Coasting Through Middle School

“Why do I have to learn this stuff? I’ll never use it in real life.” – Every middle school student ever

Skateboard-wielding Southwest Middle School teacher Paul Peterson has found a way to engage students in their education using just four wheels and a board. Peterson, who teaches 6th through 8th-grade art has been teaching for 22 years, with twenty of those years spent at Southwest.

In 2013, the Smithsonian hosted the inaugural Innoskate festival. The festival celebrated skateboarding, skate culture and its influence on American and world culture. The next year, Innoskate came to Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland and the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. Peterson said, “I’ve been skateboarding all my life and I’ve built skateboards since I was in high school. But I never could find a cost-effective way to incorporate that into my lessons.” Innoskate rolling into Lakeland was the catalyst for Peterson to do just that. The 2014 festival is where the teacher got connected with Paul Schmitt. Schmitt owns one of the largest skateboard manufacturers in North America, PS Stix, and developed the Create A Skate program where schools can order skateboards for their classes to paint. According to, “Professor Schmitt’s unique program is dedicated to helping young people create a hand-made version of one of his professional quality skateboard decks.”

The first year, Peterson’s students completed over 50 boards through and got the opportunity to display them at Innoskate and meet Schmitt as well as skateboarding legend, Rodney Mullen.


The response to the program was so great that the art teacher wanted to participate in Create A Skate again. He realized his students were interested in different boards and riding styles. This diversity made buying different decks, trucks, and wheels cost-prohibitive on a public school budget. “We started working on ways that we could develop our own press, our own molds,” said Peterson.

Developing his method of making boards, Peterson set up a program – Grade 8 Skate. To be a part of the initiative, students have to earn $25 themselves, not from their parents. Earning the money to participate gives the students a sense of responsibility and ownership over their board explained the teacher.

Each student in Grade 8 Skate is involved in designing and making their own unique board. If they’ve never skated before, he’ll suggest what style of board might suit them. “There’s a lot of different styles of riding so I try to focus on what they’re interested in and make something very specifically designed to their height, weight, riding style, [and] experience,” said the art teacher.

Peterson and his students make boards using two, 12-ton hydraulic presses. They’ve even created an alternative to traditional grip tape using polyurethane and coarse aggregate.  The innovation doesn’t stop there. Peterson has been known to give his class a challenge from time to time. A few years ago, after watching a YouTube video of Paul Schmitt creating a cardboard skateboard for Tony Hawk to ride, Peterson issued the same challenge to his students. He tasked them with creating a cardboard skateboard that he, a fully grown adult, could ride. They made several prototypes and one that he even rode for two months before it had flexed too much to continue riding.

Painting the board is a highlight for many in the program. Students spend about a week sketching out the imagery for their board. Peterson uses documentaries like Stuntwood: The Birth, Life, and Death of a Skateboard, and excerpts from Dogtown and Z-Boys, and Bones Brigade: An Autobiography to give students skate culture inspiration. As long as it is school appropriate and creative, Peterson allows the students to be relatively free with their design.

Around Peterson’s classroom is a display of boards in varying states of completion. Some are rough, not yet finished. Others have been painted with such detail that they are works of art – each crafted by the hands of talented middle school students.


Peterson uses skateboards as a tool to make the lessons students are learning in middle school, relevant and applicable to their lives. In doing so, he incorporates a range of subjects. “Originally it started out with Create A Skate as a way to get kids interested in art,” he said. He realized that giving this opportunity to create a skateboard captured students’ attention in a way he hadn’t been able to before. With a captive audience, Peterson relates skateboarding to other areas of their education.

“It’s about building the student holistically, instead of being so narrowly focused on my subject matter,” he said. Peterson added, “I’m not expecting them to be the next Picasso or Da Vinci, but I am expecting that they put some effort into their learning and take ownership of their learning.”  Science and engineering are incorporated into making boards as Peterson teaches lessons on the basic principles involved in designing a board from symmetry to the physics behind turnability. “They start learning about the physics of inertia, gravity, centrifugal force with the turnability of the skateboards. They learn math – you’d be amazed how many kids have a difficult time just measuring things out with a ruler, but they have to measure things out because if they don’t and we cut it out wrong, that’s their board,” said Peterson. “I realized it was a way to engage a lot of other subjects.”

