A Maker Makeover for Public Education

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John Dewey is alive and well on the southern shore of Lake Erie. You can hear his influence loud and clear in a handful of inspired teachers ready to make change at Lakewood High School in west Cleveland. They won a Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) grant and intend to open a Maker Space in the next year or two that will eventually educate 400 high school students.
“The job of teaching has changed, and we need to look at training educators for a different job,” described Sean Wheeler. “It’s about instigating, describing, and witnessing.”
As he often describes in his blog, Teaching Humans, students in MakerSpace will learn by doing. The first day of school may involve the challenge of building a chair. While the focus will be on learning by doing, it’s really the “questions spurred and connections made” that are often the value of a project.
“This won’t be a hippy dippy school,” said Wheeler, “This is about becoming better at a different job.” That job is asking students to “produce authentic work for real audiences.” He explains, “Students won’t write about persuasion, they will persuade.” Science teacher Ken Kozar said, “Instead of studying HIV/AIDS, they will write a play to address the impact of the disease.”
“The key is using Common Core to describe good learning but not prescribe learning,” said Wheeler, “We plan to focus on the verbs of the Common Core.”
Kozar described the team’s desire to “let the students live the experience of the content standards.” For example, “Student in biology may build a filtration system–addressing specific needs of the community.” He thinks “Almost all the biology and chemistry standards could be taught with connections to the Cleveland Clinic.”
Teacher Julie Rea explains that the team hopes to avoid being trapped by courses and credits but realizes they will need to track student development and translate that into credits.
Some influences and motivations come from being parents in the district. Sean’s wife Karen, a math teacher, gets animated about the project-based program that her daughter enjoys and wants to see that kind of high engagement learning all the way through high school for her daughter and other young people in Lakewood.
“We see that most education is at a loss–we just want to make things better for kids,” said Sean, “We want to connect kids to mentors and content; we want to give kids agency.”
Make or Break?
MakerSpace team members are “die hard advocates of public education” and are completely immersed in a revolution from within.
The MakerSpace ideas started flowing about four years ago when six 10th grade teachers were awarded an ARRA grant to create an integrated project-based block for 100 students. However, in the spring of 2013 their work was shut down due to the logistical challenges.
Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bright is supportive of the new effort but realistic about the challenges of the school within a school model. He acknowledges that other teachers have real concerns about the proposed model and may not have intentions of joining the team. The good news is that Lakewood High School will be rebuilt in the next three years, creating the opportunity for dedicated and appropriate MakerSpace.
Kevin also has to figure out the budget. He doesn’t think MakeSpace will have its own budget code, it will be a program of Lakewood High School. Ken and Sean are currently Digital Literacy teachers but will need to return to being a science teacher and English teacher. There are details–lots of them–to figure out.
Learning Curve.
In addition to budget realities, the team is on a learning journey about new school development, blended learning strategies, and all things maker. They learn from and with Digital Harbor Foundationin Baltimore and competency-based STEM school leader Shawn Cornally in Iowa.
The team has a “huge commitment to open source” and envisions a “new open source model of public education.” They have made many decisions about instructional units and systems.
The team attended the NGLC award recipients reception in San Francisco where they heard about some strategies they liked and some they didn’t. About some of our favorite schools, Wheeler said, “It horrified us to think of kids sitting in front of computer to prep for a project.” MakeSpace will use projects to create reasons to learn.
University of Akron professor Sharon Kruse is helping the team think about assessment and skill transfer. She is also giving thought to teacher preparation and is first to chime in on the subject of scale. Kruse doesn’t think “franchise replication” efforts work very well but sees potential for a big maker professional learning community (more on PLCs here).

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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