Early Saturday morning isn’t the time you’d expect a rowdy gathering of high school students to pour into the cafeteria at Fashion Industries. But there they were, some armed with cups of cocoa, most looking around at the collection of random objects, from twine to bowling balls, that they would use to build a Rube Goldberg trigger for a paper roller coaster. Given the time limit of just one day, the kids rolled up their sleeves and got to work applying what they know about physics, math, construction, and making to strive, as a team, to create a successful build.
In a classroom in Queens, a group of 7th graders waited by the computer lab door to let one class out before they could go in. They were impatient, today was the day they’d be playtesting the board games they’d made from a variety of materials, using a variety of tools, including 3D Designed pieces printed out on a MakerBot. The groups had continued to tinker with their cards and rules after class, the boxes were covered in construction paper with the name of the games written in bubble letters above the names of the team members who designed the game within. As the last 6th graders left the computer lab, the 7th graders streamed in, set up their boards and eagerly awaited the test that was to come.
In a Maker Space in East Harlem, a group of 5th and 6th graders gathered around their teacher to watch her instruct them how to thread a needle, how to sew a straight line on their pieces of fabric, and how to tie knots. Some of the boys gathered at one table, intently threading their needles, growling as needles dropped to the floor, celebrating as thread went through eye and they could begin the first step to make the Cosplay Costume they designed for the school’s ComiCon.
In a second grade classroom, a little boy doesn’t know how to use scissors. No one taught him, his mother doesn’t have scissors for him to use at home because they have no home of their own. He struggles a moment before giving up and asking the teacher to cut the bird he drew on felt fabric for him. Here it is, that teachable moment, that chance to make learning a skill connect to something real. Slowly the teacher shows the boy what to do, then lets him struggle again. The frustration suddenly gives way as he gets it, the felt is choppy, uneven, less than perfect and yet he is mastering scissors and so his teacher gives him a second piece to cut out, then a third, until it is exactly the bird he wanted.
Maker Education is not just the reform of the day, it is, in fact, an ancient form of education that has been pushed aside as we focus on academic improvement. Schools that used to offer shop now have after school test prep in abandoned shop classes. A whole generation of students have never held a hammer, used a sewing machine, or played with cardboard boxes. Some of this has to do with shifts in society as a whole, instead of giving kids a box of crayons we give them an IPad with a coloring app. Instead of empty afternoons of boredom that have to be filled with creative play, we distract our children with diversions. But the growing awareness that students need free form play, creative outlets, and ways to express themselves beyond the digital world has led many educators to the Maker Movement.
The Maker Movement, as it is known today, began over a decade ago when magazine editor Dale Dougherty launched “Make” magazine. In Dougherty’s article “The Maker Mindset,” he discusses Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and compares the Maker mindset to the flexible growth mindset that is essential in today’s ever changing world. “Dweck’s growth mindset maps very well to the maker mindset, which is a can-do attitude that can be summarized as “what can you do with what you know?” It is an invitation to take ideas and turn them into various kinds of reality. It is the process of iterating over a project to improve it. It is a chance to participate in communities of makers of all ages by sharing your work and expertise. Making can be a compelling social experience, built around relationships.”
Teaching this mindset has been something many teachers do already, when assigning projects, when challenging students to explore their own interests. Maker Education gives us a set of terms we can use to explain the iteration process, the fail forward coda, and the drive, according to Dougherty, “to develop educational contexts that link the practice of making to formal concepts and theory, to support discovery and exploration while introducing new tools for advanced design and new ways of thinking about making.”
The world is rich in resources but building a community around those resources empowers educators to face the challenge of Maker Education. The Manhattan Field Support Center is hosting the Manhattan Make-a-ton on May 19th at the Martin Luther King Jr. Campus. We’ll be sharing ideas about Maker Education in the classroom, in the school library, during the school day, after school, and we’ll be showcasing projects that attendees can make under the guidance of student Makers. The Maker Ed Forum will host discussions facilitated by educators who are working with students to make it happen.
Seeing the learning happen, watching students lead and encourage others to make, these are the moments teachers live for. I hope you’ll join us.
Lori Stahl-Van Brackle is Manhattan Field Support Center's Instructional Technology Director and head of the MFSC Maker Educator Cohort. Before moving to the MFSC, Lori worked at JHS 157 in Rego Park as the Computer Talent teacher where she led her students through piloting the Software Engineering Program, taught Web design, movie making, game design, digital literacy, and more. Before becoming a teacher Lori was a journalist and web designer for magazines. She is an EDxEDNYC veteran presenter! Follow her on Twitter at @Loristava