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Every Classroom Should Be a Maker Space

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This post is by Randy Scherer, the Director of High Tech High Career Pathways PBL Leadership Academy.

Ten years ago, I walked past a newsstand and out of the myriad of multicolored covers, one jumped out at me: MAKE magazine. As someone who grew up making stuff, this magazine spoke directly to me.

I bought copies and brought them to the director of my school. I remember triumphantly exclaiming, "Let's show this to all of the teachers--think of the projects we can do!" A decade later, well-intentioned schools that create dedicated "makerspaces" worry me.  

For the uninitiated, a makerspace often houses ultramodern tools like laser cutters or 3D printers, mixed with drill presses, table saws, and soldering irons, or perhaps screen printing equipment or sewing machines. I fear that stand-alone makerspaces will confine the powerful act of creation to only certain parts of the school. I worry that yesterday's computer lab--which we rightly democratized and decentralized by putting computers in every classroom--is today's makerspace.

When I walk past a new room being outfitted with a laser cutter or a drill press and hear, "This is our makerspace!" I am tempted to ask, "What happens in all of the other spaces? What do people do there?"

The act of making something is transformative. An individual's self-image is forever changed when he or she holds up a real object--a real contribution to the world--and says, "I made this." In a time when students' lives are increasingly virtual, abstract, and vicarious experiences, it is every teacher's job to make learning, and life, "hands-on."

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In the humanities classes I have taught at High Tech High, we confront these issues in the context of English and history. The tried-and-true way to learn about great literature is to force students to read it, and then prove that they read it by writing an essay in which they explore a theme or elements of the author's style. Though a classic assignment, the student likely made nothing new. It is unlikely that the essays explored themes found in Shakespeare or The Great Gatsby that had previously gone undiscovered. It is also unlikely that anyone other than the teacher read that essay. The teacher probably wrote many of the same comments on each essay and the students likely stuck them in a pile or threw them away after the grade was received.

In our classes, I want every student to learn from great literature. However, we access this content--and much more--by making things. Last semester, we published books. Every eleventh grader in my class was partnered with a second grader as a "reading buddy." Twice a week for six weeks we met with our reading buddies to read together. Every day I reminded my students that they had three jobs: help your buddy become a better reader; help your buddy love reading so much that he or she will read independently over the summer; and secretly learn everything you can about your buddy so you can surprise him or her with an original work of children's literature at the end of the project.

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Early on, I held up real, published books. "This is what each of you will make," I told the class. Naturally, there were gasps of disbelief. In between meetings with our second-grade buddies, we analyzed classic literature. While drafting and critiquing our own stories, we identified and applied principles of writing from the great books we read, with each student striving for the standards set by their literary influences. Importantly, not one of my students wanted to let down the second grader who looked up to them, whom they sat on the carpet and read with twice a week. We did our own layout and design and produced real, published novels--each one aligned to an individual second grader's interests and reading level. The shortest was just under thirty pages. The longest was over 160 pages. Nearly every one was designed, bound, and published according to publishing industry production standards, although some chose to hand-bind one-of-a-kind artwork as their covers. Nearly all are for sale online and have been purchased in our community (search "High Tech High Media Arts" on Amazon).

At the end of the project, we went to our second grade buddies' classrooms while they were in another part of their school. Each of my students clutched their novels, careful to not bend the pages. When our buddies returned, we yelled "surprise!" and gave every second grade student a gift of an original book, written just for him or her. Many didn't initially realize that we wrote the books--everything looked so professional. At first, they thought we bought these books for them. My students had to point at their names on the covers and their buddies' names in the dedication of each book.

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I share this story because it illustrates my belief that every classroom should be a space to make things, and that all students and all teachers should have access to the transformative and deeper learning experiences that "making" provides.

As exciting as makerspaces may be, they are fraught with politics and equity issues--budgets must be allocated, equipment ordered, perhaps even new construction undertaken. The decision to purchase tools and place them in a specific location needs to be understood as a pedagogical choice. When schools centralize resources, they can purchase bigger or better tools. However, when the tools are centralized in one part of the school or in one room, that can limit who uses them. In addition, a dedicated makerspace can send the message that this space is for making, and other spaces are for something else, which in the past has been often disconnected, abstract work labelled as "academic."

As ambivalent as I am about makerspaces, I appreciate that they have thrust a challenge in front of us. This is an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the technological age. We must ask, when did making things become a capital letter word--when did it become new and cool to be a "Maker"? And, how can we get to the point where all students and all teachers create things in every class? Every classroom should be a maker space, because designing and creating new things is part of what makes us human.

Photos by Randy Scherer.

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