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Maker Spaces: What Can They Do for ELL Students?

Today's guest blogger is John Spencer, an author and speaker who recently left the classroom after eleven years as a middle school teacher to become a full-time assistant professor at George Fox University.

At the start of each school year, I have always asked my students to fill out a survey about which kinds of technology they have used and how they have used it. Over the course of a decade, I have watched students go from no computers, mobile devices or Internet to having multiple devices, computers and their own personalized data plans. Despite our status as a Title One school, the immediate Digital Divide continues to close.

Unfortunately, a different chasm has emerged. Overwhelmingly, year after year, students describe using their devices for purely entertainment purposes. Most of my students consume media on a daily (even hourly) while missing out on the creative potential of their devices.  The exception, however, has occurred with my gifted classes. Here, the students have created code and participated in maker spaces. They have extensive experience with multimedia authoring.

Some would point to the notion that gifted students are naturally more precocious and curious about their world. However, when I've explored it more in-depth, I discovered that my gifted students had a higher level of exposure to creative spaces borne out of inquiry-based, project-based learning. In other words, while my ELL students had spent years filling out digital worksheets, the gifted students had participated in Genius Hour, design projects and maker spaces.

This has me wondering if maybe the new Digital Divide isn't one of access to technology but access to meaningful creative experiences. Here the catalyst isn't technology so much as a different set of policies, paradigms and pedagogy that govern ELL instruction. The end result is an educational experience stripped of creativity, student agency, and critical thinking -- one that fails to prepare students for work in a creative economy.

However, I am convinced that teachers can cross the chasm if they support language while also using an inquiry-based framework that emphasizes creative thinking.

Creative Spaces for ELL Students

"Are we really going to create video games?" Fatima asked.

"Yep, you're going to love it. We're going to use Scratch. You'll start out with a mash-up idea and then you'll make your own game entirely from scratch."

"Wait, isn't that what the honor's class is doing?" Manuel asked.

"It is."

"And we're doing it, too?" Fatima asked.

"Of course we are. Why wouldn't we?" I asked.

"But they're the smart ones," Manuel said.

I shook my head. "You guys are just as smart. You're just learning a second language. And last time I checked, that's a pretty impressive mental feat."

The video game project differed between each class. I added sentence stems and additional academic vocabulary exercises with the ELL group. However, I also made accommodations for special education students. By the end of the unit, it was readily apparent that students learning English could, indeed create code that was just as amazing as any other class.

I noticed a similar scenario when we moved on to our Shark Tank Projects, where students went through the entire design thinking cycle in order to solve complex problems by developing practical products. Again, I included specific scaffolding during the research phase (especially with regards to grammar and verb tenses). And yet my ELL class thrived in the ideation and prototyping phases.

  • Students grow in their ability to tackle complex problems. Instead of filling out rote digital worksheets, they learn to ask deep questions, generate great solutions and defend their results.
  • Students grow in self-efficacy. They begin to define themselves as creative thinkers and problem-solvers.
  • Students learn valuable skills like project management and group collaboration.
  • Students grow in language development. The hands-on approach means students have a more immersive experience that involves all five senses, allowing students to see and practice language in a real-world context. In addition, students get more peer-to-peer academic discourse time rather than typical teacher lecture.

Ultimately, ELL students who experience maker spaces are better prepared for the kinds of jobs that will require problem-solving and critical thinking. It's more than that, though. Maker spaces tap into the deeply human need to connect, question, and create. ELL students are no exception.

Connect with John Spencer on Twitter

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