Kodiak Middle School students are in the process of building 13 “Little Free Libraries” — small weather-proof boxes where community members can drop off used books and pick up other ones. The boxes are part of the middle school’s industrial arts program, taught by Nick Steele.
Steele began teaching at Kodiak Middle School last fall, restarting the school’s long-dormant industrial arts program. Now in its second year, it has 96 students ranging from sixth to eighth grade. As a teacher, Steele said the second year is easier than the first.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking on a job like this last year because I wouldn’t know how to direct the kids as well as I do this year. We wouldn’t have had the tools or the confidence,” he said. This year, the project will take only nine days to complete “from blank sheets of plywood to finished weather-ready Little Free Libraries.”
The libraries will be stationed at each Kodiak school, including those in the villages. Steele said the students are excited about the project, even though they can’t take it home.
“You might expect that they’d want to build their own thing and take something home, but they value that this is going to be for the community and they see that we’re investing in the island and we’re trying to build community in our little woodshop,” Steele said.
When the libraries are complete, the art clubs at the middle school and high school will decorate six of them. The industrial arts students will move on to other projects, which will include building picnic tables and benches for the schools.
“I want this program to be a place where students can find belonging, identity, success, safety, consistency,” Steele said. “It took me a lot of years to realize what makes me happy … I want this place to be a place where students find small things that make them happy.”
Steele first began working as a carpenter to make money, but over time, he began enjoying other aspects of the trade.
“It was a way to become self-sufficient, to become independent,” he said. “What draws me to it now is the confidence that comes with being able to build something for yourself, feeling capable.”
While the middle school industrial arts program was rekindled as part of the district’s increased emphasis on technical and career education, Steele believes that even college-bound students can reap the rewards of working with their hands.
“Any kid, even if they do excellent in school, if they have straight A’s, they come in here and they get that little extra feeling of ‘I can build stuff with my hands’ or ‘I can take something from my mind and create it,’” he said.
While Steele is only in his second year teaching industrial arts, he previously taught history at Kodiak High School. Before coming to Kodiak, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education while living in Juneau. There are aspects of history that he enjoyed, but he said that teaching industrial arts is more satisfying to him.
“The kids can see the product of their work,” he said. “I do miss telling stories, I miss relating the events of the past to the future … but this is easier to connect with.”
After leaving his position as a high school history teacher, Steele returned to carpentry for two years. His current job is the best of both worlds. The projects he completes with his students include buildings smokers and whirligigs. At the Christmas Bazaar held at the high school earlier this month, the middle school students sold three smokers and about 30 whirligigs.
“They’re kind of getting an idea of what it is to see the profits of their hard work as well,” he said. All revenue from the sales goes back to buying materials for the industrial arts program. Steele also helps pay for the materials, to ensure the class doesn’t have any fees for students.
“I’m very impressed with how able the students are. Even the brand-new sixth graders can run a table saw efficiently,” he said. “They’re really good about understanding the importance of safety.”