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If I had a hammer ...

Westwood students learn construction through building

January 2, 2011
By JOHANNA BOYLE Journal Ishpeming Bureau

ISHPEMING - If you're in an English class, you write. In chemistry and physics, you do experiments. Music students practice. It's all hands-on experience to help students learn more about whatever subject they happen to be taking.

That's no less critical for students in the construction trades class at Westwood High School.

Each year, the students learn the basics of building, not just in class, but in a larger building project in the community.

Article Photos

Westwood junior Nick Rintamaki works with a saw while his classmates begin constructing walls for a garage they are building in Ishpeming Township. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)

"Usually what I do is look for someone close to the school who needs a garage or shed built," said teacher John Jessen.

Recently the class began this year's project, a 24-foot by 32-foot garage for Paul and Robyn Altobello.

"We try to do it every fall," Jessen said.

A late start this year, however, is giving the class a different sort of experience - working in the snow.

"They get the real hands-on work," Jessen said. "They're out here in the snow and wind. They get a good taste of whether they want to (go into construction)."

Working an hour and a half a day, the students work together to build the structure.

"We get a plan from the homeowner and we build the garage," Jessen said. "If we had all day, it would take about a week.

For many of the 18 students enrolled in the class this year, building the Altobello's garage is their first experience doing construction.

"We're putting up the walls right now," said junior Nick Rintamaki, 17, gesturing back to the group of students dressed in coats and coveralls to protect against the cold. "It's totally different."

Taking direction from Jessen, the students worked to build up from the pre-laid foundation to the roof.

"He'll give us tasks we have to do," said senior Erik Honkala, 18.

For Rintamaki working on the project has somewhat led him to consider career options.

"I wanted to be a carpenter since I was in second grade," he said, adding he was now also considering criminal justice as an option.

Besides giving the students hands-on experience, the project also helps area homeowners complete projects.

"I was talking to the principal and he said they were looking for a project," said homeowner Paul Altobello. "I supply the materials and they do all the work.

"They really do a good job."

Altobello said he remembered friends participating in the Westwood program in the 1980s, when participants were tasked with constructing an entire house.

For this semester's project, however, the group will work to frame the garage first and then complete it when the weather warms up again.

"We'll keep chugging along until we get the whole thing framed," Jessen said.

Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her e-mail address is



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