Makerspaces and Opportunities for Learning Literacy

In 2011, a faculty member wanted to bring in a summer school program for some of our gifted and talented students. Called “Camp Invention”, students spent a week taking apart computers and creating new worlds with peers. I had never seen students more engaged in learning than during this experience.

Afterward, something nagged at me: the program was not intentional about incorporating reading and writing into the curriculum. I could understand the rationale. Educators are always trying to stuff literacy into anything students are doing. Yet are these two areas – innovation and literacy – mutually exclusive?

Halverson and Sheridan tease out the complex nature of the maker movement in education (2014). They define it through three lenses: “making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities of participation” (501). In literacy, students are (or at least should be) constantly making. For example, consider the verbs we use to describe writing. We craft an essay, develop a narrative, and build an argument. These actions cross the line between the tinkering, creating and iterating that happens in makerspaces and the drafting, revising and publishing that is synonymous with language arts. Halverson and Sheridan also see the possibilities.

“Learning through making reaches across the divide between formal and informal learning, pushing us to think more expansively about where and how learning happens. In this way we can talk about the who, what, and how of learning without getting hung up on the rules and constraints that govern different settings” (498).

A question that frequently comes up in education circles is, “How do we get started with makerspaces?” Teachers usually follow this up with concerns about time, resources and administrative support. Now in my second district, and having visited several more, I can say that makerspaces are unique from school to school. Some buildings house makerspaces in their libraries, while others have a separate, dedicated space. When it is not a building initiative, makerspaces find space in teacher’s classrooms under the guise of “Genius Hour”.

What they all have in common is they are personalized to the needs of the students. The kids direct the learning. In response, the adults often adjust their roles to that of a coach and guide on the side. The observed result is higher levels of student engagement in school, which tends to spill over into the core academic areas. Gershenfeld has found increased engagement to be true, noting how personalization is “a market of one person”. In makerspaces, students might start creating something of their own interest, but a lack of purpose and audience might propel them to start thinking about how they can make an impact in the broader world.

For instance, 6th grade teacher Chris Craft has led his students in South Carolina to print more than 150 prosthetic human hands for people in need using a 3-D printer (Herold, 2016). This work includes video production and online sharing, all critical literacy skills for the 21st century. This example and others similar show how schools can “decentralize enthusiasm” (Gershenfeld, 57) in the goal of creating engagement in learning through doing real work while applying core competencies. Literacy appears to lend itself way to many of these opportunities.

References

Gershenfeld, N. (2012). How to make almost anything: The digital fabrication revolution. Foreign Aff., 91, 43.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-504.

Herold, B. (2016). What It Takes to Move From ‘Passive’ to ‘Active’ Tech Use in K-12 Schools. Education Week: Technology Counts, 82(2), 33.

My Current Thinking on Library Media Specialists and 21st Century Learning

This is a summary of a conversation I had with our school’s library media specialist (LMS) Kari Kabat. She conducted an interview with me for a graduate class she is taking.

photo-1473447216727-44efba8cf0e0.jpg

How are schools helping students develop 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, inquiry and technology skills)?

Investing in an LMS is essential. We have a full time LMS in both of our buildings which is an important first step. Having this support for teachers and students to develop these skills and learning experiences will help with school culture and make it a part of how they do business. Developing goals and a framework for integration along with timelines to accomplishing these goals is a great start. Technology integration and having students use the 4C’s is not the responsibility of one person, but rather having the LMS there to support and model these skills for the students and teachers to begin to take a more active role in integrating them with the curriculum. This is what I see as a part of an LMS’ role in a school.

How would you like to see change or improvement in schools?

Using the gradual release of responsibility model to support a school’s efforts to help staff have more buy-in for using these methods with students.  We need to move from a consumption-based culture to more of a creation-based, collaborative one. Most schools need to make this shift. Students can have opportunities to produce authentic writing pieces and projects and not simply use technology only to consume more information.

What do you think are the three most important things a school librarian could do to help a school reach its goals and to help students develop 21st century skills?

First, have a well stocked school library that is appealing and always open for students to come find a book whenever they need one. Knowledge does not come out of thin air. A measure of this will be high circulation rates.

Second, introduce students and teachers to the tools that will help them accomplish one of the 4C’s.  With the LMS in a supporting role, they may model a lesson that highlights a specific “C” with students during their technology block and then help the teachers see how this can be used in other ways to support their work with students on the core curriculum. Introduce a tool to support the C and then expand from there.

Finally, develop a makerspace that will allow students to have a place to come explore, innovate, and create. A makerspace can be an excellent way to incorporate 21st century skills in an indirect way. Expanding offerings beyond the library centers and making them available as a place where teachers and students can come to think critically and problem solve together can help teachers rethink their instruction.

What issues do you see getting in the way of this approach happening?

Mindsets.  Educators should be rethinking who the library really belongs to.  It it not just a department in the school. Rather, it belongs to everyone in the school.  It should be a place of service, where you can come to have your needs met and explore your interests. That might be a place to find a good book or a place to inspire your creativity and imagination and allow you to investigate new ideas.

The Power of Choice

The lack of autonomy in schools today is saddening. The standardization of our assessments has led to a narrowing of our curriculum and instruction. This is happening in schools where even the leaders are giving permission to teachers to explore their passions and to innovate in their instructional approaches.

