From Craftsman to Teacher. Brett Carpenter is a McCall native, graduating from McCall High School in 1983. After graduation, he dove right into a career in construction, apprenticing with Larry Lord Construction as a…carpenter. Turns out this choice shouldn’t surprise him or anyone else. In addition to inheriting an “occupational surname” from ancestors who were likely carpenters, some researchers suggest that Brett was more likely to become a carpenter because of his surname. Brett Pelham (yes, another Brett), a psychology professor at Montgomery College in Maryland, dug deep into US Census records from 1880 and 1940. He and research partners found that “men were 15.5% more likely to work in occupations that bore their surname than they should have been based on chance.” White men are about 30% more likely to work in an occupation matching their surname. So Bret Carpenter became a carpenter.
Brett continued working for Larry Lord for some twenty years. “I built a lot of houses,” says Brett, smiling. He also worked for South Fork Design making high-end custom furniture. It was at this job that he lost most of two fingers on his left hand some 14 years ago. “A bad safety habit,” Brett explains, chuckling as he shows me his hand, adding that he makes sure his students don’t develop similar bad safety habits. I imagine they take him seriously.
When the 2008 recession hit, South Fork Design closed and that’s when Brett took a position with the Meadows Valley School District as maintenance director. Married with two kids who were getting older, having been involved with Boy Scouts and teaching youth at McCall Baptist Church for 22 years, Brett always enjoyed working with kids and being around them at the school was a plus. Wanting to share his construction knowledge with students, Brett took it a step further and obtained his Occupational Specialist certification online, utilizing a program that allows those with real-life experience to be certified to teach in Idaho schools. “It’s a pretty good fit,” Brett says, explaining why he loves his current job as teacher. The 2018-19 school year is his seventh teaching shop and residential construction. It took Brett a minute to remember how many years he has taught; he counted the years by scanning photos of his former students on the wall in his classroom and noting the year they graduated.
Making Learning Fun. Brett likes to keep things relevant and interesting for each year’s group of students by having unique and practical projects for them to complete. For example, he and his students built the Pump House on the east side of the school grounds; it not only houses the school’s water pump, but serves as a concession stand for games played on the school field. They’ve built a large chicken coop. Actually, that started as a tool/equipment shed, but Tanna Kirby thought it would make a great chicken coop so she funded the materials to make some changes. It now houses some lucky chickens. Another shed built by the students was sold to the New Meadows Community Garden Club. The Kirby’s, pleased with their chicken coop, have now commissioned a playhouse, a project for this year’s class. Last year, students built a sign for the New Meadows Community Center. In past years, they’ve built planters and picnic tables that can be found around the town of New Meadows. “I try to shoot for a project that benefits the community,” says Brett.
Brett creates and sustains interest in his shop and residential construction programs by engaging middle school students in classes that allow them to create smaller projects, hoping they’ll participate in classes when they’re in high school. For example, one middle school student is making a ukulele. A high school starter project this year was making a Zen garden box, basically a square, flat-bottomed container with low sides later filled with Salmon River sand. A hand-made rake is used to groom the sand in pleasing, soothing patterns. “Making the box teaches them miter joints,” says Brett. (A miter joint – “mitre” in Britain – is the joining of two members at 45-degree angles to form a 90-degree corner, used for doors, window making, picture frames, cabinets and pattern making. The angles are cut by hand with the help of a power miter saw.) “I thought the kids would scoff it, but they loved it,” says Brett.
After learning basic shop safety and making their Zen garden boxes, the students get to choose a project. “I try to let them choose so they’ll care enough to finish it,” explains Brett. They might make a bird house, or a go cart (a two-student project this year, test driven in the gym), or a table made from recycled materials in a size to fit in the “tiny house” that is this year’s big project. Brett endeavors to teach them all of the required steps along the way to a completed project. “I want them to plan, then dream/think, then design/create. I want them thinking three-dimensionally, creating renderings or shop drawings to encourage thinking that way,” he says, explaining that the kids draw by hand and use computer modeling. “I also want to teach them how to accomplish something.” Brett adds that if they dream extravagantly, they have to collect the necessary materials to make the dream a reality. “I’ll help them as much as possible,” he says. Since Brett’s teaching certification is limited to residential construction, that’s what he focuses on, but the skills are transferrable. “These kids might not become carpenters,” he says, “but the skills they learn can be used in architecture, working with metals, basic home repairs like setting a window or doing siding. They’ll be better able to take care of themselves.”
