Tie And Jeans

Archive for the tag “makers”

Launching Makers: Students

I spent most of my time at NAIS with a great team of Maker-minded educators, each of whom has great stories about the growth and accomplishments of their program.

When I watched the faces of other teachers and school leaders in those conversations, I could see the analytic processes running very close to the surface. They were listening to these (hopefully) inspiring and entertaining stories, but only because we were too stingy or too dense to simply explain how to launch their own #makered program!

After retelling my story from Flint Hill, and listening to Jaymes, Lindsey and Vinnie retell their origin stories, here’s the Cliff Notes for launching a K12 Makers program.

These are the three resources you absolutely [1] need in order to launch a #makered program:, students, faculty, and space. The precise mixture and composition of those components will dictate the starting boundaries and possibly the focus of your program.

Students are the most difficult component. Not because individual students lack interest, but because of how schools limit their options and constrain their choices.

Most K12 schools wrap all student and teacher activities around a carefully managed framework of classes, breaks, passing periods and coverage. From one viewpoint, a school’s primary resource is student hours, and the whole edifice exists to portion out students and move them smoothly from place to place. In the vast schedules that constitute those systems, very few cells are dedicated to “you know … whatever seems cool.”

Student contact hours are often set up as a zero-sum game, where established players (rightly!) view new programs as immediate opponents that could develop into existential threats. New programs don’t bluff their way through the curriculum and schedule gatekeepers with a gameplan of “just start!”

But while most schools have a carefully managed schedule, almost all of them are held together with some kludge. If you’re looking to launch a Makers program “Monday, not someday” then look for these areas. At Flint Hill we started with middle school study hall, a weird schedule-filling block that didn’t serve an academic purpose beyond “kids go here.” This year, we’ve seen great uptake Makerspace use from middle school students who are dismissed at 3p but have to wait for the 3:50p bus routes. Every school is different, but I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have some pockets of time where the primary mandate is “have an adult in proximity to kids.” Not only are those times fundamentally unclaimed by the faculty structure, they’re often a real drag for kids as well! Providing a Makerspace alternative to those “holding pen” moments is pure upside for the students and the school.

When you’re looking to launch a K12 Makers program, start with finding a time that students can make. If you can’t find a window for it now, then you’re facing a problem that no capital campaign or architectural design team can solve.

[1] I’m on record as a“just start” absolutist. This list, like any attempt to three-ring binder and package the #makered process, is a compromise from that position. Please imagine that every noun and most adjectives that follow have invisible asterisks, footnotes and disclaimers.

Creating Space for Success

It’s 12:40. There’s maybe 15 minutes left in class. The three closest projects to me are a student laying out measured 2×4’s to cut with a circular saw, another drilling angled holes into some laminated planks for an atatal, and the grisly disassembly DVD changer covers much of the floor. Somewhere outside my cone of vision there are 6 other projects, none of which (thankfully) are using a tool more dangerous than a soldering iron.

I turn around and see two young women, holding an untidy bundle of butcher paper, their project box and a can of spray primer.

One of the weirdest parts of teaching middle school is recognizing the places where your immediate adult presence is a part of the solution and where it’s part (often a large part) of the problem.

Sandy Snively, an incredibly generous and gifted mentor that I did not deserve, believed in the space teachers create by their absence. She taught me all of the best things that ever happened in my math classroom, one of which was to take a long walk, straight out of the classroom, during  tests.

“Is that honor code horse-pockey, or does it mean something?”

Students in her classes created an honor code together in the fall and signed their name to that same pledge on every test. Sandy knew that kids signed other honor codes, in classes where the teacher still prowled through rows of desks during the test, eyes peeled for a forbidden note card or furtive glance. Those honor codes were horse-pocky, and those teachers damaged their students with every circuit.

Adolescents observe their teachers closely to discover the meaning and value of their own actions. Sandy showed me that our students learn how valuable their words and commitments are by how adults respond to them. The prowling teachers told their students that honor codes are just words, a thing you bubble in and forget about, no more binding than a COPPA checkbox. Sandy told students that words matter, that we come together in community with principles above “what can I get away with?” Her faith in her students shone through every time she’d stroll out of the classroom to get a cup of tea, opening a space for their integrity to emerge.

I can see a dark gray mess through the window and hear lower school kids tromping through the halls towards lunch.

“Go. Tape down two feet of paper on all sides of the box, and try to get back in the building before class ends.”

There’s plenty that could go wrong with two 8th graders and a can of spray paint during the middle of the day. But chasing down every possible problem also ensures that I’ll fill up the space that these amazing young people need to discover, make, and thrive on their own.



