I’m now a little over a month into my new role as the coordinator of our brand-new makerspace in my PS-8th grade school here in Seattle, and I’m honestly loving it every bit as much as I expected!
Over the course of this month, 450 students made prototype boats for their stuffies (PK), built “doodle bots” (K and 1), “hacked” their notebooks with surface-mount LEDs (2), made dioramas powered by Hummingbird Robotics kits (3 and 4), designed and laser cut labels for their new classroom spaces (5), made postcards using the greenscreen of themselves visiting exotic locales (5 French), built casino games for math class (6), and built symbolic representations of their personal core values (8). 7th grade will be building turbine-driven generators next week! And, that’s not even a comprehensive list…
In the process of collaborating with my colleagues to develop and implement these projects with our students, I’ve figured out a few tips to pass along to educators at other schools initiating similar programs.
1. Your planner must be permanently affixed to your person.
In working with all 100 faculty and staff in my school, it was astonishing how quickly my schedule shifted if critical meetings popped up or class plans changed. Earthquake drill? Don’t even ask. Any time I left our makerspace without my planner, I invariably ran into someone I needed to schedule with.
2. Organization time must be specifically scheduled into each day… otherwise it won’t happen. This means sometimes saying “No, the makerspace won’t be available at that time.”
There have been days when there were literally only 30 minutes in the whole school day when there were no classes in our makerspace. This left me rather maniacally rushing between groups, not leaving enough time for preparing the next class’s projects as the previous class left. I want to be able to say yes to every single request to get into the makerspace. AND I want to make sure that all of those visits are maximized in the learning taking place, which requires organization and planning time!
This feels as though it must be obvious: as a classroom teacher, I also constantly had one group of students entering as the previous group left. However, those classes were generally all doing at least similar activities in class. Transitioning between dramatically different activities – and activities requiring major materials preparation! – has been a whole different story.
Which brings me to…
3. Shifting from Preschoolers to 7th graders is actually easier than shifting from 5th graders in math class to the same 5th graders in French class.
There have been dozens of occasions when I’ve had a class of one age level immediately on the heels of a class at a totally different age level. I’ve found that shifting my interactions with the kids isn’t nearly as hard as I expected.
On the other hand, there have been a few occasions when I had a few of the exact same children three periods in a row, but in different classes! At the most extreme example, I had an assembly with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders to launch our littleBits challenge club, then a 5th grade French class working on their greenscreen postcards, then a 5th grade homeroom class working on their classroom labels. That was whiplash-inducing for me and for the students who were in all three groups!
In any of those cases, however, simply acknowledging the shift eased everyone’s disorientation. The 8th graders were forgiving of my lingering gentleness when I told them that kindergartens had just left (as we smoothly transitioned back to our usual goofiness and sarcasm), and the 5th graders and I all took a deep breath and did a quick wiggle dance to transition between projects.
4. A clean, organized space remains a clean, organized space, and a cluttered space gets more, and more cluttered.
Our makerspace wasn’t ready on the first day of school. The construction itself wasn’t done, and all of the organizational structures weren’t fully in place yet. In those first days, no one knew where anything belonged, so materials, tools, and scraps were left haphazardly all around the space.
But as we got more organized and each item had a clear place to live, students and teachers all more naturally put items in their respective places. As a pretty cluttery person in general, this was actually something of a revelation!
5. No hyperbole: You can’t have enough clear plastic bins.
I might be approaching 100 clear plastic Sterilite bins. Every single material is stored and labeled in a bin, as well as many tools that don’t work to hang on our pegboards. I keep all of the extra bins on the side, and regularly pull out a dozen or more bins for a class to keep their in-progress projects until their next visit to our makerspace. Actually, now that I think about it, I think I need to order another dozen or so.
6. You have to abandon your FOMO, and don’t even try to respond to every outside request that comes your way.
Because makerspaces in schools are such an exciting and growing topic, you’ll be inundated with offers, events, requests, and opportunities as soon as the world finds out what you and your school are up to. At the Seattle Mini Maker Faire, I was approached by a few dozen vendors who wanted me to buy their product or hire their consultancy or engage their afterschool program for our makerspace. I get a few emails a week from companies who want us to conduct a pilot program for their product, and another few LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook requests. I’m often brought back to the article I wrote over a year ago about relationship fatigue as a teacher approached by EdTech companies, and it’s even more true in my current position.
Although one of my kryptonites is too many exciting, shiny opportunities, I’m lucky that perhaps my biggest super power is sifting quickly through information to find what’s most relevant and useful to me. I highly recommend cultivating that super power!
7. You have to be strict about organization from minute-one, but more importantly you have to be strict about prototyping-mindset!
In the very first week of classes visiting our makerspace, I began to notice students who could confidently tell me their ideas during initial discussions and point out the components of model projects, but declared helplessness as soon as they were sent off to work. At first, I really didn’t know what to do… The kids clearly knew what to do – they had just told me! But they were so clearly anxious about something… not doing it “right,” getting stuck, something. Some of them would hold some materials in their hands, sort of flap their hands around to look like they were “trying,” then hold the materials out for me to fix when nothing happened.
In pretty short order, the first rule of our makerspace arose: You have to try. And when it doesn’t work, just try again.
The second rule of our makerspace became: “Help” doesn’t mean “do it for you.” For both adults and peers, you can “help” by giving advice or demonstrating with your own materials, but you cannot do something for the person asking for help. (This applies to digital work, too… It’s sometimes incredible frustrating to wait for a child to find the thing on the screen you just told them to click, but they slowly get better at independently visually scanning their digital work environment.)
Now, most of our kids – even the preschoolers – talk about their “prototypes” and are willing to try a few times before going to an adult. And many of them even actually ask for advice rather than handing the materials over.
8. Students are capable of almost infinitely more than we initially expect of them – or they of themselves.
My students’ mindsets are shifting towards always trying a new activity, thinking in “prototype” terms, being prepared to make changes to ideas, and expecting “help” in the form of advice rather than taking over. As that happens, I’m seeing kids actually making more progress faster when given less explicit instructions.
For example, as I’ve mentioned, our 5th graders are designing and laser cutting labels for their new classroom spaces – spaces that just finished construction this summer.
For two of the classes, the classes decided to all follow a single template. In those cases, we designed the template together, I finalized it in Adobe Illustrator, and each 5th grader downloaded the template to modify for their own chosen labels. The students navigated downloading the template with a bit of struggle, and asked for quite a bit of handholding in figuring out how to change the text in the template and make their other personalizations… In a full class period, only a few labels were completed.
For the third class, the 5th graders decided that they wanted a broader variety in their labels, so a template just wasn’t really possible… So when their class came to the makerspace to use the computers, their task was more open-ended. So I led them through opening Illustrator, in creating a new file sized for their label designs, and then just told them generally about a few of the tools in Illustrator: shapes, lines, curves, and the selection tool for making changes. Amazingly, that class actually finished more labels than the other classes who had more explicit instructions and templates. One student even completed a quite intricate label involving significant use of the curve tool, and it was her first day on any Adobe product.
This is a trend I’ve seen more and more as the month has gone on: laser cutting design, simple circuitry, simple robotics, the cute PKers and their boats… The kids can do so much more – and independently – than their classroom teachers and I expect.
These can perhaps all be summed up as:
Keep the schedule and space super-ultra-mega organized, and actively and specifically push kids towards a prototyping/”growth mindset” ways of thinking.
The kids will blow you away.
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