Making it in the Bronx: Part One

 Maker Ed is pleased to present the first of a series stories from the founder of MakerKids and past Maker Ed contributor Karen P. Kaun. Have any ideas for stories you’d love to share? Contact me at

October 26, 2012, by Karen P. Kaun,EdD
Maker Kids connects students to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through actively engaging them in their own learning through creation. Introduced to elementary school children in the Bronx, three years ago, we have worked with more than one thousand students and their teachers.  This year, a goal of our program is to identify more parents who can bring their talents to our schools to work side by side with us and our students, their children. Following is the first of a three-part post that illustrates the power of connecting parents to education through making.  It not only uplifts the school-community, but also transforms the lives of both the children and the adults in the process.

Changing It Up, Half Inch by Half Inch

I was leaving school late in the day, opening my car trunk to drop in a box I was carrying, when a voice related to a pair of the unseen eyes that often track your movements in the Bronx called out, “Hello Miss Karen.”  I looked in the direction of the greeting and saw it belonged to one of my students who I will call Ramique.  He was on a jungle gym across the street next to the project housing.  I returned the greeting and, in a few minutes, five boys of various sizes and shapes surrounded me.  I knew that some were rumored to be involved in street crimes, nevertheless, I wasn’t worried.  Ramique, the leader of the pack, and I had been bonding in my class over the school year and getting along quite well because I often told him how impressed I was by what I saw.  Though he could barely write, he clearly had a mechanical knack and I often asked him to help other students who were having trouble with a project. Ramique saw the box of model car parts and motors in my hands and we chatted for a few moments about what I was planning to do with them, then he asked me if I would consider creating a lunchtime boys club for him and his friends.  “Why not,” I thought.  I like working with children that others tend to dismiss in the schools because of their behavior problems and once you win them over, they are usually as wonderful to teach as the next kid. Sometimes you even make a needed impact.  “Bad kids” often act out because they are abused or neglected at home.  A little nurturing can melt the steeliest of hearts and sometimes send children down an entirely, new path.  I called the school principal the next day and she was very enthusiastic about the idea.   I suggested that I reach out to the father of one of my students.  The girl had incredible design and mechanical skills and she was always talking about him.  I knew he was an under-employed carpenter and from what I could tell through my interaction with his daughter, he was talented in many ways.  I asked her to invite him to come and see me and I was pleasantly surprised a few days later when a handsome man with a friendly smile showed up in the office looking for me. It was a double bonus that he was also gifted in drafting and math and, soon I would learn, patient with the boys.   Xavier and I spoke for a few minutes about my idea to build go-karts with the boys.  At first, he was hesitant, because he was worried about working with motors, which wasn’t his area of expertise.  I explained that the go-karts I was thinking about building were simply gravity and kid-powered vehicles, similar to those good old soapbox racers that I remembered from my childhood.  He nodded and smiled.  Building these kinds of cars, matched his skills so I offered him what I thought was a good hourly rate, and by his standards must have been an amazingly hourly rate, as he answered, “I can’t believe this is happening to me” and that was the launch of the boys’ go-kart club.

On the first day of the club I drove Xavier to his home to pick up wood he purchased at Home Depot and taken home in a cab.  On the short drive to his home, he told me that he had been in some trouble when he was a teenager, but was on the straight and narrow now working toward a GED.  We pulled up in front of his small home, which was in a low cost housing community.  Xavier loaded my car with the lumber and we drove it back to the school and grabbed the boys who carried it upstairs.  We quickly acquired two new recruits to the boys’ go-kart club when Xavier’s daughter and another one of my female students showed up in the room and never left, sitting on the side watching everything Xavier did with the boys.  Xavier impressed me with his natural knack for teaching.  He called the boys over to a table where he had a copy of a drawing he made of his design for the karts. He pulled out a pencil and began sketching a ruler with fractions on the drawing.  He explained the importance of measurement to carpentry to the boys and reviewed fractions with them saying that you need to be precise. “You need to work with quarters, halves, eights and sixteenths.  If you decide to learn carpentry and you’re out in the field, the foreman is going to pull you aside and ask you what this is, right here,” he added pointing at a fraction on the drawing of the ruler.  “He will ask you to make a measurement.  Wood costs money.  If you make the wrong cut and you waste it, that’s grounds for firing.”  Xavier has a strong and sure presence, honed on the same Bronx streets that the boys roamed, and they listened intently.  When the fraction lesson was over, he motioned the boys over to thick wooden beams on the floor and had each one sit on it. A beam formed the center chassis of the karts. He told them he needed to measure the length of their legs against the beams to know where they would cut the wood because the boys would be using their feet to steer the front axels that would be attached to the beams.  Because the boys were different heights and weights, they decided that there would be three carts lengths and sizes to accommodate them. He lifted the beams and additional planks, one by one, onto a table and each boy took a turn with a tape measure to mark them.  Then he lifted the first beam onto the table with his miter saw and explained in detail how he would adjust it to make a straight cut.  Before he made the cut, he measured the wood again and told the boys it was important to double-check their measurements. Next, they all donned their safety glasses. When Xavier flicked on the saw for the first time and it screeched to life, the boys’ slapped their hands to their ears.

The dust kicked up around the room and the smell of the burning wood reminded me of days gone by in my father’s wood shop. I chuckled with glee as he made cut after cut, first of the main beams and then, with the boys help, of the other planks. At the end of the first meeting of the Go-Kart Club, the boys helped to store all the cut wood and Xavier’s tools in another room that we locked up tight.  The girls followed Xavier and me back to the room to clean it up.  While we were sweeping, the second asked me “Miss Karen, why do you always take the bad ones?” referring to the boys.  I noticed that Xavier had looked up from his sweeping and was paying close attention to me.  “You know, I don’t really think there are bad children, just bad breaks,” I answered.  I noticed Xavier nod, smile, and go back to his work.







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