* Sandy was a salty farm girl to the core, even in her middle school classroom. She never, ever, said horse-pockey.

MakerEd update: Looms and Bridges

I dread Halloween for a number of reasons. The most trivial among them is that starts November and the traditional* post every day challenge. Working with that daily requirement forces me to realize how easily I fall into bad “essayist” habits with the blog. I don’t post about stuff until I’ve got something to say about the stuff, which in my saner moments I recognize is the exact opposite of the correct plan.

In the spirit of November, here’s the disjointed status of Makers.

The most elaborate Scratch+MakeyMakey project my class has ever seen reached something like alpha software and moved on to laying copper tape. Hence this, the most elaborate Bridges of Königsberg puzzle I’ve ever seen. I felt so math teacher proud about this. I laid down the law! Paths must not cross!

baseball bridges

There was a full period of pencil sketching on the inside of their contraption before they even thought to reach for copper tape. They worked smart, using the raised edges, and running a long common ground through easily two dozen triggers. Then, after so much had been laid down, they discovered that they had taped themselves into a corner. “Isn’t there some way we can put stuff between the layers of tape?” Yes. now is the time when we talk about insulators and conductors.

Nate Kellogg asked about how our MS kids are using the 3D printer. Up until this week, my honest answer would have been “not as much as I had hoped.” The kids who actually built the machine display some ownership over it’s continued functioning, but they don’t seem to have any interest in using it in a significant way. I wasn’t sick with grief over this, but it was a bit surprising to me. I was happy to see that when other projects needs some thing, the printer would get called in to service, which represents both a crucial skill set and a mind shift for middle school students. But… I thought all kids were crazy for small plastic trinkets!

This week, I found the small plastic trinkets for which our students bring the craze. Makers and gentlenerds, the Rainbow Loom.


Are rubber band bracelets a thing with your kids? Then these designs will drive incredible traffic to your printer.

We started out using this great SCAD design for a closed ring loom. The commercial kit uses linear strips of the pegs that mount onto a base in various configurations. It’s pretty flexible, but bulky and not well suited for designs that extend off of the loom itself. The circular loom we’ve been printing is perfect for those, and turns a design that’s a tricky mess on the normal setup (the HEXAFISH**) into something that’s super easy and compact.
There have been more 5th and 6th graders in the lab this week than ever before. I know the about the “whistle trap” for 3D printing (although I can’t remember who coined the phrase), where the device becomes a tool to make a certain thing rather than something that enables student design. In my head I pretend that the loom isn’t a whistle, in part because of the changes they’re making to the base design in OpenSCAD. But really, I’m willing to risk it because of the crazy velocity, the sheer churn of kids coming into the space and asking about what they can make.

In other groups we have a RC plane under construction, a bunch of 555 timer projects (bad move: starting kids with breadboard projects more complicated than a pushbutton LED), a skeeball game, and powered paper airplanes. But the other lesson I remember from previous Novembers is that it’s better to post half the story in an 20 minutes than try to cover everything in an hour.

* aka I’ve done it twice

**strictly speaking the N-Fishtail.

Vision for #MakerEd

Even though it feels like I write about Makers all the time, I’ve been struggling this week to come up with a blurb-y description of our program for internal school purposes. Partly this is my distrust of PR and guidebooks. Partly this is my deeply repressed nervousness that these questions are just prelude to the inevitable, angry, “Why do we pay you to show up?!”

So here’s my first draft. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of feedback from school constituents about wether this fits our style guide or brand image. As my #MakerEd colleagues, does it do a decent job representing our goals and heritage?

The Flint Hill Makers program aims to infuse community with a spirit of inquiry and empowerment through hands on explorations, construction and iterative design.

Our Maker program is an embodiment of Seymour Papert’s pedagogy of constructionism, where students build their understanding through rich interactions with the computational, electrical and physical systems. The course offers creative engineering for middle school students, with exercises designed for adolescents to develop cutting edge skills and phenomenal grit through exploration and play.

Communication Challenge 2 – Post Mortem

I’m glad I posted in the nadir.

On Friday, both classes took to the field and tried to make a go with their half formed plans for the Communication Challenge.

Short summary: Teams have to pass a message over/around/through a barn, then across a large section of open field, without revealing it to observing students.


I need to remember that despite my overwhelming teacher-concern, leaving the building is almost always a good move. Opening those doors spikes the students’ perceived “realness” of the moment., and their nebulous plans (like “use Morse code”) had to turn into real action (like…stopping by the printer to grab some Morse code cheat sheet).