Brett’s program has seen steady growth in terms of student interest over the past few years. That undoubtedly has much to do with his easy-going and nurturing demeanor. He sincerely wants his students to succeed while also learning and enjoying themselves. This school year, he’s teaching 19 high school students and 17 middle schoolers.
The Big Project: A Tiny House. A group of fifteen eighth graders, spurred on by teacher Devon Barker-Hicks, have spearheaded a unique community project this school year: building a tiny house on wheels that when completed will be sold at auction with net proceeds slated to benefit the playground in the City of New Meadows downtown park. High school students in Brett’s program are working on building the tiny house, and all of the students – high school and middle school – are learning what goes into such a project: seeking donations of materials, meeting with the city planning and zoning committee, learning about regulations regarding tiny houses and mobile homes including size limitations, as well as the practical steps to actually build the tiny house. Brett donated a trailer which came from a mobile home on a piece of land he and his wife purchased. “It has three axels so it’s strong,” Brett says. Eric Miller of Miller Metal Art of Riggins did the necessary welding to get the trailer to the right size. “We cut it so it could fit a tiny house; it still has all three axels so it balances by itself,” says Brett. The trailer arrived in New Meadows in September, just in time for the new school year.
The greater community has jumped on board to support the students in their tiny house project by making all sorts of donations. The target date for completion is May 2019. “Lots of donations are coming together,” says Brett. “It’s designed around donations. For example, the windows donated tell us how to frame to fit those windows. Electrical and plumbing work has been donated; we’re right in the middle of that now.” A donated toilet sits outside the door to Brett’s shop class at the high school; the kids tease him about that. Donations are on track to allow the project to be completed on time, although like any good builder, Brett hesitates to make a promise of a particular date.
Once completed, the tiny house will qualify as a homemade recreational vehicle, legal to be towed on roads. The kids – and Brett – have done the research to make sure it meets state standards and licensing requirements, all part of the learning experience. There are housing codes to meet – windows; ingress and egress; electrical. They put lots of thought into making sure the tiny house can easily be hooked up to a septic and water system. “We already have lots of interest from potential buyers,” says Brett. “Some are interested in it as a vacation house, others to provide overflow housing on their property for guests.”
Wish List. Brett and the Meadows Valley School District want to expand Career Technical Education – CTE – in New Meadows, offering students instruction that sets them up for real jobs once they graduate. Brett builds enthusiasm for such a program through middle school exposure to shop classes, something McCall-Donnelly and other districts don’t currently do. “Working in shop creates interest,” says Brett. “Kids make chess boards out of walnut and maple and they’re proud of the finished product.” Brett has dreams of a future automotive class, teaching his students real life skills for working on and maintaining vehicles, whether commercially or their own vehicles. Creating such a program would require a generous sponsor or sponsors to fund it, providing tools and vehicles to work on, paying for the necessary materials. Such a program could work on the same model as the school’s current construction projects that are funded by donors – the chicken coop and playhouse, and more recently, some large wood snowflakes made for Brundage in exchange for a donation to the shop program. “We’re always developing partnerships so we can fund larger projects,” says Brett.
Looking Toward the Future. “My goal is to someday have the students build an actual house, a multi-year project,” says Brett. “As our program grows, I know we can do it. We’d need to find investors, get some land donated. I see that as a mission, especially with affordable housing in short supply. A community needs affordable housing, and in the future, it would be great to work on that. If someone donated some land, and we had money in the bank from selling tiny houses we’ve built – maybe one per year – or if an investor….” Brett smiles, knowing it’s a tall order and a big wish. But in Brett’s world, dreams become reality. Don’t sell this dream short.
To watch progress on the tiny house project, check the Meadows Valley Schools Facebook page.
(Cover photo: Textbooks for carpentry and residential construction classes stacked on Brett Carpenter’s classroom desk. Photo: McCall Digest.)