Friday, May 18, 2018

Making Converts

For several weeks it felt like spring would never happen. It was cold and dreary. We were having snow days in April and the year kept getting longer. Finally, the sun came out, the air warmed, and it started to feel like the year was winding down. There was prom. Now the seniors are leaving for internship. The exam schedule has been published. And that is either coinciding with or maybe causing a shift in the thinking of a few of my colleagues. This is what I am hearing:

- They need to do project.

- The seniors should do something fun before they go.

- They are checking out; I need a way to hook them back in.

And, then, a couple of them asked: can you explain that makerspace to me again?

Of course! YES! I would love to! And then I put some pipe cleaners in their hand while we talk.

This week I have been working with a Social Studies teacher in two of her classes and with an English teacher colleague in two of her classes - both pairs of classes are a mixture of juniors and seniors.

Today was the project due date for the Social Studies classes and here is how the teacher described what happened:

"We had a board game day today and the class broke into groups to play each of the games. And I did what you said, I told everyone they couldn't play their own game because one test of the effectiveness of the game was whether or not someone could follow the directions and understand how to play without them there to explain it all. And they didn't want to leave their games! They were so proud of them, they wanted to be sure that everyone else really appreciated and understood them." And then she added, "Remember that kid I told you about who still owes me so much work from last quarter? The one who never does any of the assignments? He made the coolest board game! He refused to leave his game. Flat out refused. And I let him stay so he could have that pride in what he had done."

That's when I told her a story about a group of girls in her class who had worked together on their project. They did all of their work in the classroom until the very last project work day. On that day my colleague, their teacher, was out. To get away from the sub, the students decided to work in The Garage (our makerspace). When they arrived they asked me, "what are we supposed to do?" I put pipe cleaners in their hands and replied "Well, what do you need?" They said they needed a spinner and playing pieces. So I asked: "Well, what should the pieces look like or represent?"

You know where this is going... those pipe cleaners were quickly bent into a prototype of the animal shapes they needed. I directed them to our bins of supplies and recyclables and they looked at me with open mouths; "Has this been here all year?!" they asked. I nodded. They grabbed each others arms and exclaimed: "Can we come here during a free and just make stuff?" I told them, "Of, course!" To which they responded: "This makes me so happy!"

I couldn't join their class for project sharing day because my English colleague brought her classes to The Garage for their first full-period making session. This project is the culmination of their study of Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle. Last week, I introduced the project to them with this discussion of unattainable dreams, symbols, and the relationship between artists and their audience.

Less than a minute into class she leaned over and said, "Oh! This is amazing. I am so glad you are getting pictures of this! Should I take some, too?" Here is what was so amazing. Complete and total engagement in selecting the only required element of their project: a piece of glass. The students were sharing and comparing. Discussing the merits of clear vs. translucent glass. Shape and texture were important, too. Then I delivered a 3-minute orientation to the space, listing a variety of materials from pom poms to old "steampunk" hardware and ended with: "If you are thinking about a material you can't find, just ask." That's it. They were off!

Once they had been planning, designing, and experimenting for about 10 minutes, I approached a small
group who were intently debating the best way to attach two parts of a project. I asked what problem they were trying to solve and they showed me and launched into an explanation of the merits of the different solutions they were entertaining. Their English teacher approached and looked over my shoulder, and the students entirely shifted gears. "Don't worry, don't worry!" they said. "It's going to be good. You're gonna like it. There is a good reason for what we are doing. I promise: we are working."

My colleague pulled me away from them and asked, "Did you see that? Did you see what just happened? As soon as I walked over it became all about the grade, about reassuring me they were making something I would like. This is entirely different than when you come to our classroom. Our roles here are totally different. But they are thinking so intently and in such different ways. I mean, look at them! Some of these kids checked out weeks ago and now they are so engaged I can't even talk to them!"

The best observation came next:

"You need to come to one of our department meetings at the very beginning of the year next year and tell everyone about this. And then people like me will back you up. I know you told us about it at a meeting earlier this year, but we didn't get it. But now there are more of us to help people get it."

I will gratefully accept an opportunity to discuss making with them. And, next time, I will bring pipe cleaners!