Introduction: Modeling a Student's "best Work" in the Classroom - How to Organize a Year-long Model

About: Hey there! My name is Chris and I live in Massachusetts. I have been a teacher since 2006 and love the fact that I have the opportunity to bring real-world, hands-on skills to my students. I love learning new …

I have been a middle school teacher for nearly fourteen years and one of the hardest thing to explain to many middle school students is what it means to produce their best possible work. How a student perceives what their best work looks like depends on myriad factors including; previous school experiences, home situation, student personality, and day-to-day experiences. A student might turn in a truly phenomenal piece of work one day and then turn in something sub par the very next. What's more is that the very same student's phenomenal work might be for a relatively light-duty assignment while the work for a more important assignment might be very lackluster. So how does one model what "good work" across the board looks like?

In response to that question I developed what I think is a fantastic model and a fun activity for students to work on in the science classroom. I am both a woodwork and a teacher at heart and love to combine the two whenever I get the chance. I often use my lathe to turn bowls from what was once a fresh log. The thing about using raw, wet logs to turn bowls is that you don't get the cleanest cut with even the sharpest lathe tools due to the softer nature of the wood in its wet state. This means that once the bowls are 100% dry there will be a fair amount of sanding to get them to look their best. Through a progression of sanding from 100 grit up through 400 you can produce a beautiful gleaming bowl that will attract a customer... just stick with 150 grit sandpaper and you will have a sub par bowl that will still be functional but will not model your best work as a wood turner. This got me thinking, what if we could model a similar situation in my classroom? Although, I can't bring in lathes for each kid (that would be fun... but a bit scary too at this age) we can still use wood to model what someone's best work might look like and even better is that we can use that model continuously throughout the year. In our case we used small blocks of wood as our product and the students were given the challenge to model their best possible work by making the block the smoothest, most buttery feeling piece of wood possible using the knowledge I provide them with how to properly sand, the tools I provide them to complete the job, and the time I provide them to complete the task. This sanded block of wood will be finished, signed, dated, and will represent what a student's best work looks like. Each block is put on display at the front of the room and the students are always welcome to check them out throughout the year and I will often encourage them to touch their own blocks of wood as a reminder of what their best work can look like.

With this instructable I am going to show you how I have my students model their best work at the start of the school year and how the entire thing is organized and displayed for the entire school year. I will explain each part as simply as possible and include all of the necessary documents to get you on your way if you are interested in doing the project in your classroom too.


Wood blocks (enough for one per student)

Tools to cut the wood blocks and drill holes in them (table saw, band saw, drill press, etc...)

Sandpaper (grits 100 --> 400, and enough for each student to use it during each class)


Large paperclips

Tung oil finish or similar

Rags and dixie cups to apply finish

Step 1: Prepare Your Blocks

To prepare the blocks I used my table saw to rip 1-1/2" thick oak boards into 1-1/2" strips. I then marked out 1-1/2" lines on the strips of wood and drilled holes near the middle of each 1.5" x 1.5" square. These holes will be used to hang the blocks up once they are finished. I drilled them prior to ripping the strips on my band saw so that I am in essence drilling four holes at once. I then set my band saw for 3/8" wide and ripped strips from the previously table sawn strips. I then set my band saw to 1-1/2" and cut the strips into blocks. In this case I used red oak as my wood species. The year prior I used red maple, but pretty much any decent hardwood will be a good fit for this project. The most important thing is that all sides and edges are rough and not planed so that it is the student's responsibility to completely sand the block. All in all I made 150 blocks of wood, more than I needed but I will plan on using them again next year.

Step 2: Prepare Sandpaper

Instead of giving large sheets of sandpaper to each group I decided to cut up each sheet into 15 small pieces. You could of course cut them into quarters, eighths, or whatever other size you wish, but most importantly, before you cut them, mark each piece with the correct grit so that students know what they are working with. Cut one piece for each student in the class and then organize them into containers so that each container has one piece of sand paper at the proper grit per student at each table / desk. I had bins with four pieces of 100, 120, 150, 180, 220, and 400 grit sandpaper. I also included a piece of construction paper to act as a buffing surface for the final polishing. I would not suggest putting the actual finish in there quite yet since it could get contaminated by the sanding or spilled.

Step 3: Students Sand and Then Mount the Blocks and Organize Them by Class

I typically spend about five minutes explaining the process of sanding the blocks from coarsest grit to finest grit and then polishing, finishing, and signing the work. I show the students a model of what their final work might look like that I have created. The students will need at least one 50 minute block to complete the project, but you might find that they need another 10 minutes during another class to put the finish on it and sign it.

To display the blocks I use braided rope/twine with paperclips pushed throughout it at 1-1/2" intervals. The paperclips are stretched so that they act like a hook to hang the blocks but still allow the blocks to be easily removed. Along with the blocks I hang a little simple poster I created that explains to the students and classroom guests what the model represents. I can tell you that this works, if a student turns in sub par work to me I typically have the student grab their block and we sit and discuss what their best work looked like at the start of the year and we discuss the three factors involved with producing their best work; knowledge,tools, time. The tools might be a formula used to find percent change, a glue gun, an article in a magazine, pretty much anything to help you complete the job to your best ability.

The students love this project, which is surprising since they only are sanding a block of wood, but the slight bit of challenge to make it shine really makes the kids excited and the end result of having a year-long model in the classroom is priceless. Please tell me if you give it a go and share your results.

Classroom Organization Challenge

Second Prize in the
Classroom Organization Challenge