Life Academy Makes

Life Academy recently finished their first round of making projects as part of our collaboration.

Chair Project

Chair Project

This project gives students the opportunity to express themselves and create

IMG_0310 - Version 2


And now, onto soldering

Learning to Solder

Learning to Solder

The Three Little Pigs and Their Lesson on Material Properties

What’s the best way to get kindergartners thinking about material engineers and what they do?  One strategy that’s worked for me came in the form of a fable: The Three Little Pigs.  After an introductory discussion of materials and material qualities (i.e. a spoon is made of metal; and metal is hard, shiny, and heavy), my class of kindergartners watched a version of the story.  I recommend Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies version; the kids loved the song and dance, and luckily, they didn’t notice the portrait of dear ol’ dad, pictured towards the end as sausage links.

photo 4Prior to watching, I asked students to think about the material each of the three little pigs chose to use for their house.  I also wanted them to think about the qualities of each, prompting them with questions: Is straw light or heavy?  Is wood shiny?  Are bricks soft?  We giggled our way through the eight minute cartoon, and though kids were begging to see it again, I turned our lights back on and our technology off so that I could see if kindergartners had been thinking about materials and their properties.  They were eager and overjoyed to answer my questions: when I asked if someone could tell me what straw was like, hands shot up all over the room, some of them begging to be picked to answer; when I asked about wood and brick, I got the same lively response.

photo 2Then came our fun and frightening design challenge: I broke the class up into four teams, each at their own table, and I told them that each team would get a different material and that they would have a few minutes of building time before the big, bad wolf (aka me) came around the room, huffing and puffing, trying to blow their houses down.  I didn’t have any straw on hand, so one team was given cotton balls and loads of plush stuffing.  The other teams received either scrap paper, popsicle sticks, or wooden blocks.  The “easiest,” and most prized building material, were the wooden blocks–kindergartners all recognized that they were the closest to brick of what had been provided.  All the other teams struggled, but everyone got wide-eyed with excitement when I called time on their building session and crept from table to table, blowing down all of their structures, even some of those made of the heavier wood blocks.

photo 2Kids switched tables and were given an opportunity to try their hand with each of the four materials.  Each time, I gave them a little more than five minutes to build, and each time, I came around as the wolf, huffing and puffing, blowing houses down, given students of this age a way to think about the engineered structures that make up a part of the world we live in.


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Expanding Possibility: the Transformative Nature of Scribble Machines

The Creativity Lab at Lighthouse Winter Expo by Jessica Gray SchippWednesday, December 18 was not only my birthday, but also the Lighthouse Community Charter School Winter Expo.  Parents are required to attend three events each school year and the Winter Expo is one of them.

My mind goes to the single parent, exhausted from a 12-hour workday, having then to trek across Bay Area rush hour traffic – our kids commute from all over Oakland just to get here.  And it goes to the teachers, staying well over 12 hours on these days, on top of the enormous stress of preparing for the Expo.  Creating displays, activities to engage the families, and frantically trying to pull it together, all while worrying about the kid whose parents won’t show up- it’s no easy feat.

I watched as the tired faces of the parents turned soft and warm the moment they experienced the wonder of making a scribble machine.  The spectacular excitement alone exuding from their child, was enough to force a smile for most.

Lighthouse Creativity Lab By Jessica Gray SchippLighthouse Creativity Lab By Jessica Gray SchippLighthouse Creativity Lab By Jessica Gray Schipp

For the teachers it’s a work night, yet it is one that warms the heart several times throughout the evening, making it worth the extra energy.  Teaching has been described as the second most private act in which adults engage (Dufour, 1991).  It is important to see the reach of our impact every once in a while.   The Expo nights at Lighthouse feed not only the teachers, but the students and parents as well.  Parents are able to catch a glimpse of how critical and inspiring our teachers are, not to mention the relief they get knowing their child is in good hands, simultaneously reducing the inevitable guilt of parenthood brought on by constraints of time and space.

Scribble Machines 

A recipe for connection, engagement, and the kick of curiosity.

  • four markers,
  • a piece of a glue stick (about an inch long),
  • a cherry tomato container,
  • a little tape (any kind will do),
  • a motor, and
  • a battery wrapped in a rubber band

Mix the supplies thoroughly and unleash on any paper covered (or it doesn’t matter if it stains or not) surface.

Lighthouse Creativity Lab By Jessica Gray Schipp

Scribble Machine

Lighthouse Creativity Lab By Jessica Gray Schipp

Scribble Machine Station

Lighthouse Creativity Lab By Jessica Gray Schipp

Making Scribble Machines

At Lighthouse every December and June, Expo is a chance for 720ish students to display their work to the entire school (K-12), to family, and to the outside community.

