Josh Shenker: Bringing Sewing Back to School

Josh Shenker, a teacher and lifelong boater and sailor, loves working with his hands and describes himself as a “DIY person.” So when he realized that his middle schools students didn’t have much of a concept of how things were made or that they could create with their own hands, he knew he wanted to share his hobbies with them.

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Josh working with students.

When Josh started teaching at Wood Hill Middle School in Andover, Massachusetts two years ago, he was saddened to learn that most middle schools have dropped shop classes, which were his favorites growing up.

“In shop classes you learned how to cook, cut a board, and sew,” Josh said. “I’m in my forties now and I think it’s why I know how to do stuff.”

The more he got to know his students, the more he realized that they weren’t learning these skills that he so valued.

“We live in a busy world where if you need food you go to a restaurant, if you need something you order it from Amazon. I wanted to teach the kids that it’s not just people overseas who make things,” Josh explained.

And that’s how he came up with the idea to teach his 8th grade students how to sew.

In addition to teaching 8th grade science, Josh also teaches 4 sections of a class called Enrichment. Enrichment classes are left open-ended for the teacher to decide what to teach and how to spend the time with the students. Teachers run recycling programs, work on art skills or have students write letters to soldiers overseas. Josh taught knot tying.

Josh wanted his Enrichment classes to literally “enrich their time,” and this year he decided to abandon his knot tying lessons and try to teach sewing instead. With the blessing of his principal, he brought in his own Ultrafeed LSZ-1 Sewing Machine from home to teach students how to sew.

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The sequence of making a bag.

Going in, Josh was unsure of how sewing lessons would be accepted by his students, but he has been pleasantly surprised by how much his students are enjoying it.

“I was surprised by their acceptance of it,” he said. “I knew I was taking a risk, but they’re totally into it.”

The students are having so much fun sewing, that one day they even made up their own sewing mantra: “be the machine.”

But perhaps Josh’s biggest surprise was that the boys are more excited about sewing than the girls. The girls were intimidated by the machine at first, but the boys thought it was cool and wanted to see all of the machine’s gears and how it worked, Josh said.

“I brought in my blue Sailrite LSZ-1 and one boy asked if it was a 2-stroke or a 4-stroke, which I thought was pretty funny,” Josh said. “They thought it had like a little weed whacker engine in there.”

Each of the students learns how to sew their own tote bag from a 10 oz. cotton duck fabric. At the end of the class, they each get to keep the bag they made. Josh said he chose bags for the project because it was something everyone could use.

“They’re learning that it’s not hard to make stuff but that the details are difficult. And that to be good at something it takes a lot of practice,” Josh said.

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Josh’s Ultrafeed and a completed bag.

In a lot of ways, Josh models his bag sewing lessons after an engineering project. Students look at a bag and measure it and draw out plans on graph paper. Those whose skill set allow them to, even make their own patterns, while others are given a Sailrite pattern to follow. The class also talks about materials and the kinds of things to consider when making a bag, like how to make it waterproof or how to protect it from UV rays.

Josh hopes to inspire his students to success outside the classroom and perhaps lead some of them on paths to becoming artists, designers and engineers.

“I wanted to teach them that there’s more to life than academics and what you see on TV,” he said.

Josh also hopes to inspire fellow teachers to do similar hands-on projects with their students.

He is proud of what his students are accomplishing and the reaction from their parents has been positive as well.

“I just wanted to do something engaging with them and to instill in them a sense of accomplishment,” he said.

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All of us at Sailrite are really excited about Josh’s project and we applaud his work of teaching a younger generation how to sew.

7 comments
  1. Congratulations! Thank goodness someone also follows my initiative as well. Here in the UK such skills too are in decline where many students believe that a computer program will solve every problem they may encounter. This is often unwittingly subscribed to by the educational establishment, so it is refreshing to see that in the USA a teacher is giving real life skills to his students. I notice, however, that it has taken someone who came from outside of the educational system and therefore with more of an open mind to introduce such a common sense and practical approach to carry the banner for such an important, and aptly named, ‘Enrichment’ program. Those that take it up will surely find that their lives can be greatly enhanced, yes, even enriched….. keep up the good work.

  2. Cindy Lupica said:

    Love this post. It is such a shame that we are no longer teaching our kids such skills.

    I looked at your site to see if you have ever had a tutorial on making a hammock. I did not find one and if you have not considered this, will you? You have amazing outdoor fabrics that I am sure will work well for a hammock and many of us would like something like this that can be personal to our home. What do you think?

    Best regards,

    Cindy Lupica

    *From:* Do-It-Yourself Advice Blog. [mailto:comment-reply@wordpress.com] *Sent:* Tuesday, March 11, 2014 5:51 AM *To:* cindy.lupica@allenlund.com *Subject:* [New post] Josh Shenker: Bringing Sewing Back to School

    Nikki posted: “Josh Shenker, a teacher and lifelong boater and sailor, loves working with his hands and describes himself as a “DIY person.” So when he realized that his middle schools students didn’t have much of a concept of how things were made or that they could cre”

  3. Ruth said:

    What a fantastic post. Thank heavens for teachers like Josh and cootos to your principal for giving it a go. Great story.
    Love Sailrite, machines and their products. Ruth

  4. Janet said:

    All middle school and high school curriculae should include “shop / home ec” classes. We are becoming a nation of “pay someone to do this” adults. I have become the family “one who sews”, and I have done everything from drapes, baby clothes, and alteration/repairs to sewing on Cub Scout patches and Halloween costumes. When a nephew asked me to atttach his son’s Cub Scout patches, I started to give him a hard time about it, in a kidding way, but I am so glad that we may start teaching such basic skills to our kids again. They all know how to text and drive, which they should not do……
    Yay for Josh!!

  5. This is absolutely wonderful!!!! I teach sewing for a 4-H Club and can totally relate to Josh’s experiences with the kids. They are so creative and want to learn, it really is a pleasure to work with them. I have kids of all ages, from 6 to 16, and I think I’ll steal an idea from Josh and get my older students to make patterns for our projects.

    Thanks so much, Josh!

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