Making (in School): A Letter of Recommendation

I have spent the last nine months deeply submerged in Making (in School). When given the opportunity to share what I’ve seen, I never feel I can share enough, perhaps because the nature of the idea of “Making in School” itself is so grandiose.  There are so many facets to it, so many ways to look at it.  Not to mention the oh-so-many ways we (as learners) need to receive information in order to process it, understand it, and use it.

Which brings me to… Learning Deeply.

Making is a way of interacting.  Using our hands to create.  Combining the fields of art, technology, craft, science, math, and humanities into something personally driven.  Making can be as simple as sewing, or as complicated as building a robot or programming an Arduino.  The goal of making is making, but the rewards of making show up as deeper-learning through persistence.

At the heart of learning new stuff is a connection with what we are learning, allowing us to completely immerse ourselves and experience flow.  Personally, I never realized just how much I loved learning until I was learning about what interested and inspired me.  Making allows kids to connect with what matters to them and apply it to the expanding world around them.

Making insists upon deep learning.  It is rooted in open-ended (choice-based) projects, driven by personal interest (student-driven).

Learning to Make

The idea of making in school to most educators (I’d argue to say) is intimidating and difficult to imagine without a little exposure. The kind of exposure we’ve been developing and providing over the last 9 months at the Lighthouse Creativity Lab.   With the introductory awkwardness of trying a new technique and (perhaps) the intimidation of feeling like a non-maker brushed aside, we’ve created space for teachers to learn deeply.

In our professional development sessions, I have seen time and time again (96 times to date to be exact), that a gentle introduction into making, over a brief training or coaching session, results in every teacher being on board with making in school.

Teachers are relentless lovers of learning.  They want their kids to learn deeply more than anyone else.

Where to Start?

If you want to make in school, do it!  Use anything you have, integrate it with standards or don’t.  Either way your kids are going to be transformed.  Sometimes it is easier to start with making for the sake of making, curriculum integration might be easier after you submerge yourself and see the impact of making in your classroom.

Start small and expand when you are ready.  One loud-and-clear takeaway from our kids at the Lighthouse Creativity Lab is that hands-down, K to 12, they love sewing.  Sewing is one of those things that can be adapted across every age- not to mention one that results in perseverance, illuminating confidence, and pride.  Making builds character.

Adapting Making for K-12 Settings

sewing k12 illustrated by Jessica Gray Schipp for Lighthouse Creativity Lab

Sewing across grade levels  looks something like this at Lighthouse Creativity Lab:

K: Burlap & Plastic Sewing Needles – Try integrating Design Thinking by having students create stuffed toys for each other letting empathy guide them.

2nd Grade: Felt & Dull-point needles – Have the kids make Story Puppets based on a character from a book they’ve read as a class.

5th – 8th Grade: Fabric & Hand Needles – Start with pillows and expand to sewn circuits (using conductive thread) or Makey Makey integration (introducing programming through Scratch).

High School: Fabric & Sewing Machines or Sergers-   Introduce new tools and have students make wearable clothing using technology (like Flora-Arduino programming), perhaps requiring that it reacts to their environment (for example, a shirt that lights up when it hears loud music).

sewing 2nd and index trick

No matter what kind of making you start with, I can promise you that once the kids get the concept of making, the ideas of what to make next will flow endlessly from them.  Your role then becomes “coach,” presenting new challenges and obstacles.  Making something simple that they can relate to (such as a pillow, which we all use regularly) not only gets them to realize that everyday objects were made by someone, but that they are totally capable of being that maker.

I’ll also point out here that most of our kids have been taught in a system that has ingrained in them an “is this right” slash “I can’t” reflexive way of thinking.  In life, answers do not come in cookie cut forms.  I always tell them that they can and they will, and you know what?  They do.

So with that said, here are three seeds I would like to plant, a sort of ever-growing approach to Making in School.  One: Materials as Constraints, two: Documentation as Proof, and three: Critique as Conversation.

Materials as Constraints, illustration by Jessica Gray Schipp for the Lighthouse Creativity Lab

Making projects should be open-ended and student-driven.  Yes, it sounds like a lot of freedom but the kids can handle it with repeated exposure.  I promise.  Open-endedness involves leaving room for students to make and act on choices (living with them and working through them).  Those choices could include materials, or topics, or design challenges (make something that _____, then test it, rebuilt, and test again).  Student-driven projects are those that encourage using personal interest as a motivator and they are the sweet spot of making in school.

One way to create open-ended projects is to let the materials serve as the choice, but what happens when we use materials as constraints?  Deeper learning.  When you give a student something they’ve never seen, nine out of 10 times they will say they don’t know what they can do with it.  With a little coaching and some brainstorming, their creative minds will expand right in front of you.

Here are a few ways to try material constraints in your classroom:

  • Using materials they already know in a new way, for example Tissue Paper Painting (no scissors but choice of adhesive options and a pencil as their only tool)
  • Unfamiliar materials as a means of expanding creative thinking
  • Limiting materials (like pick two from five options) as a way to encourage making choices and committing to them

Documentation as proof and process, illustration by Jessica Gray Schipp for the Lighthouse Creativity Lab

Just the other day I was having a conversation with my roommate who’d gotten a new, beautifully-bound leather journal from a friend.  He told me he wanted to use is as a place to keep his recipes, but that he was afraid to start because of the possibility of messing up.  Somehow we got on the subject of journals and tearing pages out of them.  He told me about the last journal he’d had and how he’d torn out a bunch of pages because he’d tried to do some drawings on them that (he said) weren’t any good.

