Sunday, January 26, 2014

Tired and inspired: lessons from three days of student making

I spent one week making with my students in October for our second make cycle. At the end of every day, I tried to do a little written reflection on the experience. Towards the middle of the week, I came to some important realizations that I captured in this reflection. The following post is one I adapted from the reflection I wrote after the third day of making with my students.  

I was going to post on day two, but to be honest, I just didn't have the writing in me at days end. I don't think that I have it in my today either, but the inspiration I’m feeling from the events of today is driving this post on.  Something special happened...something that wasn’t there on the first or second day...or at least not to the same extent.  There was widespread flow...that space where the subject and the object had come together and it becomes difficult to tell where the artist ends and where his or her art begins.  The kids were into it….the completely-lose-track-of-time-and-space sort of into it, and what they were making was no longer a set of boxes and pipe cleaners, papers and paint.  Kids had direction and purpose. There was still tinkering, yes, but there existed a sense of ownership that before today was only apparent in limited amounts. Today was awesome.

I was talking with other teachers before today...talking about the concern I had that the requirements that I had set forth for the project...about it being connected to students histories, future career interest, and science...were sort of falling to the wayside.  Kids were making cool stuff, but it really didn’t seem like what they were doing was considering these elements. And their makes sure as hell didn’t look like they fit anywayshapeorform into our broader Cycle theme of mapping.

But this disconnect seemed to shift today. Once students had an idea of exactly what there make was to be, they seemed to move forward with it with a greater consideration on these requirements that I had given them. This observation is important for the making classroom and teacher. This idea of “backwards planning” (or in our case backwards making), or making with the end object in mind, is closely tied to the common approach to teaching.  There is an objective, a lesson gets designed around teaching that objective, and in the end students are measured on how well they mastered that objective that was clearly understood by all involved beforehand. Yes, I do see some faults in the model (because learning is a complex thing based on more variables than can possibly be considered, and regardless how clear the objective is or how well the instructor designs the lesson, no two students are going to see something exactly the same...let alone the objective as the instructor sees it), but still, I’d be lying to say that I didn’t adhere to it a little….the fact that I was frustrated and confused when I saw that the requirements weren’t shaping students' make is a testament to my holding this belief.  

This school model, though, runs counter to the making (and learning) process.  The learner does have some vision, yes, but as the composition as formed that vision is revised and revised based on the makers' experiences, struggles, and new learning.

So, coming back to this topic of requirements.  I don’t think that they were a bad thing.  I’m just seeing now that students’ not adhering closely to them in the first days of the project was perfectly fine. I didn’t beat the requirements into them when I noticed they weren’t being considered...and I’m seeing now that was a good thing. Requirement beating wasn’t necessary. Space, encouragement, and freedom to make was. Before students fully understood exactly what it is that they were making, they weren’t yet ready to consider the requirements.  Now, with direction in place, I’m seeing all sorts of deep thinking happening on the parts of students about just how those requirements (and even how the idea of mapping) applies to their make, and this thinking is shaping the final vision...or revision, about what they are composing.

So my take away….requirements are OK, so long as they do not become restrictions. It’s fine to plant the requirement seed in the beginning, but give it space for it to grow.  It’s not possible for students to develop a close connection and vision of their make if they are making it to meet a focused objective. Let the connection happen and the make become personal. Forget the vision of what it should, or even could, look like.  Let them discover it for themselves and then figure out how the requirements should apply.
And oh, here are a few other things that I noticed.

  • space for collaboration is valuable...because of it, students draw on each other for their skills, experience, and expertise. Partnership form between individual makes already started, forming new, more complex integration of ideas.
  •’s messy, but seeing it in the hands of students makes me even more sad that art was cut.  It allows for more than just a creative outlet, it brings about really deep and complicated Maria’s Pink Floyd-album looking painting that speaks to the disconnect between humans and machines when it comes to her knowledge of the medical field...or Sebaistians' black box that connects his knowledge of minecraft to his future in computer engineering.
  • Time. An hour a day for five days is hardly enough. I worried about this before we started, but I was thinking we’d have too much. Nope, not at all.
  • Cardboard is the ultimate making material.

A time and a place to think...

This weekend was spent making, planning, hacking, and collaborating with a special group of people.  I can't wait for our "teaser" trip to Discovery Place!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Making STEAM and ME...

Saturday night...the end of a long day of planning...collegiality and...making! I'm hanging out at Ocean Creek Resort in North Myrtle Beach, on a retreat...with a cohort of people from the UNCC Writing Project, Tar River Writing Project and Discovery Place. We gathered here this weekend to think more about a project we are currently engaged in called the Intersections Project. The only way something as ambitious as the Intersections Project "works" is if all the key stakeholders involved get the opportunity to imagine what that project may end up looking they are making it.

That's exactly what this weekend retreat has been all about...a chance to imagine what is possible. Getting to spend time with Michael (our Discovery Place expert) and Mary Catherine (my friend and fellow teacher at David Cox Road Elementary School)...thinking about our 2nd Make Cycle and planning out future experiences at Discovery Place has been very exciting. How so you may be asking? begin with...through our collaborative efforts...we are attempting to plan an experience that will be memorable for the students we teach while our image of learning not currently valued in many traditional school settings. Memorable in that "it" (a series of field trips to Discovery Place and the McColl Museum) will connect what students are learning in the classroom with the concept of MAKING as well as the connections (or intersections) between Science and Literacy they will inquire into while on their field trip. The image of learning we hope to illustrate as having value is one that involves risk...creativity...imagination...collaboration...and...the realization that much can be learned through failure.

Just this week...Michael, Mary Catherine and I our respective classrooms...what learning could be like as the students built structures with rectangular, wooden blocks. After spending a few minutes examining the blocks' attributes and engaging in free figure out what could be done with these ordinary pieces of wood, the students attempted to build structures that could hold a predetermined amount of weight while trying also to see how high they could build something. No one laughed when somebody's structure fell...instead words of encouragement were given...along with advice...based on what was being learned through the experience.

Why can't this level of engagement happen during a traditional lesson on (for example) understanding how to determine cause and effect in non-fiction text? What is missing in our practice that makes the wooden block experience stand out as something foreign to what happens daily in our classrooms? Working with Michael and Mary Catherine...through the Intersections Project...provides me space to think about these and other questions.