Carpentry classes allow creative exploration of hands-on skills


Carpentry is a unique class at Berkeley High School: very hands-on, with access to many different kinds of tools. The goal of the class is to introduce the craft of construction to students who don’t have any prior knowledge. Klea Bajala, a teacher of the class, said, “I want it to open doors for everyone.” 

Caiden Escalante, a carpentry student, explained one positive aspect of the class. “There is a lot of room for imagination and creativity,” Escalante said.

Bajala, who has been teaching the class for three years, said “(Taking over carpentry from another teacher mid-semester) was really difficult, and it was a hard transition for the students. I’ve re-taught safety, the way I teach safety, and that was the sort of basis for starting.” 

After studying architecture in college, she worked as a shop tech where she helped first-year college students in the shop. She then started her own multimedia art practice, and she currently makes furniture, decks, and sculptures, including pieces for the Exploratorium and UC Berkeley. 

Bajala has curated the curriculum to be project-based, with learning standards provided by Nor Cal Carpentry Training. Bajala uses that pool of money provided by the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Program supervisor to write grants for the CTE program at large. She uses this to help get resources from wood to safety glasses for the class. 

Cordelia Millerwhite teaches seventh-period carpentry and is the Instructional Technology Technician and shop manager for the class. She explained how seeing the growth and progress of her students inspires her to continue teaching, “I mean it’s when students get it: that moment where they go from not understanding something to clicking and they just start running with it. I really love that. I love seeing the students have creative ideas that I hadn’t thought of,” Millerwhite said.

Bajala explained the typical demographic for her classes and the changes she hopes to see. “They have been heavily male, white male, dominated,” Bajala said. “I feel like a lot of students don’t know that this class exists. I want to see more women, more non-binary students, more trans students, more students of color taking my classes.”

Based on her experience in Carpentry, Escalante said, “You get a lot of freedom. It gives me time for my mind to take a break from thinking, looking at screens, and writing things. I just like to use my hands and have a change of pace.” If students have a project in mind they can talk to a teacher who will advise them and approve it. Right now, Escalante is looking forward to a project where the class will make screwdriver handles.

Since there are a lot of hands-on projects, Bajala focuses on teaching the importance of safety. Many of the tools in the shop can cause extreme injuries or death. Bajala said, “You could buy any of these (tools), any of the equipment, but knowing how to use it is really empowering, especially knowing how to use it safely.” Part of the class includes Bajala evaluating students using a tool safely and completing written tests about the parts of tools.   

The knowledge and skills that can be learned in the carpentry class can be applied in a variety of careers, as well as in day-to-day life. Specifically, the class can prepare students for college majors including mechanical, electrical, and structural engineering, construction management, and architecture. For those who can’t pursue them in college, this is practical training. 

Bajala said, “(The class) shows students that college is one pathway, but if college is too expensive or is just not right, you should consider the trades.” Carpentry students at BHS can bypass a waitlist to start a four-year apprenticeship after graduation. Within the first six months, students make about thirty dollars an hour. Bajala shared that she thinks it is a great option for students who want to start working right away.

Carpentry incorporates a variety of skills from other classes such as math, science, art, and engineering. Millerwhite said, “It is a kind of logical problem-solving. If you want to create this shape, or these series of shapes out of these materials, how can you cut them, shape them, glue them back together, cut them again, in a specific order to get there?” She explained that knowing how to work with your hands can boost your confidence through learning about problem-solving skills in the real world. This allows students to reuse old items, which creates and maintains a positive environmental impact. 

“Just knowing how these kinds of things operate and react and having that ability to figure out kind of puzzle through it is really powerful. The skills of working with our hands have kind of fallen by the wayside,” Millerwhite commented.