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It was a weekday afternoon, and Ms. Monroe’s class was getting ready to embark on their next project – folding paper squares into the shapes of various animals. A chart tacked to the wall clearly described each of the project options, with pictures and directions broken down into easy steps.
“So class,” Ms. Monroe was asking, “If you don’t know how to fold a particular shape, what can you do?”
“Ask a friend!” the class answered in unison. The alternative, of course (as Ms. Monroe had also mentioned) would be to look at the folded shapes already on the wall, and to practice-re-folding the shapes posted there along the pre-folded lines.
Agency – a core value in the design of Lodestar – is what students will build as they participate in more learner-driven activities throughout our program. Ms. Monroe is asking them to figure things out for themselves instead of asking the teacher for help every time they had trouble understanding the directions or encountered an especially tricky corner.
At Lodestar, we think about agency as having the ability, motivation, and sensitivity (to what’s possible) to shape one’s world. This is in line with the Agency By Design principles of Project Zero at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Indeed, these were some of the lessons the students were learning through paper folding.
Specifically, part of the idea of the project was for students to gain experience in following visualizations of the steps. More important, however, was the fact that students were being exposed to the fact that projects can be broken down into manageable pieces, that the order in which these steps are completed matters, and that they can rely on each other for help just as much as they can rely on their teacher.
Thus, students were being asked to become leaders, offering to help others with steps they themselves had already completed. Similarly, they were being asked to recognize when they needed help, and to either find a friend or rely on written directions to find it.
Of course, (especially since these were younger students), the activity also had a high degree of scaffolding. For example, students who were having trouble folding the more complex shapes were invited to work at a “paper folding table,” where they concentrated on developing skills such such as creating smart creases and sharp corners. Ultimately, they would use these same skills in creating complete works of art.
Students taking charge of their own learning also had additional benefits. For example, during the time in which some students were working more independently on paper folding, other students were meeting with Ms. Monroe to work on journal projects.
Thus, this situation in which students were rising to the challenge of, to a certain extent, taking charge of their own learning ultimately resulted in an increased number of learning opportunities for all students.
“And you know, sometimes we make a mess when we make art, and that is okay!” Mr. Guzmán told the crowd of eager second-graders gathered before him.
Soon the students were working busily at their tables, crayons scratching away against paper cutout squares. The students were working on creating a symbol of community. More specifically, they were choosing one of the core values of Lodestar (social justice, love, agency, community, or integrity) and creating a visual drawing of it using crayons and paper.
The next few minutes involved the sounds of students whispering as they worked, and the soft scratching of crayons against paper as the students added layer after layer of crayon wax onto their project squares.
Some students drew hearts to symbolize love and caring for one another, while others drew flowers, and still others drew abstract patterns that, in their view, symbolized one or another of the values they were illustrating. One important goal at this stage was to completely cover the paper square before them in crayon wax.
The next step of the project, however, took some students by surprise. Suddenly, Mr. Guzmán asked them to crumple up the drawings they had worked so hard to create!
Of course, this was being done with a purpose: only by crumpling up the wax drawings could they create indentations and spaces between wax layers, which would allow ink to settle into certain areas (but not others) of the paper squares.
At this point, however, students were only aware of the fact that the drawings they had worked so hard on were now looking something like this:
Just as the students were starting to look really upset , the newly-crumpled drawings were exposed to another (seeming) insult: a thick coat of dark-blue ink was applied to the outside surface of each drawing. Mr. Guzmán showed the first student in how to do this.
Afterwards, students performed this work in pairs:
The next part of the project was the only one not led by students. This stage involved washing the dark blue ink off of projects under running water, with the idea that the ink would stick to the paper, but not to the wax.
However, holding the paper squares under running water made the project squares extremely fragile. As a result, Mr. Guzmán actually completed this particular project stage for the students. Carefully, he washed each ink-and-wax-covered square under running water, making sure to support the wet paper squares and prevent the pressure of running water from ripping a hole in any of the projects.
Students watched this stage of the process with great interest.
Finally, the finished project pieces were set out to dry, and the students began the seemingly extremely long wait until their projects were dry.
Thus, the students learned that sometimes destruction and messiness (i.e., crumpling up a crayon drawing they had worked hard on) can lead to exciting, brand-new creations coming to life.
Part of the hope we have for these students is that this is a lesson students will carry with them as they proceed through other classes at Lodestar and beyond, and continue crafting creations that require several drafts before they are complete (i.e., computer science programs where additional features are being added to an original program, essay drafts, etc).
In a sense, we see this same period of “creative destruction” within the entire maker movement in education. While the maker movement is turning some long-held educational norms upside down, the goal is certainly not the destruction of current educational thinking. Rather, the idea is that by doing some things differently, we will be able to make space for something even more beautiful (in this case, an education in which students exercise agency to take a lead in their own learning, and eventually, in changing the world around them).
These ideas were put into practice in a very concrete way during the students’ work on this project, where the students were asked to make some drastic changes to a piece of art they had been working hard on. While the students initially worried that they were being asked to destroy their own creations, they ultimately saw that the changes they had made resulted in more authentic, interesting, and beautiful works of art.
On a sunny afternoon, Mr. Guzmán’s second-grade class was buzzing with the sound of second graders turning the pages of books and whispering words aloud. All along the wall were drawings of cats, people, and other creatures from the children’s book Stone Soup.
The kids were connecting the characters and story with the idea of community in their lives. They were showing their thinking visually, by re-creating the characters from the story as puppets put together from paper bags and colored paper.
The goal of the project was for the kids to show their membership in their community by using the puppets to put on a play for others at Lodestar.
The results of the puppet-production project were quite amazing.
A large puppet with a smile the size of a watermelon slice now greets visitors to the classroom, as does a cat puppet with purple legs. There is even a puppet of a woman with a complex hairstyle, a necklace of marker-drawn beads, and a very slight smile
In one way or another, each puppet is similar to the student that made it. Individually, these paper dolls may seem to be nothing more than cutouts. However, when they are put together, a rich story of the diversity to be found in the local community emerges. Through their work on this project, the second-graders had the opportunity to become more comfortable with the initially-abstract idea of what a community is, and of their role in one. As a result, students will feel more comfortable at Lodestar (which they will come to see as an extension of their home community). Additionally, living our community-based norms will feel more natural for them.
We recently had our annual King of the Hill competition with our 12th grade Physics students!
Each year our Physics students build mousetrap cars as they begin to study forces and motion. The first round of cars don’t work very well; the students don’t really know yet what it takes to make a durable and fast car. Once they’ve finished building and testing the first round, our teacher asks them how they can make their cars better. The students come up with ideas, and figure out what concepts they will need to learn more about in order to improve their cars. More
Projects using toys are immediately engaging for students, and can provide surprising learning opportunities. Our first grade class had a whole unit on toys; they took apart toy cars to learn about how they worked, built tops (while learning some basic physics concepts), and designed new toys from scratch using a variety of materials. More