As the “Maker Movement” grows in popularity and reach, we’re seeing more and more schools integrating “making” and “building” — a powerful return of project-based learning. But as Chad Sansing argues here, it isn’t simply a matter of adding “programming” or “engineering” to the curriculum. Makerspaces demand a different mindset, one where self-direction, spontaneity, creativity, and exploration are encouraged and actively supported. How do we change the culture of schools to make this possible?
“I can’t do this.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what to do!”
“Have you looked at the instructions?”
“What do they say?”
“‘Fold the paper in half.'”
“Can you do that?”
“Then that sounds like a good way to begin.”
Conversations like these pop-up throughout class now that we’ve built a makerspace in the middle of the room. Craft sticks. Play Dough. Pom-poms. These are not the usual props of a middle school language arts classroom, but they’re the building blocks of a new kind of writers workshop – one that positions writing as a precursor and response to making stuff for variety of purposes and audiences. We’re making connections between problem-solving, design, and composition. We look at each new prompt as an opportunity to “write” our own solutions instead of repeating someone else’s.
A typical day in our writers’ workshop makerspace goes like this:
Gather around our basket.
Unpack the bag of building supplies.
Pass around each object.
Take a look at the prompt.
Make something ins response to that prompt.
Reflect on it.
Use those reflections to write a short RAFT (Role Audience Format Topic) paper.
At the end of the week we self-assess and revise to compose a second draft. Those of us who finish early tackle an extension activity.
For example, early in the workshop we played with pre-assembled scribblebots – small robots made from lightweight materials (like cardboard or berry baskets) outfitted with magic markers for legs. Resting atop each robot sat a battery and a small vibration motor with a positive and negative wire sticking out from it.
Kids worked together to figure out how to start the robots. Once they did, the scribblebots took off across the table. Kids uncapped the markers, stabilized the bots’ legs, and ran the robots across blank sheets of paper.
Once the robots finished their work, kids used their newly drawn masterpieces to answer reflection questions like these:
How does this art robot work?
What does your piece of art look like? What does it remind you of – or how do the dots connect in your mind?
What feelings do you get from your piece of art? What concepts, emotions, ideas, or themes speak to you from the work?
Is the art beautiful? Why or why not?
Is this art? Why or why not?
What is the name of the work of art? What is the robot artist’s full name?
To bridge from reflection to creative writing, kids used their understanding of how the robots worked – and their interpretations of the robots’ art – to write as museum curators creating the labels for paintings to be shown as part of an exhibit on technology-enhanced art. A short mentor text helped them figure out what kinds of information and commentary to include.
Kids who finished early worked to improve the robots and write how-to guides for students interested in building their own versions at home.
Ultimately, the scope of the work took kids through the writing process and invited them to iterate on our robots’ design.
How did we get here? Why are we engaging in this work? What good might come from sharing time between writing and making in the core classroom?
For the past five years, I worked at a small, public, literacy-focused, arts-infused, grass-roots middle school for non-traditional learners located in central Virginia. I spent most of those years teaching in either a home economics classroom or technology lab. I found myself teaching early United States history with an oven and expository writing through Minecraft. I learned so much about negotiating curriculum. My kids found ways to show their learning through in-depth, deeply personal projects like the construction and firing of a Raku kiln.
Then everything changed. I switched divisions. I took a position at a traditional middle school and began the year determined to find my way back to negotiating a maker curriculum with a new, albeit larger, set of kids.
It’s been difficult, but the learning never stops.
I’m not in a kitchen this year – or a lab. I have just about as much space as the next teacher and as many kids per class. Those malfunctioning laptops in your room? They’re in our room, too. I teach three grade levels. I love my colleagues, enjoy my classes, and know the curriculum. I am, so to speak, back in the real world (albeit a gentle one).
What I’ve learned is this: it’s not the stuff that makes a makerspace successful. It’s the mindset, and that mindset has to be shared amongst teachers and students as co-learners.
A makerspace isn’t a place where you do what you’re told. It’s a place where you follow a question to an answer and then unpack it and try to answer all the new questions that arise. It’s a place where you teach and learn with peers; it’s a place where everyone’s your peer.
Of course, a makerspace isn’t built overnight, especially in the middle of an institution that values privilege and authority. Ours is one station out of three. Nevertheless, we can all shelter this work from the system’s bluster. We can make classrooms committed to learning and making in community.
Creating a youth makerspace should be a joyous process full of curiosity, hope, and possibility. There are as many ways to begin as there are things to make, but here are some concrete things we’ve that might also prove useful for you:
Nurture the vibe. Take down those content-area and character education posters. They are very specific and limit what kids think of a classroom and their places in it. Push storage and teacher stuff up against the walls. Make sure everyone has easy access to all the materials, and sort and label them as best you can. Publish the stuff kids make on open wall space and atop shelves and cabinets. Fill the middle of the room with flexible workspaces – get the best tables or large desks you can for kids to gather round and mess up as they build and write.
Balance resources purposefully. Organize the room so that reading, writing, and making supplies complement one another without competing or overshadowing one another. In the same way we might organize traditional materials by interest, unit, or theme, organize books, writing supplies, and building supplies all together by interest, unit, or theme.
Invite adults to make. Find your principals and colleagues on planning. Welcome them into class to participate in a project or lesson. Let the kids teach them what to do. Make your day-to-day work a vehicle for you own inquiry and the kids’ inquiry, as well as for building-level professional development in maker and participatory pedagogies.
Find your network. You might join a local makerspace or keep participating in community building or gardening projects. You might find the #makered tribe on Twitter or subscribe to a few blogs written by tinkerers. Find a local youth maker space or maker faire – or check out the professional development offered by workshops like Constructing Modern Knowledge. Get out there in the open and ask your questions; you’ll find your support in this work in the people who answer. I’d identify the National Writing Project and Webmaker, from the Mozilla Foundation, as two communities absolutely dedicated to mentoring folks who want to help you and your students code, make, and write a better world into being through initiatives like #clmooc and #teachtheweb.
Start small, but dream big. Maybe begin with stations – our writers workshop is one. Find a time and place during each class in which you can let go of some control and see how kids interact with a new, challenging, but not overwhelming, problem. See how they self-organize to work and you’ll see how you might differentiate for the kids ready to go and the kids ready for help in tackling the unfamiliar. Make it your goal to engage all kids with inquiry and work towards that. When you have to scaffold, scaffold towards building kids’ communities and capacities for building, exploring, tinkering, and applying.
Pick any one thing and try it out. Making that first fold in the status quo is a great way to begin.
More questions and next steps:
- This is a key observation: “It’s not the stuff that makes a makerspace successful. It’s the mindset.” How do we shift our focus in schools away from “the technology” and towards “the culture” to leverage more progressive change?
- How do we better support educators who want to pursue initiatives like makerspaces within schools? (It doesn’t require a 3D printer, you know. There’s not a single mention of 3D printing in this story.)
- How do we involve all students in makerspaces, not just those who are already drawn to programming, robots, and Minecraft, for example?
Image credits: Dylan Parker, Chad Sansing