A lighthouse serves to guide ships to safety when it is dark or foggy.

Lighthouse is a community of people working together to guide students to the safety and security of getting an excellent education.

– LCCS Student/Family Handbook

Expo is one of the special ways we guide our kids at Lighthouse.  The collaborative nature of bringing together accomplishments, artifacts, students, parents, and teachers provides a breeding ground for rapid growth and possibility.

It is only after we make our first scribble machine that we can truly imagine the possibilities that lay ahead.

The Scribble Machine Reinvented Lighthouse Creativity Lab By Jessica Gray Schipp

The Scribble Machine Reinvented

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Making Puppeteers

Three instructions were given to our 2nd graders this week as they set out to construct puppets out of felt.

2nd Grade Puppet Project 1. Draw our favorite design BIG

2. Cut out paper

3. Cut puppet out of felt – two times

Working from a design they’d finalized during the last class, they were asked to transfer their design to a piece of paper, making it large enough for their hand to fit inside.

2nd Grade Puppet Project After a short demonstration, the kids, uneasy about the open-endedness of the project, and not quite sure about how to begin, started to ask questions.  With a little encouragement from their teacher, “be creative, it’s what you think – that’s why there are less instructions,” the kids got to work.

Encouraging 2nd graders to believe in their own abilities, practice imagination, and to make choices on their own significantly encourages the development of self-reliance.  Self-doubt seems to seep into the classroom around this age.  The kids are comparing themselves to one another, beginning to see the differences and similarities to their peers.  Helping them embrace their individuality can be a great practice in the classroom.

2nd Grade Puppet Project As the teacher or as a helper in a making classroom environment, it might be helpful to throw on an apron with pockets when students are working on projects.  That way, scissors, markers, tape, sewing needles, and extra thread – anything that you might need during class is on hand when you need it.

Making choices (buttons, fabric, patterns, designs, how to stitch, asking for help) was exciting and scary, depending on whom you asked.  However, as an observer, I saw nothing but engaged and eager learners.

Image2nd Grade Puppet Project Threading the needle was a struggle for some.  Which brought up a question that I think many of us struggle with, when should we intervene when a student is struggling?  And how should we intervene?  Best practices for threading a needle would probably be letting the student struggle for 10 minutes tops, giving them tips – wet the end of the string and twist it, or cut the end off and then try again.  If we let them struggle for too long, their frustration will turn them off from the project as a whole and that is definitely not the goal.

DSC_0295For others, choosing which beads and buttons they wanted to add was the learning opportunity.  Some elaborately went at seImagewing and embellishing their puppets while others really took some time to consider their options.   It is in making that we often see the kids who struggle, excel.  One little girl told me that she’d been sewing for a couple of years now, having been taught by her grandmother in Mexico – she became a great resource to her peers who needed help.

Every 2nd grader ended the class asking when we would be finishing the puppets, it was a hit.  A project like this definitely needs to be broken down over classes to allow time for the technical growth, without rushing.  Just have the kids toss their puppets, patterns, and materials into a Ziploc bag that can be tucked away.

Sometimes the best lessons come from intrinsic questions, and sometimes the best learning happens amidst what might feel like chaos.  Yes, buttons, and needles, and thread, and felt can get messy – but it is totally worth it to see the excitement and accomplishment run across the faces of second graders as they design, make, thread, and sew!

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Embracing Failure Through Bridge Building

IMG_2971Primary school students in the Creativity Lab are learning what engineering bridges is all about.  From kindergarten to 4th grade, kids are taking on the role of civil engineering.  They’ve looked at models, they’ve compared and discussed designs, and now, they’re using different building materials to span vast distances.  Grade by grade, they have been tasked with design challenges that ask them to consider bridge components such as piers and abutments, and of course, spans.  Grade by grade, they are learning the differences between arch bridges, truss bridges, beam bridges, and suspension bridges.  Grade by grade, they are battling against gravity, struggling through the trials and tribulations of creating a bridge that holds the most weight.

IMG_3326Kindergartners used wooden building blocks to construct piers and simple beam bridges spanning a three-inch wide, paper river.  First graders, in teams of three, were asked to span a six-foot distance between tables using only paper and tape and chairs.  Second graders were asked to resist the urge to eat their building materials before they managed to complete five-inch spans using gumdrops and toothpicks.  Third graders partnered up, and worked with paper and tape to design truss bridges spanning a minimum of fifteen inches; they also tracked how much paper and tape they used, hoping to construct the strongest bridge using the least amount of material.  After the holidays, 4th graders will be joining Lighthouse’s Civil Engineers Corp, when they design, build, and test their very own balsa wood bridges.

