Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Learning by creating...and doing!

I've always been a huge proponent of students learning by doing.

How can we expect them to fully discover new possibilities and attain new levels of knowledge by being passive learners and recipients of information? The more kids are doing the work, the more they learn.

As a graduate student at Harvard, I learned a lot about this philosophy, especially when it came to the importance of students having wonderings about what they were learning. Kids need to be encouraged to ask questions, seek multiple solutions, and explore creative ways of solving real-world dilemmas and problems. Such skills will only better prepare them for the demands of ever-evolving careers and jobs in the 21st century.

I recently read an article that speaks to the importance of students doing the work and creating from the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. I hope you find it meaningful as well!


June 2014 | Volume 56 | Number 6

If You Build It: Tinkering with the Maker Mind-Set

By Sarah McKibben
"Making" provides an accessible pathway to discovery and skill development that schools can integrate with minimal expense.
In his father's used auto parts store in east Los Angeles, Calif., 9-year-old Caine Monroy spent a summer building an elaborate arcade out of cardboard boxes. He bought toys to give out as prizes and manually shuffled tickets through slots when players scored points. He didn't have any customers, though, until a filmmaker showed up one day to buy a door handle for his car.

That chance meeting eventually inspired a short film, led to a flash mob of paying customers, and resulted in a new scholarship fund and national cardboard construction challenge. Caine's story started with "making"—and it was shared at the 2013 Maker Faire, the Maker Movement's flagship event.

Community and Collaboration

So what exactly is making? Steve Davee, director of education and communications for the Maker Education Initiative, describes making as a "celebration of creativity in all forms." It's a DIY, hands-on movement that is taking hold in communities across the country, rousing a growing network of innovators to come together in the name of creativity.

Making establishes a sense of community from producing something "shareable," says Gary Stager, coauthor of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. It's about "making real things that matter, with a real potential audience."

Although making has been around forever, Stager says the Maker Movement has been reinvigorated by the ability to make actual objects, not just models, with computers; the ability to add intelligence and inter-activity to everyday objects; and the increased agency over technological complexity possible through computer programming.

Educators are also taking note of the skills making can hone. "Making promotes collaboration; agency; problem-solving; and a sense of exploration, tinkering, and wondering," says Davee. "There may be a lot of whimsy and playing around with things, but you're actually building the skills that will allow you to solve real-world problems."

Making leads to deeper thinking, says Stephanie Grimes, director of curriculum at the Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit makerspace that serves Baltimore's youth. "In school, a lot of our students are used to waiting for the answer to be given to them, and they have found that this is a valid strategy [that] works. [But] making is all about problem-solving! When your LED doesn't light up because you have a faulty connection in your circuit, you need to figure out why—and the instructor may not know."

Creating a Makerspace

Encouraged by the benefits of making, schools are finding ways to integrate hands-on learning without overhauling the environment. There's a common misconception that makerspaces require thousands of dollars' worth of equipment: 3D printers, laser cutters, a modern fleet of manufacturing tools. Although high-tech makerspaces and Fab Labs—a more prescriptive model developed by MIT—are appearing in schools, experts say making is surprisingly accessible.

"In its simplest form, a makerspace already exists in every classroom," says Davee. "It's table space, it's time, it's materials that you already have on hand."

Grimes identifies three types of makerspaces: a makerspace in a box, a pop-up (modular) space, and a dedicated space. A makerspace in a box is a kit of basic materials that teachers can assemble to introduce making to students. Grimes says it's "a great way to wade into the practice" because it doesn't cost much or require a lot of commitment. She suggests that teachers who are more confident with making get colleagues on board with the concept by providing them with a kit and leading mini-maker sessions with ideas for activities.

A pop-up (modular) space contains a more robust set of materials and equipment that can be brought out during a making activity. Grimes says this could take the form of a "makerspace on a cart" that travels among classrooms.

When starting out, Davee recommends choosing materials with low barriers to entry—art supplies, fabric, cardboard, wood, sewing kits, hand tools, recycled goods, and so on—then slowly phasing in other materials such as inexpensive construction sets or microcontrollers. Even just having old electronics on hand for students to take apart and tinker with can provide an invaluable learning experience, he says.

Jumping right in with more complicated materials and equipment, on the other hand, could backfire. Davee has seen plenty of administrators purchase 3D printers only to have them collect dust in a corner. "If a tool always requires a teacher [or administrator] to be the bottleneck, then you're never going to have its most effective use." Davee advises schools to turn equipment over to students, empowering them to take ownership of the setup and maintenance.

Student stewardship of materials can be especially helpful in sustaining a dedicated makerspace, which could be a permanent fixture in the back of a classroom or one that takes over an entire room in a school. In this scenario, materials and equipment should be readily available for students—and possibly even the community—to use.

