Hard Things Are Still Hard
Back to School Night is Thursday for our middle school. Makers started up in the spring last year, so it took me by surprise when I saw the schedule with a lovely 8 minute block carved out for our class. Much like Melanie’s question last week, that combination shouldn’t have thrown me for a loop.
My goals with Makers have always been a bit fuzzy, especially when it comes to “teacher / ed” goals. I love electronics as a craft and a hobby. While I’d love to see a system where every teacher hosted an open-period throughout the day where they engaged in and mentored students in their personal craft/hobby/interest, that’s not why I have this opportunity. Makers exists while my Euchre/Spades/Bridge elective** flounders, becuase this hobby has nerd-cred and comfortably fits into 3 of the 5 STEAM disciplines. Makers is an elective becuase, even though it looks like they’re having fun, really they’re learning hard science stuff!
The shop class version of Makers haunts me and has me dreading BTSN. In that vision I’m a duplicitous engineering expert, hiding circuit analysis away inside a MintyBoost like secret veggies inside lasagna. I would far prefer an elective where we cooked veggie lasagna. Except I’m not a closeted engineer – I’m a hobbyist and a hacker, often living 3 forum posts ahead of student knowledge, and Makers isn’t a shop class.
So what’s the real work? I find a lot more clarity when I look at what I’m fighting against.
Looking back on what went awry last term, when someone found inspiration and energy to launch into a new project, they often slammed into a brick wall of content knowledge and research skills with a day or two. In my reflections last June, I looked for solutions from the perspective of a content teacher. More projects in common to allow for bundled instruction and peer support. More explicit, direct teaching on programming fundamentals. I’ve seen some positive results from those changes, but they don’t address the meta-cognitive elephant. How do you reframe your ideas, even the wild ones, into something achievable?
If something is too hard to do, then it’s not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your shortwave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we’ll go inside and watch TV.
All of middle school is a fight against the secret Homers inside their brains.
Today I adult-privlidged a period and set us up in the library, away from all the Makers tools and toys. Instead we had a stack of post-its, a calendar showing all 16 class periods left before the Norfolk Maker Fair. At the top of our board was the single topic, the project that everyone cackles about whenever the idea comes up, “repair and [mysteriously augment]** the pinball machine.” How can we get from the constant fountian of “it’d be cool!” ideas into something that’s done and loaded into the van on October 19th?
Here’s how the board looked at the end of class.
The first postit in a section was always a large topic, a shopping list item like “repaint the cabinet.” Then I tried to badger every point. Are we going to repaint the existing design? How do we make stencils for repainting? What paint would we use? Do we need to strip the old paint? Is the old paint lead based?
In the midst of each barrage, someone would sigh “this is hard,” which is the combination turn signal and white flag for adolescent conversation. But when the new “it’d be cool” idea hit the board, I tried to push back into the details. A machine designed and built by skilled craftsmen in 1974 is complicated. A novel idea that makes you laugh always hides a bushell full of hard. You can’t steer around hard and complicated and wind up anywhere interesting. Can’t go over it , can’t go around it, gotta go through it.
This is the hard work of Makers – how to take something that’s legitimately beyond your capabilities and beat on it until you find a handhold. Imagine something outlandish and then build the simplest possible test to see if it’s worth pursuing. Dribble complications into the test until it starts to resemble the dream. Mock it up in cardboard.
Everything, even something as on-paper easy as removing a flipper, can turn intractably complicated in an instant. This is the fear that drives the interior Homers. “You’re barely afloat as it is. Don’t move into deeper water!” If I have an overarching goal for makers, it’s to provide a long stretch of experiences that expose and reject those voices.
Eventually we stalled out on a bushy “repair” branch that was threatening to merge with the electrical components under “add.” As the surrender sigh started up again, I stuck a final note on the board.
“Have we ever plugged it in?”
“Will it catch on fire?”
This is how things get done. Make the list and then find something to do. Confront the fractal tree, but find a branch small enough to pick.
They plugged it in. It didn’t burn.
**Working title “0wnz0r3d by your Grandparents”
** yeah, I’m being coy about it. It’s their first public project! They’re entitled to some suprise factor.