IMG_3312Though bridge building is fairly standard fare in engineering design challenges, it makes for a superb hands-on experience in making classrooms.  For starters, there’s the versatility illustrated above: the variety of different materials that can be utilized, and the ways in which challenges can be altered, tweaked either slightly or rather drastically, in order to age-grade for differing grade levels.  Besides that, bridges can be fun to design and to build, and the science behind these marvels of engineering can be conveyed to students cogently and succinctly.

IMG_3355For me, the most important feature of this particular design challenge is found in bridge building’s unique relationship to failure.  You don’t build a bridge without testing a bridge, and regardless of age, all my students tested their bridges until they failed, until the paper or the wood or the gumdrops crumpled and collapsed beneath the weight of too heavy a mass.  Failure is built into the process of making bridges.  A student can’t build a better bridge, can’t recognize faults in their design, without seeing their designs tested.  To see their own work fall apart this way means that children must be able to embrace failure as part of the learning process.

IMG_3357_2Our Creativity Lab engineers are struggling with failure and frustration in the same way that professional engineers struggle with failed prototypes and with projects marred by frustration.  If things continue according to plan, those balsa wood bridges we build in the Creativity Lab will topple and fall, but those failures will be some of the first steps to getting our kids to being tomorrow’s engineers.  Who knows, by then, we might need another new Bay Bridge, so why not have them on the design team?

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What’s a Hackathon Anyway?

What’s a hackathon, really?  Until fairly recently, I didn’t have much of a clue.  Reading up on one taking place in Oakland, I figured the weekend-long event would be an opportunity for middle school students at Lighthouse’s Creativity Lab to be exposed to programming and software development.  Explaining that to my 6th graders using words like coding and hacking garnered some interest, but what really clinched the deal was this: Every student who attended both days would receive a free Datawind Ubislate tablet.

Affinity Diagramming!

Affinity Diagramming!

That settled it; I couldn’t work fast enough to help ten students get signed up for Level Playing Field Institute’s event: Level the Coding Field 2013.  LPFI’s mission is to eliminate barriers people of color face in STEM fields, and to foster untapped talent from students of underrepresented communities.  That meant that my ten students, all of color, could team up with about 125 other Bay Area middle and high schoolers to take part in what would be, for many, their first Hackathon.

What that boiled down to was this: Asking students to break into groups of five or six, and then, after discussing the broad topics of health, education, and environment, asking teams to isolate problems faced in these areas.  Teams were introduced to’s Design Thinking Process, and with help from facilitators, students brainstormed, conducted affinity diagramming (a fancy way of describing the use of Post-its for concept development), and defined potential users and their needs.  All of these steps, and more, were done in order to refine students’ understanding of the problems being discussed, and through insightful consideration, to help teams decide on a focus for the app-based solution they needed to design over the weekend.

Did I forget to mention that students also needed to learn how to develop apps using either myBalsamiq Mockup or  All of that over the course of two days.  For many students, they’d never even heard of either of those two programs; I know I hadn’t.  Sure, we could all download apps easily enough, but could my students survive this crash course in app development successfully, in order to be producers of content, rather than merely consumers?  Of course they could!

Presenting Individual Solutions

Presenting Individual Solutions

One of our teams, The A Team, concentrated their efforts on the unhealthy problem of cigarettes.  They utilized the Design Thinking Process to discuss a variation of tools, some intended for smokers and others for nonsmokers.  After learning to use Mockup, they decided to collaborate on an app that would allow nonsmokers to avoid areas where smokers congregated, an issue they all said they faced in their community.  Users could mark these places as hotspots on a map, and that interactive map would provide directions to reroute their walks home from school or elsewhere, thereby helping nonsmoking users avoid the inhalation of smoke.

The Bay, the second Lighthouse team, tackled the problem of police response times.  Again, every student mentioned that this was an issue they had all faced in their lives, but not from the perspective of the police offers.  Luckily, Police Headquarters was only a few blocks from the venue so the team decided to ask officers about the issue.  Through this empathetic interview process, they learned something about the complicated issue of responding to so many 911 calls with an understaffed force.  That gave students their focus: They decided to come up with a program to help police officers search through and locate penal codes faster, thereby making it easier for them to respond to 911 calls, and alleviating the problem of slow police response times.

