The whole assignment started with a seemingly simple goal: each student was going to design and construct a custom desk using cardboard. CCS teacher Marie Ramsey, was in the middle of teaching a unit on structure and stability when she came across an article about a Toronto school that made standing desks out of cardboard. She decided to try something similar with her own class. She liked the idea of students “learning by doing” and that there was potential for them to use their creations for the remainder of the year.
Like so many creative projects, things didn’t exactly go as planned.
“Making a desk sounded like something easy to do; but quite quickly it became apparent that it wasn’t actually simple,” reflected Ramsey. For two months piles of cardboard filled her classroom. It made for a lively atmosphere, but students experienced more than a few discouraging moments as they worked—whether it be a hole they cut in the wrong spot, a tab that wasn’t quite long enough, or a measurement they got wrong. “They were pushed to their limits”, said Ramsey. “It was hard work.”
“Some challenges that I had were trying to fit all my pieces together” reflected Elana, a student in the class. “My desk would kind of wobble from side to side and the top of my desk was also like a trampoline because it had a crease down the middle from when I carried it.”
“Since my design required larger panels we had to sacrifice and make my desk a bit smaller than anticipated,” said Kendall, another student in the class. Her classmate, Durk, faced a similar problem and made the panels on his disk too small. “They were useless. But I learned that when I persevere, it pays off.”
Perseverance pays off. That was a lesson that Ramsey believes most of the class learned through their desk making efforts (trials and setbacks included). She was impressed, daily, by the way students committed themselves to the job at hand and encouraged each other as they faced challenges in the classroom.
“The collaboration that went into solving the mistakes was incredible,” she said. In fact, she believes that the assignment, in all its messy and unpredictable glory, has given students a renewed faith in their abilities to see a difficult task through.
“Right now, I think that my students believe that they can do anything if they put their mind to it,” said Ramsey. She added that the struggles and failures experienced in class made the success that much sweeter.
Her students can attest to that:
“Many of our desks turned out great, and we all experienced failure at times, but we also saw triumph when we got to the end and saw this project was all worth it,” said Kendall.
For Durk, the moment he discovered that he had created a very sturdy desk was among one of his top five “very exciting” success moments.
Both Katrina and Elana say that simply finishing the desk was a triumph—given some of the frustrations they encountered in the creative process.
Ramsey said that students felt relief and pride after seeing the final project. As a teacher, those feelings were strong for her as well—and not because the desks matched the vision she had at the start of the project. Due to some issues around measurement, the finished products were too small to use comfortably for a long period of time. The class could only use the desks for a few days before taking them home.
Still, the experience was worth it.
“When we talked about this project, after we finished, the students were surprised to learn that there were even moments during this project when I was ready to quit,” she reflected. “I have to say that the success that showed on the students faces as their desks were completed made all the difficulties worthwhile.”
Although Ramsey (with a smile on her face) will joke about “hating cardboard”, she admitted that the project could lead to some new cardboard related endeavours in the future.
“My students want to make a teacher’s desk now!” she noted, adding that she’s also considered forming a cardboard building “club” at school to do some furniture design.
“Also, I’m wondering if they could perhaps build some quality cardboard furniture to sell at the bazaar next year. And before you laugh too hard—even my students will tell you—cardboard makes pretty strong furniture if you design it well!”
At this year’s Edifide Convention, several teachers attended a session inspired by Angela Duckworth’s theory of “grit”. They learned that one of the key features in this approach to education is the belief that students shouldn’t just be commended for completing the tasks that come easily to them—but that more often, they need to be applauded for their willingness to persist when learning is challenging.
And sometimes, that persistence takes unexpected forms—sometimes it looks like a classroom full of handmade, one of a kind, cardboard desks.