Life skills and boomerangs

Steamboat Springs Middle School club members build crafts, knowledge

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In the woodshop classroom at Steamboat Springs Middle School, students are learning how to use a belt sander, how to throw and catch a boomerang in one toss and how to save money for an international trip.

And it's all happening during lunch.

Applied Technology teacher Johnny Walker -- "Mr. J" to his students -- hosts the Travel Club in his classroom several times a week during the eighth-grade lunch period. At least six eighth-graders have taken part in the club by making boomerangs, birdhouses and cutting boards that they plan to sell at the Dec. 3 craft fair at Strawberry Park Elementary School.

Sam Glaisher, 13, and Erika Walters, 14, said they hope to put the profits from their work toward a trip to Germany next summer to see the 2006 World Cup, international soccer's main event.

It will take a lot of boomerang sales to make the trip happen, but Walker said the club members are all business.

"The kids come in, throw their lunch down, eat it and get sawdust on it. Then they go to work," Walker said with a grin.

A lot of that work involves product testing.

"You don't throw it like a football or like a Frisbee, but kind of halfway in between," said Scott Ptach, 13, standing outside the shop door on a clear November day and preparing to sail a boomerang over the school's football field.

With a few running steps and a sharp, whip-like heave, Scott sent the wooden boomerang curving in a long arc through the sky. Sam chased it after letting out an exuberant yell.

"I got this one, I got this one," Sam hollered.

Not quite.

"Ooooh, it got me on the wrist," he said, shaking his arm and laughing. Less than a minute later, Sam grabbed another boomerang.

"I'll throw this one," he said.

Boomerangs aren't just curved chunks of wood, Walker said.

"The wings have air foils on them, like jet planes," the teacher said, running his rough hand over a subtle curve in the wood. "The kids have to understand principles of flight when they make them."

That understanding doesn't come easy.

"Sometimes, (boomerangs) go up on the roof," said Lorin Paley, 13. "Then we have to climb up and get them."

Munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Lorin said she and other students use an electric grinder or a hand file to make the foils before carefully sanding down the wood.

The lunchtime club began recently when Lorin had shin splints. She couldn't run in gym class, so she went to the woodshop instead. Other students joined her, and before she knew it, she had found a serious hobby.

"I'm making a boat this summer with friends," Lorin said.

Her inspiration for that project can be seen in the shop. A canoe and a green sailboat sit on a rack and hang from the ceiling in the shop, which has plenty of room for worktables and a welding room. A wooden brontosaurus skeleton hangs from a wall, and on the floor is a diagram for a Polynesian canoe.

"That might be the next project I do with kids," Walker says. "Building boats is kind of a passion of mine."

All middle school students are required to take an Applied Technology class in sixth and seventh grades, Walker said, and many students opt to take the class again in eighth grade.

Principal Tim Bishop said the program gives kids valuable life skills.

"When I was in junior high, I never took shop," Bishop said. "It intimidated me. But every kid in this school leaves with confidence that they'll be able to do things like make repairs around the house."

Walker has taught at the middle school for 12 years. Before that, he worked for 25 years as a carpenter in Steamboat Springs. Although he said teaching has been an incredible privilege, it's also been "literally too much fun," often requiring long, 12-hour days.

Those days might soon be more restful.

"I'm going to retire at the end of this year or next year," Walker said. "I haven't decided yet."

When that day comes, Walker will be missed. As club members repair damaged boomerangs by sanding out rough spots, bursts of mechanical sounds and the smell of fresh sawdust fill the air. Then lunchtime ends, and the kids get ready to leave. Walker gets the chocolates.

"Some teachers use grades -- chocolate works for me," Walker said, handing out pieces of candy from a Whitman's Sampler box as students filed out of the shop.

"Those are great kids," he said.

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203

or email mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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