Prepping For The App Demo

Prepping For The App Demo

Only seven of about twenty-five teams were chosen as finalists, which included The Bay.  One by one, all of these groups presented their development processes and their apps to the entire Hackathon community, and to a panel of judges who would decide which two groups took home cash prizes of $2,500 each.  I watched my students present and field questions from the judges, and when they didn’t win, I was heartbroken to see these eager eleven-year-olds break into tears, unable to deal with the loss in the moment.  When I was their age, $500 would have been a whopping and unimaginable sum of money, so I can understand their disappointment.

In the end though, students from both my groups stomached the sense of loss that comes along with healthy competition.  Walking out of the event with a new Ubislate tablet under their arms, they all left with a desire to learn more about programming, and that left me thinking that everyone who took part in the Hackathon was a winner, regardless of who was heading home with a fattened wallet.  Next time, these kids will be ready, cause I know they’re excited to code and to hack their butts off, especially now that the power’s in their very own fingers.

Finalists Waiting To Hear From Judges

Finalists Waiting To Hear From Judges

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Wall Climbing Whatsits


Wall Climbing Whatsits

One of the Creativity Lab’s top priorities is to get our community comfortable with the idea of making things, and perhaps more importantly, to learn to be persistent when things get tough and to learn from mistakes made along the way, whatever the project.

Take for example the challenges 2nd graders have faced trying to get busy making our Wall Climbing Whatsits. Students were shown a model made from the inner cardboard of a toilet paper roll, snipped pieces of straw and two equal measures of string, a popsicle stick, and some hollow (and straw-like) coffee stirrers.

If you’re familiar with Arvind Gupta’s Toys from Trash website, you might recognize this trashier rendition of his “Climbing Cat” project, and you may even know that you can get the cardboard cylinder to climb by pulling outward on the handles at the end of each string.  Students weren’t given this information.  Instead of knowing what the contraption was or what it could do, they broke up into design teams: each group took some time to exam the model, to discuss the materials and tools they might need to make it, and to make speculative inferences on what, if anything, the contraption could do.

Students wondered if it was a twirling toy or an elevator or perhaps, if it could somehow fly; I was delighted that some of their inferences were so close to being bulls-eyes, and they were amazed when they saw the thing in action.  They got to work, and early on, a few of them came to realize what they had initially failed to see: that the design is in the details; specifically, that holes made through the cardboard cylinder need to have a narrow diameter so that coffee stirrers won’t slip out.  Another realization had to do with the placement of those holes-how the distance between holes differs between the top and bottom sides of the Whatsit.


Little Hands Hard at Work

2nd graders had a really hard time deciding where to place and how to make their holes the right size.  It was also challenging to get the stirrers to stay in place, and perhaps hardest of all, was the task of threading the string through the stirrers once they were finally secure in the cardboard.  Watching them struggling through the work, I realized there was a design flaw that could be altered to make the project more feasible for their small hands, and for the level of fine motor skills they had.

When they came in the following week, they had two models to exam. The first was the previous model, and the second was the newer, altered one.  It was their job to exam each, to discuss differences between the two with their design teams, and to use these discussions to ascertain what had changed in the newer model, and how those alterations might benefit the making process for their own Wall Climbing Whatsits.  They quickly realized that stirrers had been ditched in favor of straws, and it didn’t take long for someone to figure out that a hole puncher (conveniently placed out on the supply and tool table) makes perfect sized holes for straws to fit through.  When it came time to thread the string, the task was one that they could successfully manage.


Time For Modifications

Even with these design improvements, there was a lot of frustration around the room.  Students wanted to give up, but I continued to urge them on, letting them know how their mistakes were part of the learning process. There were a couple of students that did throw in the towel, but many others struggled through and persisted. All in all, though, difficult as it was, the project is another step in getting students familiar with the ideas of failing forward and the tenacity needed to turn hard fun into a trashy toy model that gets a toilet paper roll to climb, climb, climb.

Time to figure out what we’ll be pulling out of the trash next!

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Kindergarten Sews

Sewing gives our students so many possibilities to create.  This quarter, our Kindergarteners have been learning the basics of sewing using burlap, yarn, and a big plastic needle.


Our Kindergarten teachers suggested sewing as the focus for the second quarter because they thought it would be an appropriate challenge for five year-olds and would help them with their fine motor skills.  After the first few weeks I heard how hard it was for students to thread their own needles, not go around the side of the cloth, and pre-plan a work of embroidery.  K_Sewing1

When I went to observe on Friday, I was amazed to see students overcoming all of these obstacles; they were still struggling, but they were cutting the frayed end of the yarn, licking it (which they thought was hilarious), and then squeezing it to get it through.  They were also remembering to sew back into the same side the yarn last came out.  They were starting to plan their designs as well; drawing what they wanted to make on the burlap before beginning to stitch.  K_Sewing4

What have we learned so far?  Early on, students were using embroidery hoops, but we quickly learned that the hoops just got in the way.  They’ve had a much easier time since they started using the fabric on its own.  Teachers also modeled the skills that were proving challenging for students, talking them through the important pieces.

