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Turning Trash Into Teaching

Many teachers spend their summers preparing for class by attending seminars, plotting lesson plans, and incorporating technology into coursework. Yet one instructor in Sioux Falls goes dumpster diving. Meet a longtime woods teacher who is not afraid to plunge into his work.

Bob Darkow’s classroom is so typical it’s borderline boring. He has scrawled the classes he teaches in black marker on a white board attached to a beige cinderblock wall. Dark blue plastic chairs rest under school desks grouped in pods of four. A shiny, wooden rectangular box sits on one surface.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

"In order to make that box, we have to use three machines: the table saw, the radial arm saw, and the planer," Darkow says.

Darkow takes a straightforward discussion about woodwork and quickly veers off into less traditional territory.

"During the summer, I go out and jump in dumpsters and save some hardwood that’s being thrown away in small quantities," Darkow says. "I actually got thrown out of a dumpster."

Darkow says he’s been mistaken for homeless as he rummages through wood scraps outside of a cabinetry business. He says the owners don’t want him diving into their dumpsters. Darkow questions whether it’s ageism; the man is 69. Still he finds his way back to the garbage.

He says he can't stay away because the wood is in the bins. At least it was. Now it’s in a storage closet in Lincoln High School’s woodshop. Darkow points to shelves of soft beige boards.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Teacher Bob Darkow rescues wood scraps from dumpsters.

"This is the wood that they’re throwing out in small pieces, but this is the pieces that I salvage," Darkow says. "And then the kids can come in and pick ’em out and build stuff out of good hardwood – expensive hardwood – and if they screw it up, so what? It was in the dumpster to start with. So it’s kind of a no harm, no foul."

This is the way Darkow sees it: students need to identify different woods, learn their characteristics, feel the varieties with their bare hands. And they can’t do that if they can’t afford the materials.

"If I have to charge the kids for the wood, they won’t take the class because they can’t afford it," Darkow says. "If I can supply them with free stuff and they can learn skills, maybe they can go out and get a job and now they’re not poor anymore. They’re working on their own."

So he climbs into the trash. It’s part of a survivor mentality.

"Everybody, if you think about the [television show] Survivor, I would be great there. I can build the stuff. I can run the plumbing," Darkow says. "Oh, yeah. I could kick serious butt there, and I don’t have to look pretty to do it – because I have the skills. If the bomb is dropped, the electricity goes out, the water stops flowing, I will survive."

Years ago we would grind down files and make hunting knives. We would bring in the guns and redo the stocks. You can't do that anymore. - Teacher Bob Darkow

Darkow says he wants his students equipped with those life skills. He plans projects with the intent of inspiring students in his craft. These days Darkow shows them how to make smartphone stands and paper towel holders.

"Years ago, in the fall, we would grind down files and make hunting knives. We would bring in the guns and redo the stocks – refinish ’em, re-blue the barrels," Darkow says. "The kids liked to hunt and fish, and so we would bring stuff in, and they would repair it, fix it, whatever, and you can’t do that anymore."

Darkow can teach students skills that directly translate into lucrative careers. He boasts about the options teenagers have to learn various welding techniques.

"This is wire-feed. You pull the trigger; the little wire comes out. It also uses gas," Darkow says. "This is what they use in manufacturing. In here is a spool of wire that’s a quarter of a mile long."

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Sioux Falls Lincoln High School

Darkow acknowledges that science and technology are booming opportunities, but he notes that someone needs to provide and maintain the infrastructure for the technologies of 21st century life.

Darkow seems most content in the woodshop, and he’s prepped for the first day of class. He has varnished the floors and workbenches, and the pungent smell lingers in the air.

He says he’s known this is his calling since the seventh grade. After high school, vo-tech, and Vietnam, Darkow finally found his way into the classroom. He says he didn’t have much of a choice: his grandfather was a carpenter and his dad was a plumber.

"Working with my hands is what I do. Fixing things is what I do," Darkow says. "What do you do in the shop? You get to be in there and work with all this great equipment, and you get to fix things. You get to build things. You get that sense of accomplishment. What more is there?"

Darkow has to answer his own question. This is his final year helping students learn to grout tile and lay good weld beads. He has ideas about life after 42 years of high school, and those may – or may not – keep him out of the dumpster.

Listen to an extended interview with longtime woods teacher Bob Darkow.


Kealey Bultena grew up in South Dakota, where her grandparents took advantage of the state’s agriculture at nap time, tricking her into car rides to “go see cows.” Rarely did she stay awake long enough to see the livestock, but now she writes stories about the animals – and the legislature and education and much more. Kealey worked in television for four years while attending the University of South Dakota. She started interning with South Dakota Public Broadcasting in September 2010 and accepted a position with television in 2011. Now Kealey is the radio news producer stationed in Sioux Falls. As a multi-media journalist, Kealey prides herself on the diversity of the stories she tells and the impact her work has on people across the state. Kealey is always searching for new ideas. Let her know of a great story! Find her on Facebook and twitter (@KealeySDPB).