This is why we are seeing so many initiatives popping up in education today that allow for more choice. The following two instructional approaches – Makerspaces and Genius Hour – are possible pathways a teacher or school leader might take in order to instill a climate of choice in the school house. These are initiatives I have been a part of in our school from the ground up. The effects have been nothing short of inspiring.

Makerspaces

A makerspace is a DIY, passion-driven learning environment where the focus on creation versus consumption. They can be located in an empty classroom, the library media center, or wherever creativity and innovation can be encouraged. Technology should definitely be included within a makerspace, but it is not required at a level you might assume. I have learned through different trainings and resources that the focus and the culture of a school largely drives how the makerspace is utilized in a building.

 

IMG_4433.jpg

Our makerspace inhabits an empty classroom, due to declining enrollment in our blue-collar city. This initiative was spurred by the results from a BrightBytes survey all staff and students took previously. While we had quality access to modern resources, we weren’t always using them to promote critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. These are the four tenets for a 21st century learning environment.

IMG_4876.jpg

Students were involved from the get go in selecting what was needed for this space. While I had initially budgeted for a lot of technology through a local grant application, the students surprised me by electing for better furniture in which to explore their passions and wonderings. We purchased an inclinable table, ergonomic chairs, and mobile desks. 4th graders were even involved in putting this equipment together when it arrived.

IMG_4913.jpg

IMG_4914.jpg

Before the room was even ready, teachers and students started utilizing our makerspace. Our focus as a school is on the reading-writing connection. This has been evident in the projects that have transpired. One teacher partnered with a local organization to work with students and their families to build bookshelves for the texts they take home from school and book fairs. The 4th graders who helped in the planning of the space are writing and developing a multimedia advertisement to collect t-shirts to make dog toys for our local humane society.

What I have discovered with this experience is it is sometimes not enough for leaders to say they will support something innovative. At times we have to help build what we want and envision.

Genius Hour

GHGuidebook-cvr-500Denise Krebs and Gallit Zvi, authors of The Genius Hour Guidebook: Fostering Passion, Wonder, and Inquiry in the Classroom (MiddleWeb/Routledge, 2015), describe this concept as “a time when students can develop their own inquiry-based projects around their passions and take ownership of their work”.

In a 2nd grade classroom, a teacher is exploring the effect of choice on student engagement. She found a slice of time at the end of each day for genius hour to be facilitated (she integrated her content studies and writing instruction). She started this experience by teaching students how to ask questions that could not be answered by searching on Google. Once students discovered two or three questions to explore, the teacher explained the inquiry process that other professionals use in their work. Using these steps, the students got started.

IMG_4774.jpg

One small group wanted to find out what was the best degree of slope for designing a zip line for a fixed distance. They took string, toys, and other materials to create prototypes for their trials. The only technology needed was a computer to upload pictures of their progress and process into their digital portfolios via  FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com).

IMG_4778.jpg

The preliminary results from this teacher’s classroom research have been promising. One student, who receives special education services for behaviors, has decreased his need to take a break from the classroom by 71% from fall to spring. When the teacher asked him why he thought this was happening, he replied, “I really want that time to tinker.”

The Choices We Make

A static approach to improving the conditions in dynamic environments such as classrooms has not brought about the change that some people had hoped for. Squeezing out autonomy in the name of accountability has a track record for failure. Why not trust the professionals who work directly with our students to have some latitude in how the school experience should be designed, with learners in mind? The observations we have made in our school leads us to believe that a little bit of choice in our learning can go a long way.

Redesigning Learning Spaces for Creativity and Innovation

Today I attended a one day workshop hosted by Innovative Educator Consulting on how to redesign learning spaces in schools. The purpose of this type of work is to give students more opportunities to be creative and take their personal ideas from start to finish. We are developing a makerspace in our school, so I was looking for ideas to share with our staff.

We started off the day by responding to four different questions related to spaces for learning, displayed on poster board. The participants added their thinking to the board via Post-it notes. This was followed up with brief introductions and a learning walk with other educators. Many images of different modern learning spaces were displayed on poster board. Our task was to have a conversation about what we liked and didn’t like for our learning spaces in our different schools. If we reached consensus on a certain idea, we placed a smiley or frowny face on the image.

IMG_4816.jpg

A variety of content was also shared with participants to explore. One of my favorite resources was the 7 Learning Zones “that every classroom must have” from Edutopia. Students, teachers and school leaders can design these zones as they create their makerspaces. The consultants suggested using small standing frames from Ikea to label each zone for learners.

IMG_4818 (1).jpg

After lunch, we engaged in another discussion protocol. Called hexagonical thinking, participants used the principles of design thinking to respond to the question, “What one idea or concept best describes the goal you have for redesigning learning spaces?” As a group of educators, we wrote our ideas and explanations on a blank paper hexagon. Then we put our ideas together one at a time, physically connecting similar ideas and explained why (my offering was “personalized” – far right).

IMG_4820.jpg

We wrapped up our day by exploring the different online resources available for educators. This activity was called “Rotation Stations of Discovery” and were categorized around different tenets of redesigned learning spaces:

  • Virtual Learning Spaces
  • Color Theory
  • Research on Best Practices of Learning Spaces
  • Data Collection
  • Video Tour Playlist
  • Classroom Furniture

I thought this video overview from Australia, using concepts from the resource The Third Teacher, was helpful.

My overall experience was positive. I discovered some valuable ideas about redesigning learning spaces and creating the conditions for students to be innovators. Below are my visual notes from the day.

IMG_4821.jpg