From Rust Belt to Innovation Hub

Located just south of Pittsburgh, Pa., the Elizabeth Forward School District has devoted an entire wing of its middle school to making. The rural district, which serves mostly low-income students, dropped the "industrial model of learning" for a more hands-on, cross-disciplinary approach.

"We didn't want kids to build 30 bird houses and 30 clocks that look exactly the same," says assistant superintendent Todd Keruskin.

With a vision of a fully integrated curriculum—and $30,000 in grants—the district brought its art, com-puter science, and technical education classrooms into a collaborative, cutting-edge learning space. In September 2013, the "Dream Factory" debuted in the Elizabeth Forward Middle School, equipped with all the technology you would expect from a modern Fab Lab.

The program builds foundational skills in the 6th and 7th grades in areas such as coding, engineering, robotics, animation, and 3D modeling so that students can have free rein to build what they want in the 8th grade.

Dream Factory teachers have three periods of common planning time each week to align learning objectives and develop projects. In a class favorite, students get to create their own chocolate bars, from concept to final product. Over the course of two weeks, and in a variety of classes, they use software to design a plastic mold and print it using a 3D printer, make chocolate to pour into the mold, create a logo for the wrapper, design a business card and website, and produce a 30-second commercial to market the bar.

Although initial funding for the Dream Factory was secured through grants, superintendent Bart Rocco plans to "reallocate staff and monetary resources" to sustain the program, and he recommends that other districts do the same.

"We need to create environments where kids are going to be able to build, create, produce, and learn code," he asserts. "Creating a space like this will help our children be prepared to meet the [demands of the] job workforce in the coming years."

Testing the Waters

The district often gets ideas, resources, and training from outside partners, including California University of Pennsylvania, the Sprout Fund, and the MAKESHOP at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. "We've sent educators to candy companies, plastic companies, gaming and design companies, and universities," says Rocco. A partnership with Carnegie Mellon also energized the transformation.

Without those relationships, "we would have still thought of white walls and desks in a row," says Keruskin.

"Forming a partnership with even one community organization—like a community makerspace—is a great [way] for schools to validate some of their ideas and presumptions before committing to a full-blown makerspace of their own," notes Grimes.

Hosting "family nights" to get parents involved or launching after-school clubs or lunchtime maker sessions can also pique an interest in making. Some schools are even integrating a "Genius Hour" into the school week. Based on Google's philosophy that 20 percent of an employee's time should be spent pursuing their own passions, Genius Hour provides a dedicated time (perhaps one hour or class period each week) for students to work on projects independently.

A Shift in Thinking

To be truly successful within a school context, making demands a high level of trust in students' abilities and choices. "Youth really flourish when granted autonomy in crafting their making experiences," says Grimes. "We trust in them to make the decisions that are best for them and don't push them to do anything they don't want to."

Letting students take the wheel, however, doesn't mean teachers don't have a role. "Great things are possible when the teacher gets out of the way, but even greater possibilities exist when the teacher is knowledgeable and has experience they can call upon to help a kid solve a tough problem, connect with an expert, or toss in a well-timed obstacle that will cause the student to encounter a powerful idea at just the right teachable moment," explains Stager.

Because making is a discovery-oriented process, prescribing a curriculum can be tricky. In fact, Davee considers making to be the "anticurriculum" because "the nature of making is such that standards, for example, will naturally emerge [from the process of] construction."

There are many ways to achieve a high-quality classroom experience, and making could fit within most approaches, according to Davee. "Making could be entirely inquiry-based, or it could be lecture-based with time for exploration."

"Making is a mind-set, not an outcome," Grimes emphasizes. "If you build a making curriculum and at the end everyone has created the same project using the same tools and guidelines, that's not making."

According to Stager, assessment should be just as organic as making itself. For instance, the design of a project can demonstrate content knowledge, and relating the design to an audience can develop writing, speaking, and other presentation skills. "One could imagine … the understanding of physics involved in building a structure, [or the] understanding of history in their cardboard Trojan horse."

Supporting Wonder

Embracing the Maker Movement and integrating its core concepts into schools requires a deep commitment to giving students' natural curiosity and inventiveness a stage on which to shine. If schools can support the kind of whimsy and wonder that's exemplified by kids like Caine, there will be no limits to what students can make.

For the Elizabeth Forward district, the transition to a more authentic, hands-on learning environment has "really recharged and changed the culture of our schools," says Rocco.

"We need to stop forcing kids to make PowerPoint presentations on topics they don't care about, for audiences they will never encounter," remarks Stager. "Kids have a story to tell. They should act, write, sing, dance, film those stories, and learn to write the sort of scientific, technical, and persuasive [pieces] that nearly every career demands."

More Online

Project Ideas, Videos, and Other Resources

Are you motivated to start making in your classroom? Visit for links to project ideas, informational videos, makerspace handbooks, and more.

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