Journal High School by Jessica Gray Schipp for Lighthouse Creativity Lab

We’ve all done this- throwing away pages because (we believe) what we put on them wasn’t good enough to even exist.  My response to this is:  what does that say to ourselves about how we think of ourselves and our work?  How bad does an attempt have to be that it can’t even exist in a journal on our shelf?

Journals are for freedom from judgement, not another place for us to be too hard on ourselves.  Documentation of process is a critical thinking tool and results in a story we can share with others.  They are living (if we let them) proof of our progress.

Ways to integrate documentation into your classroom:

  • Have students use journals, sketchbooks, list-making, and/or blogs to catalog their making process – it can be as simple as this, using only card stock, copy paper, a binder punch, & twist ties
  • Aside from journals, cameras are a great way to document process.  If you can keep a couple cheap digital cameras on hand, many of them will take advantage.  Setting up a documentation station is even better- students can directly blog their progress, joining a web-wide world of makers, all the while exposing them to 21st century tools.
  • Take pictures of their progress.  As a documenter of making in schools, when I see things that I like, (concentration, focus, passion, uniqueness exuding from kids), I take a picture.  It is like a reward or a compliment.  Taking a picture of their work says to them, “Ms. Jess thinks this is good, maybe it is.”  I also ask questions, like what made you choose that?  Are there other materials that might work better?  How will you finish it?  Have you tried using a palette knife?  How much is it worth?

I myself like to do my creative work (especially painting and writing) without an audience and I respect that many of them may feel that way too.  So I wait to use this technique until they are comfortable with my presence, as a viewer of their work.

No matter how documentation of process occurs, it all leads to a bigger idea.  Through journals, photographs, blogs, or a combination of sorts, documentation serves as evidence that our trials and tribulations mattered.  We can go back and see how far we’ve come.  We have proof.  Proof that we can use to further develop our own skills with and proof that helps us share our process with others.

Critique as Conversation (modified for K-12 classrooms), illustration by Jessica Gray Schipp for the Lighthouse Creativity Lab

If you didn’t go to art school, this may be a new idea.  One of the things that makers need is feedback.  It allows for faster growth and expands our minds to possibilities and conclusions we may not have come to otherwise. Without feedback we can get stuck.

Critique is hard and awkward at first.  Fact.  Students are not used to being asked what they think, so a good place to start is with what they know and see.

What Critique in K-12 might look like:

  • Circle up your kids and have each student share their project. This can be done at anytime in the making process and is a motivator when used at the end of making.  Have them introduce it briefly and tell the group anything they’d like them to know about what they’ve made.  At first it might be a lot of “this is what I made, yea, uhh, that’s all, oh and this…”  Ask the other students to share what they like about it.  At first they will generally say,  “it’s cool, I like it.”  Gently let them know that cool does not describe what you like about it, ask them to describe why.  This should lead to smartalecs correcting each other, saying, “cool doesn’t tell us how you feel about it.”  But even with the sarcasm, they are catching on to the concept so keep going.  Have the kids ask questions about the project, prompt them to find out more about what they don’t understand, or what they would like to know how to do. Encourage and require them to wonder.

In general, at the K-8 level, sticking to the positives would be my suggested best practice.  Once they are developed and comfortable as makers you can begin to have students explore sharing suggestions, or ideas about how a project could be enhanced.  I think most high schoolers (that have already been familiarized with positive critiques) can more than handle this.  I also think they appreciate it.

Critique can be painful if not framed positively and the teacher plays the role of facilitator.  No matter the grade, kids love sharing what they have made and seeing what their peers have made.  By making critique in the classroom a conversation, students learn how to communicate in a world that easily allows for passive aggressive problem solving (like complaining on Yelp instead of asking a restaurant to fix an order).  Inter/intra personal communication skills can be learned and they need to be practiced.

Critique helps students learn to develop dialogs, have conversations, provide empathetic support to others, while also learning to ask and receive help from others.  Modified K-12 critique is a launching pad for crucial life skills.

Why it Matters

A fellow Maker Ed VISTA sent me this quote by Frida Kahlo via snail-mail.  It reminds me that life, like making, is about (human) connection.

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

Making is part of our history.  Everything we have, use, taste and touch was made by someone or something.  Something so naturally ingrained in our culture and ancestry should also be critically woven into our schools.

And not just after-school, when kids are mentally exhausted, but during school hours too, while they have their fullest learning potential engaged.  I leave you with a challenge, make something, make anything.  And then try to incorporate that something into your classroom, with or without curriculum.  Consider it a learning experiment.  See what happens.  Then, and only then, decide for yourself how powerful making in school can be.

Originally written for Maker Education Initiative on behalf of The Creativity Lab is located in Oakland, CA at Lighthouse Community Charter School.

About Jessica Gray Schipp

An obsessive documenter, by nature.