After school on Wednesday, students at Willard Middle School were busy showing off their latest invention.
At six-feet tall, five-feet wide and four-feet deep, the outdoor clay oven was perhaps one of the most exciting projects the sixth- and seventh-graders had got their hands—and feet—on in a while.
It took 300 students a total of two months and lots of stomping in clay, sand and water to bring the contraption to life, said Willard garden teacher Matt Tsang.
“It was Sofia’s idea,” said Tsang, pointing at seventh-grade president Sofia Eseudero, who was busy testing the plaster on the oven.
Sofia quickly credits the idea to Mr. Dohrer, her history teacher. “Mr. Dohrer helped me to come up with the idea of a pizza oven. We were wondering what to do with the Wells Fargo grant and an oven seemed like a good investment,” she said. “I think this will be a more permanent addition to the school, something to add to the garden and the nutrition projects.”
Willard is the only school in the district that has a clay oven made by students. “King Middle school has one, but they brought in someone to make it and it’s made of stone,” quipped Michael Madison, another seventh-grader.
“I helped with almost all of it,” he says. “I mashed the clay and the sand and put everything together and then I had the idea of the phoenix on top.”
The phoenix, which the kids will be painting black and red, is the school
Sofia, along with school volunteer Yolanda Huang, studied Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and contacted the author for help.
“I think this teaches kids about historical cooking techniques and also augments sixth-grade earth and science classes as well as the nutrition program,” Huang said. “We already grow oregano and basil in the Willard garden and that provides fresh toppings for the pizzas.”
Ten full-size cheese pizzas—baked by the sixth-graders—were ready for consumption by the end of sixth period.
Sofia and her friends plan to make a strawberry vanilla marble cake in the oven soon. “The possibilities are endless,” she said, petting the school chickens Butterscotch and Aphrodisiac, who lay eggs for the nutrition class. “For something that costs $1,500, I think it’s pretty cool. Most of the stuff came from the garden itself. We hope to invite some of the businesses who chipped in with donations for a slice of pizza soon.”
Located at the garden entrance on Telegraph, the area holding the oven had to be cleared of weeds, dirt and rubble.
“We put in retaining walls first and then we built the foundation with the help of sand bags filled with the dirt we had dug up. Then we stuck all the 150 bags together and put chicken wire and stuccoed it,” said Tsang. “Inside the oven is lots of pieces of broken concrete and rocks.”
Bernhard Masterson—an expert on earth and building from Portland, Ore., came to help the process forward.
“We worked on a cob oven sculpture,” he said. “Cob is a blend of sand, clay, and straw that is typically mixed together using a foot-stomping method, and then applied to the growing form by hand.” After the initial cob platform was finished, and the brick floor of the oven was placed on the base, the bricks were covered with a temporary domed pile of sand.
“We then cut a door out and took out the sand. Right now we are preparing the final layer of pigmented plaster,” said Masterson. “I just loved working with kids. Kids in mud is just something else and when food comes out of something they have created it’s just beautiful.”
Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee
Bernhard Masterson, a clay oven building expert from Portland, Ore., shows WiIlard Middle School students how to insert a pizza paddle into the new outdoor oven built by the students.