Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Making ELA Through The Community Project

-written by Mary Kendrick

My interest in “make” was sparked by a week-long “Making” Teacher Research Institute hosted by the UNC-Charlotte Writing Project. During this week, a group of teacher-consultants came together to explore questions such as “What is a ‘make’?” and “What does the maker movement have to do with writing and teaching?”.  Most of our learning was experiential. We wrote six-word memoirs on quilt squares, played with paper circuitry, made stop-motion videos with Legos and Playdough, and tinkered with web-based tools to create cartoons, movies, memes and avatars. I found “make” intensely engaging--it was hands-on, playful, invited exploration and experimentation, and made me take creative risks outside my comfort zone.  So, when teachers at my school were invited to participate in the Educator Innovator project “Making our Worlds”, I was excited to bring “make” into our ELA classrooms.

While “making” is more commonly associated with STEM courses, ELA and “make” are also a natural pairing; the “making” process has much in common with the writing process, and ELA teachers are no strangers to hands-on, creative projects. That being said, when looking for ways to integrate “make” into lessons, we wanted to be sure that our activities were true “makes”. ELA projects are often highly-structured and teacher-directed, with detailed lists of requirements, step-by-step instructions, and prescriptive rubrics describing what a “successful” outcome looks like. A true making experience is open-ended, has no pre-defined outcomes, offers participants a variety of mediums and materials to choose from, is interest-driven, and includes little to no instructions about how to do anything -- we wanted to incorporate as much of the “making” ethos as possible, while also using “make” in purposeful ways that accomplished ELA curricular objectives.

We achieved this goal in 8th grade ELA when students participated in the Community Project Make. Our school is an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (MYP); the culminating MYP experience is the 8th grade Community Project, which our 8th graders complete in ELA. In this project, students investigate a community issue and take action on that issue. The Community Project Make happened at a crucial stage in the project--students had identified their topics and done some research, but hadn’t planned how they’d take action. We used the community project as way to help them crystallize their thinking on the issue and play with what it meant to take action.

On our make day, we set up four make stations in the room -- 3D poetry, black-out poetry, card-board badges, and stop-motion animation. Before students began making, we asked them to reflect for a few minutes on what they’d learned so far and what they were thinking and feeling about their community issue. We then set them to a very simple task: Make something that sends a message about your topic. After a quick overview of the make stations, we let them loose in the makerspace to begin experimenting with how they could use the materials at hand to communicate their opinions. Students eagerly dug into the materials, creating makes that expressed their stances on issues such as cutting, homelessness, literacy, and healthy living: a bleeding and bandaged hand with the message “Scars Will Last”, a pop-up poem that began with the line “Keeping your money just to yourself does not make you powerful”, a cardboard and tape badge supporting youth sports declaring “Let us Play!”, and a stop-motion video depicting how books bring happiness.

As students’ worked, I was heartened to see them enlivened by making in much the same way that I had been. They were focused and engaged as they worked, collaborating easily and naturally with each other. They were happy to experiment and test out ideas and didn’t hesitate to revise and remake when first attempts didn’t work out. Students who often struggled to stay focused on reading and writing tasks were completely on-task in an environment that was hands-on and allowed for movement and conversation. English language learners and special education students thrived as well. Several novice English speakers chose to use Spanish in their makes, while a special education student who struggled to express herself in writing was able to communicate her thoughts on girls’ distorted body images with a 3D cardboard sculpture.  Of course, there were a few students who found the experience challenging: they couldn’t settle on any particular make, and left half-finished makes all around the room, tinkering uncertainly with the materials at hand. Some high achievers, accustomed to easy perfection with traditional academic tasks, experienced frustration when asked to do something with no clear directions or set parameters. Yet, even these students were able to leave feeling they’d accomplished something because the Community Project Make wasn’t focused exclusively on the product--engaging in the process and taking risks  were just as important, and even the students who struggled and been open to trying and left the room with a make in hand.

The Community Project Make was also a productive learning experience that effectively moved students into the next stage of their projects--writing a plan and putting that plan into action. Creating makes that sent a message helped students focus on the things that mattered the most to them, which in turn helped them develop the goals of their projects and decide how they would make a difference.  

In reflecting on the Community Project Make for this piece, I realized that what made the make especially useful, was that it wasn’t an add-on--it was an integral part of the students’ process. It helped them think through where they stood on their topics and took the place of more traditional ELA activities that we could’ve assigned students, such as creating an outline or completing an idea web. This ELA make let students experience true agency as the made choices, accessed their own voices, and expressed truly personal interpretations through their work.