“It took me 15 years of teaching here before I even got to this point where I’m this excited about it and I’m continuing to push it to grow,” he said. His enthusiasm and teaching style have been impacted tremendously by Grade 8 Skate. “I’m having more success now than when I started this program.”

One student quite impacted by Peterson’s Grade 8 Skate program is 16-year-old high school junior, Taylor Haynes. Haynes didn’t go to Southwest Middle School but met Peterson through the Polk Museum of Art’s summer camp when she was 10. “He kind of became my mentor,” she said. She completed her first board at age 11 and has done one every year since. “I never realized how complicated it was. You would think a piece of board and some wheels wouldn’t be that interesting but the aerodynamics and the designs that go into it are very interesting,” she said.

She praised Mr. Peterson for introducing her to skateboards (now one of her favorite things) and for propelling her forward in her art career. “He has opened my eyes to how accomplished people can do art. You always hear about starving artists and that kind of stereotype. He’s helped me realize that’s not the case,” she said. “He’s really inspired me to keep working and keep developing skill and see where it goes for college.”

Haynes has even gone on to compete in a juried art competition at Art Crawl when she was in 7th grade. “It was when I realized how I could take this somewhere with me. Ever since then I’ve been doing shows and selling my artwork,” she said. After finishing high school, Haynes would like to attend art school at Ringling, SCAD, or Rhode Island School of Design. She is also interested in the medical field and says med school is also an option for her.


Mr. Peterson and his students set up a tent to rep Grade 8 Skate at the first Punk Rock Flea in March. Last school year, the program was awarded a STEM grant from AT&T and The Polk Education Foundation which helped finance the boards. “One of the things that we wanted to accomplish with the STEM grant was to develop a sustainable program, rather than having to write grants every year or ask for money,” Peterson said.

Selling their boards at Punk Rock Flea allowed Peterson to incorporate business lessons in as well – something the STEM grant placed an importance on along with expanding on what the students were already learning in regards to STEM subjects. They sold enough skateboards at the PRF to cover their cost and have leftover inventory to bring to the September market along with what they build between now and then. They will also be selling handmade balance boards (which were a hit at the last market), and an assortment of decks and fully assembled skateboards. The funds made from selling the boards will go back into Grade 8 Skate and the Southwest Middle School art program.


“One of our goals this year aside from making artist edition boards, we partnered up with Boards for Bros and Getaboard which are charitable organizations out of Tampa and Orlando that are interested in getting skateboards in the hands of disadvantaged kids,” said Peterson. “Skateboarding teaches you a tenacity that you may not learn other ways.” He is also working with skateboarding organizations GRO (Girls Riding Organization) focused on getting girls into action sports, and the Good Push Skateboarding Alliance, an initiative by Skateistan supporting social skateboarding projects across the globe.

The social aspect of skateboarding is almost as important as the other lessons he teaches. With bigotry, homophobia, racism and other social injustices tearing people down, Peterson hopes skateboarding can build them up and be an outlet, a safe place, a way to connect.  Peterson wants children of every skin color, gender, learning difference, or economic status to find a community in skateboarding. “If I can use skateboarding as kind of a hook to build a community, then maybe these kids won’t be picked on so much or laughed at or maybe they’ll feel a little more free to express themselves without so much of the judgment. Maybe ultimately these kids will build lifelong friendships, maybe they’ll start tutoring each other and helping each other out,” said Peterson.

No matter what they get out of it, be it a relevant use for their school lessons, a community, or a sense of pride in a board they’ve created – thanks to Mr. Peterson and Grade 8 Skate, students at Southwest Middle School are being given a push in the right direction.


Grade 8 Skate

IG @grade8skateboards

Coasting Through Middle School

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