tasks they can handle, but he also assigns tasks that help them develop focus and concentration. Paraprofessionals monitor the students to make sure safety precautions are taken, such as wearing goggles or gloves.
On a shelf in the library, books are displayed on plastic easels crafted from recycled plastic sheets that students shape with a strip heater, under the supervision of paraprofessionals. Stools for sitting and book display tables are already in place.
The library already has a staff in training: students who will sort, shelve and staff the checkout desk, where books will be logged out on a desktop computer.
The furniture and office accessories are already in demand from other schools.
“We have eight schools that have put in orders, everything from writing easels to step stools,” says Brown proudly. “We get the job done.”