Thanks to our Kindergarten teachers for your amazing perseverance and willingness to try new things in your classes.  I especially appreciate that you share your lessons learned – they are quite helpful!  Next up, we are hoping to practice empathy by having students interview each other about what they would like, and then designing and making a piece of sewn art for their classmate.

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Families Scribble, Tape, and Electrify

Making9-30 246Families engaged in creative play together – an outcome we want to build as we integrate making into our school’s practices.  Recently our fourth grade teachers invited their students and families to engage in creating scribbling machines, circuit boards, and a little bit of tapigami.

Making9-30 259Making9-30 271Scribbling machines are fun – they instantly engage people to want to design and re-design, to tinker, to play.  Families were  invited to take a few materials (a container, a battery, a motor, a piece of hot glue, some tape, and a few markers) and try to make the machine work.  Within minutes of starting there were a few scribbling machines drawing on tables.

While the kids jumped right in, there were some parents who had to be encouraged.  They were more comfortable watching their children, and helping when necessary, but after some encouragement started to try their own ideas.  Soon everyone had a machine working and was watching the varied designs they made.

But getting them working was only the beginning.  As students and parents started to watch them draw, questions popped into their heads — “How can I get it to…?”  “What would happen if I …?” They were off to do more tinkering.  Before long we had run out of drawing space on the tables and threw together a larger drawing space on the floor.

Making9-30 258

There was one family in particular that intrigued me.  I have observed this activity in multiple settings, but the five people at this table were consistently coming up with different ways to use the materials and different designs then I had ever seen before.  It was fun to watch they way they played with the machines to develop something new; if there’s an engineering gene, it’s definitely found in this family!Making9-30 235

After lunch we opened up the circuit blocks exploration table and broke out even more tape for tapigami.  The 4th graders had studied circuits the year before and were excited to get to play with the open ended circuit boards.  These materials have been used in our curriculum in many different grades, from 3rd-12th.  What makes them so versatile is the open ended nature of the activity.  Using the circuit boards, the 4th graders were able to apply what they had learned the previous year and take it to a whole new level of complexity.  In addition, the students are working with tapigami in their class and some were eager to show their parents this new form of expression.

Making9-30 252

The response was overwhelmingly positive.  In particular, comments indicated that they enjoyed experimenting together, and that they had fun.  Mission accomplished.

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Building and Space Design

photo-3 copyOur middle school students have teamed up with Hamilton + Aitken Architects to collaborate on a five-week-long project that has two major goals: first and foremost, we want to introduce our young designers to the concepts and practices that make up building and space design; secondly, students are working to generate ideas and input for the renovation of the Creativity Lab here at Lighthouse Community Charter School.

Mentors from the Bay Area architectural firm have been visiting after school classes with design challenges that task students to think about and reconsider the way they understand space.  Specifically, our design teams have considered how space is used here in the Creativity Lab, and they are continuously thinking about and discussing strategies for improving the usage of that space with each subsequent challenge.

On the fourth week, prior to beginning models for their final proposals, students toured the Creativity Lab with one mentor roleplaying the part of an elderly woman, and with a 6th grader roleplaying the part of a kindergarten student.  They interviewed both as potential users of the Creativity Lab, and their answers offered our student designers insight into the ways in which age, body-size, and even literacy, may have an effect on how a user engages with a particular space or building.

Our students went on to discuss and to brainstorm solutions for one of thephoto-3 biggest challenges we face here in the Creativity Lab: As a making space for students that range from grades K-12, we need solutions that can serve big bodies as well as small. When they broke up into design groups to map out how the Creativity Lab might be redesigned, students continued to talk about ways younger students might find it difficult to work at tables and chairs designed for older people.  More than one group started to hash out plans for adjustable furniture, trying to conceptualize how that might be incorporated into the floor plans they were mapping out.  Another discussion piece was the use of pictures: how images might help younger makers, still learning to read, to recognize where materials and tools are stored around the Creativity Lab.

We’re still under construction here at the Creativity Lab, but with the help of our middle school design teams, we’re pretty certain things can only get better from here on in.  Now all we need to figure out is where the couch will go for the Chill Zone that students have unanimously agreed is a top priority!



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