“Girls and Power Tools”: Students Roll Up Their Sleeves for the Annual 6th Grade Building Project

If you were to walk behind the gym on a recent Friday, you’d hear the  whirring of power tools and joyful chatter. 

But this isn’t a construction crew. These are 6th graders, building cubbies and Little Free Libraries as part of the annual 6th Grade Building Project at Castilleja. The students, wearing safety goggles and split into teams of three and four, are measuring, gluing, and sorting out roles and instructions. The girls are visibly enthusiastic about wielding power tools and witnessing their creations take shape before their eyes. 

Casti students using power tools to build cubbies and confidence!

Someone’s drill starts to click.

“Stop, stop!” exclaims Sarah Barnum, science teacher and project co-creator, rushing over. “When you hear that noise, that means something is going wrong. Use gravity to help you here.” Together, everyone reviews safety techniques. 

Nick Jerrold, mathematics teacher and the other project creator, is making rounds nearby. 

“You don’t want that sticking out. Take it out, drill a new pilot hole, and put that thing in,” he says to one team. “Don’t fight about the drill! Be careful! Put pressure on the back—there you go,” he tells another. “Looks nice! Don’t be afraid to sand the heck out of it!”

Ms. Barnum and Mr. Jerrold launched the building project as an interdisciplinary STEAM activity in 2019. Their goal was to teach kids about applied science, math, and group work, about “being precise and also being good enough,” Ms. Barnum adds. “It’s okay if it’s not perfect.” 

And, of course, this is also about confidence. “Girls and power tools!” exclaims Ms. Barnum. “I was that kid. I did woodshop. My sister and I built our own treehouse in the backyard, without our mother’s permission.” She was eight years old at the time, she adds. “It’s the pride and ownership. At the end of the day [they can say], I built that with my own two hands.”

“It’s the engagement,” adds Mr. Jerrold. “We both love it. I call it the highlight of my year.”

Ms. Barnum and Mr. Jerrold spent a large chunk of summer of 2019 preparing for their first build: they bought the wood, cut it themselves, built a prototype, and wrote instructions from scratch, thanks to a summer grant from Castilleja. “We really enjoyed being honored with the grant because we got a little bit of money to work over the summer,” says Ms. Barnum. “Teachers do really cool things with summer grants and this project wouldn't have happened without [it].”  

The project was so successful that they’ve continued it annually since (with the exception of 2020, due to COVID-related distance learning).   

Some students have never built before. “Oh my God, I can’t do this,” they say to Ms. Barnum. “Yes, you can!” she assures them. Those students who know their way around with tools get to help others. 

Last year’s 6th grade students painted their completed cubbies and Little Free Libraries under the direction of their art teacher, Angélica Ortiz Anguiano ’11, before distributing them around campus. They decorated seven of the Libraries with a letter to spell out the word “Imagine,” the school theme, and customized each Library’s design to match its classroom. The Little Free Library in the Bourn Lab, for example, was painted with colorful gears and rainbows. Bridget Rigby, head of the Bourn Lab, nicknamed it the “Maker Supplybrary” and now uses it for the maker tool exchange. The year before that, students painted the tables they built with a letter “C,” to spell out the school’s core values, the 5Cs.  

The completed pieces become a living homage to Castilleja; they’re used to store books, supplies, fitness items, and much more. Some teachers topped the cubbies with pillows, turning them into cozy benches.

This year, several additional instructors are helping out on site, including Ms. Rigby; Jen O’Sullivan, fitness and wellness teacher; Christina Courtney ’02, science, Bourn Lab, and computer science and engineering teacher; Carolyn Steele, 6th grade computer science, making and design teacher; and Nico Gallo, Bourn Lab teacher. 

“I really love drilling things and hammering things,” says 6th grade student Aya M. In addition to woodshop techniques and safety, Aya says she is learning about leadership and team dynamics. 

“Leaving people out can make someone feel bad and not really included,” says Aya. “Especially for projects like this, there could be someone who’s really good at this kind of stuff, but they could also get really carried away and then not really include the other people—and they don’t learn.”

Her classmate, Delaney W., is already an expert builder, having constructed gardening boxes and bird houses with her dad. Delaney is most excited about learning to troubleshoot and make adjustments. “Whenever we do something wrong, we need to figure out how to fix it,” she says. 

“I love how there’s so much teamwork involved. You really couldn’t do it by yourself,” says Misha S., another 6th grade student who grew up watching her parents and grandfather build and assemble furniture. 

“It can’t just be one and done. You have to shift things around and change some aspects of the way you were gonna design it,” Misha says. She learned this while waiting for wood glue to dry to prevent parts from shifting. She can’t wait to tell her grandfather about her project. “I think I’m gonna tell him what I built, and how I built it, and what it felt like,” Misha says, looking over her completed cubby. “I feel really proud of it. It’s like, ‘Wow, I did that!’”

Mr. Jerrold helps to guide a drill as a 6th grader works on her cubby.

Sixth graders pose proudly with their finished cubby.

Students add the final touches to their Little Library.

We made this!