Making Makers Better
When I described my last post as bittersweet, some feedback wondered where I found *any* note of positivity. On reflection, I left out the hugely important bedrock truths that, for me, leavened my litany of failure.
First, “Hey, I got to teach a Maker’s class this year! Ungraded! Kids using soldering irons, drills and Dremels for the first time!”
Second, “Hey, I get to run it again next year! Twice!”
The reaction from kids and the school has been overwhelmingly positive. Most of this year’s 7th graders signed up to try again next fall. An even larger group of rising 7th graders signed up for spring. This is awesome.
I needed to plunge through all the glaring problems because, in most cases, they were aspects that were only visible to me. If I don’t document them now, when they still hurt, then they’d easily slip away.
After a long weekend of reflection, I’ve managed to build a positive framework for ways I can prepare for and improve next year’s Makers.
First and foremost, I need to take ownership over fundamental aspects of classroom structure. I need to recognize the distinction between establishing practices that form culture and compelling students to follow “because I said so” rules.
I need to build a class structure where students feeling frustrated or uninspired can do something to help out a peer on their own task. Our group needs a big board that tracks everyone’s current and back-up project, along with a tweet-length log-line of what the next step should be. Ideally, this would mean that frustrated kid who “can’t do *anything*” would have their two “next steps”, along with 5 or 6 others, to choose from.
I think that’s viable, but it’s also a lot of metacognition for 7th and 8th graders.
A “next steps” project chart that depends on students from day one doesn’t work. I need to not only build the document, but also I need to establish the practice. When we start working on separate projects, there will already be “next-steps” from one or two whole-class projects*. This doesn’t force anyone to abandon their interests in favor of mine. Instead it allows students to walk into an environment where both the collaborative projects and metacognition are being modeled, and they can gradually step up to assume ownership of those aspects.
Everyone codes. We’ll start using Scratch 4 Arduino, since they’re already familiar with the Scratch environment and it builds the basic intuition about we can use numeric values to perform actions in software. This was a major hurdle for students using Arduino’s this year, even for those who felt comfortable working with LEDs and modifying sample code.
I need to model and create a culture of active reflection and planning. Maybe a “tweet to reserve” tool system that rewards planning and consistent engagement, rather than coercive social pressure (aka, whining).
Buy 3 of every kit, two for simultaneous use and a third for reference/parts. No one builds alone.
No new project starts until we’ve identified an expert source and I’ve helped students make contact. Rather than pointing out an email address and saying “go for it”, I need to build a clear support system for how this happens. These are kids who have, as a rule, never cold-emailed anyone, ever. In the first week, I’ll present a basic contact letter template, with a boiler-plate description of our school and our class. In that same time period, we’ll choose one forum/support community so that everyone in class will have their own account and be able to reach out as an individual. If we find that we need to post on other forums, I’ll make class-accounts and maintain a page of login credentials.
We need a clear distinction between project parts and puttering parts. Bins with lids and labels big enough to store 60-row breadboards would be a good start.
I need to figure out a system where students have more control over purchasing new materials. I spent a few hundred dollars out of pocket this semester, but those purchases were too sporadic and often didn’t completely cover what the project needed. Maybe making purchases on a fixed schedule will help with that ($50 a week from Jameco/DigiKey/Adafruit). For new projects that aren’t kit-based, students will need to have their outside expert check over their parts list before ordering. That alone could have saved the EL-Wire glasses.
* I think this clearly mandates my favorite summer imperative ever: “Acquire beat-up pinball machine.”