Over the past two days, my ears have been immersed in the sounds of hammers banging against wood, drills grinding against hard metal screws, and marbles clinking against each other as they happily slip and slide down tubes and tracks. I’ve found myself, somehow, in the midst of a maker lab, working with a group of 18 students on various projects, all that incorporate some sort of making.
Just one week ago, I was voraciously preparing for what I envisioned to be pandemonium, immense complexity, and unmanageable activity. Suffice it to say, I was a bit scared, not only having to manage all of these projects, but the mere idea of managing a type of project that I had never had to before.
You see, I have what one might call an overly analytical mind. For some reason, my brain has trained itself, over my 26 years on this planet, to identify lots of variables, analyze inputs, anticipate outputs, and catastrophize way more than I fantasize. So naturally, when planning this maker lab, I worried about students not knowing what to do, the complexity of individual projects being unmanageable, and parents and students alike being upset with me due to unpreparedness or a lack of knowledge in the area. But after two days, I’m seeing that, once again, I have over-planned, overanalyzed, and over-anticipated how much work running a maker lab would actually be.
In my opinion, when starting something new, it’s better to have more than less, and it’s better to think more than less. But I will say, now that I’m on the other side, I invite you to learn from my anxiety if you, in fact, decide to create a time for making in your classroom this year. Try these four tips for preparing for your first maker class:
1) Make sure you have lots of materials.
My first priority when starting my maker session was to make sure I had an abundance of materials. In fact, knowing I had materials started to make me feel safe, simply because I knew that materials were the focal point of making. While this may seem rather obvious, it’s important to remember also that it’s not necessarily only the quantity of materials you have, but the diversity of the materials, as well. In preparation for the class, I went with a friend and experienced maker teacher to a store called Scrap in San Francisco. I bought old machines and machine parts, random bits and pieces, and lots of fun materials to inspire a variety of creations.
On the first day, I laid these materials around the room on various tables and corners. I created stations for cardboard, deconstruction, machine parts, glue guns, and other areas in order to help our students see many of the options they had. While they started rather tentatively, at the end of the first day, our materials had inspired students to build a motorcycle, a life-sized house, purses and pillows, and even a marble ramp. But how did we manage to keep track of all this? It sounds like a lot of complexity. And it is, but there is a rather simple solution for this.
We’re lucky enough to have a set of tablets in our classroom. On these tablets, we’ve trained students to keep track of their work by adding pictures and reflecting on their work daily. Not only is this a great way for students to get acclimated to keeping track of their own work, it makes us more efficient as educators and more capable of keeping track of the complexity that dominates a maker lab.
Working at AltSchool, we have the benefit of having engineers that build these awesome playlist tools for us (see left), but it’s possible to have students document their own work without it. Portfolio tools like Google Drive and Evernote are excellent tools for students to take pictures of their work using tablets and keep track of what they’re doing. Additionally, something as simple as disposable cameras, Polaroid cameras, flip cameras, or digital cameras can still provide similar benefits if you are on a tighter budget.
3) It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be engaging.
Students are swept away by the idea of making. While it could be because they don’t get to do it a lot in school, I think it’s more so because they are unconsciously captivated by the idea of creating something that wasn’t there before. I know the rush that I get from writing a blog post or composing a song, and I’m sure that rush is similar when they see the product of their creativity.
As a result, planning grandiose provocations is not a prerequisite for a maker class. Instead, a strong classroom culture and a synergistic passion for creativity is all that’s truly needed to foster a productive maker classroom. Relevant read alouds, class meetings around collaboration, and a focus on the social-emotional aspect of the maker culture are simple components that engage students in classroom experiences. In my opinion, it’s created a sense of purpose and a sense of community because we all know we’re working towards something similar. And this leads me to my final tip.
4) Find something to unite everyone.
It’s hard to help others relate to each other without a way for students to see themselves in others and others within themselves. We decided to unite our class around a common theme called “ChangeMakers,” where we discuss daily how “making” can help make the world a better place. By the end of our class, we’re hoping to encourage students to cultivate creations that have others in mind and truly make an impact on the world, not only helping to add a greater purpose to our class, but also helping develop our students’ sense of empathy, perspective taking, and understanding of a global community.
All in all, teaching a maker lab doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can be quite exciting if you set up some pretty simple things. My advice? Get the supports in place, stand back, and brace yourself to watch as your students take over your room, ignite with creativity, and create a world that didn’t exist before.
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