Let me poke at that one group for a bit. First, after they asked if “Morse code was legal,” their immediate response was … to do nothing. They had found a cowbell in the room (I planted it on the parts shelves earlier in the week) and determined that you could probably hear it across the long distance. Since Morse code was legal, then they all knew they could just “use Morse code.” That idea, that named thing, sat in their brains and filled up all the space, a perfect response to a short-answer quiz question. “We’ll use Morse code” sat contentedly in their middle of their plans and lied to them.

It’s not until they’re running down the stairs that they think to print up a Morse alphabet list. Because “Morse code” was so beguiling, so obviously RIGHT, they didn’t give any thought to implementation. So it wasn’t until they were in the midst of their 3 minute section, that the reality of banging out one of these messages letter by letter.

In the end,  “Dr. X arrives at Asgard at dawn” reached the recipient as “U G B Q D  wait, start over! Oh my god, Was that a dash? I have no idea what you’re saying!”

<sniff>  Sorry, just got something in my eye.

That’s an extreme example of what I saw throughout both classes. Every ideas, the strong and the harebrained, smashed hard up against the real world.

Shouting a color name seems easy, but three story barns play funny games with sound waves. People halfway across the field could hear the coded message, but the poor guy at station B was in a sonic dead zone.

It takes a surprisingly long time to make sizable squares out of masking tape.


Even if you’re a pretty good middle school football player, 120 yards is a really, really long throw.


One major goal for this year’s class is to make active & public reflection an obvious and expected part of the learning process, without relying on graded notebooks or points-for-blogging. This exercise made clear how important that reflection step will be throughout the year.

In their basic school-aligned state, middle school students are impatient. They consistently overestimate their ability and heroically underestimate complexity. Those two traits combined mean that I should expect a > 80% failure rate for any one-shot challenge. I’m convinced that a day spent testing horrible ideas is 10x more productive than a week asking them to “think through” their first thoughts. But something needs to happen after that, some enzymatic trigger that processes frustration into grit and new ideas.

“I think that my group should’ve thought of more than just one ideas so if one didn’t work then we would have another.”

Yeah! Focused on the design process instead of the specifics of the challenge, here’s a piece student reflection that gives me hope!

“I think we need to make a mortar to fire the football across the field.”

… but they’re still 7th graders.

Communication & Conditioning

Last semester, I threw a couple of Communication Challenges at my students. My plan was for these to be an escalating series of tasks that would push them from the normative 7th grade view of signaling (hand written notes and mobile video chat, with a vast emptiness in-between) into something that approached a continuum. I hoped it was going to be my sneaky way of making entire idea of a serial protocol into an essential idea.

And it…kinda worked. We ran three of them before building the 3D printer started to eat every Makers class. But in every challenge, I faced a choice of either allowing a hyper reductive physical solution or piling on more arbitrary/adult restrictions to the problem.

This year, I have two classes that each have more students than the previous 3 semesters of Makers combined. At this scale, I’ve been struggling to have the classes cohere into productive subgroups around a challenge. 45 minutes just isn’t long enough to bring students into a new challenge, let them flail at it long enough that the force of their effort settles them into “natural” groups. So, for this, I resorted to one of the corrosive team assignment tools in my middle school toolkit.

To cope with the larger class, I needed larger groups which suggested a layered challenge. So this year it’s a message relay. Stations A and B are reasonably close, but on opposite sides of our facilities barn to prevent for visual contact. B and C can see each other, on a clear day, but are separated by several athletic fields which may or may not be filled with 3rd graders.


Instead of a collection of Pinky & the Brain quotes, the message is a statement structure with some variable nouns. Last time the absolutely fixed vocabulary meant that students built systems to transmit a single number. I had hoped this would push those returning students a bit further.


I’m writing this in the nadir of #makered achievement. I’ve presented a challenge and then tried to shut up. I’ve watched two classes stumble through innumerable plans to move a physical message between stations. Lots of plans for whatever sport-ball they hope will cover the distance best, or rockets or giant ramps to roll a ball across the entire field. One group is building a PCV and Milkcrate sled to haul an 8 word sentence across the field.

Basically, I’m writing this at the moment where I (and possibly they) are convinced that nothing will work.

I’ve tried to build the challenge with a set of game-like restrictions that quietly discourage certain approaches. Other teams are spectators, and if one of the observers learns the message then… then we all frown? This is also where I see kids looking for the bedrock of grades. Until there’s an awesome example of could be produced, the middle school instinct is to worry about what they HAVE to produce. When schools rely on threats of force, especially abstracted and mediated threats like grades, we create young people who are always looking for the hidden whip.

So I’m distracting myself by building stupid door triggered LEDs and other nonsense, basically trying to fill the classroom environment with concrete bits of the possible. The ugly, slapdash possible.

MakerEd chat is tonight, and Laura suggested talking about classroom management in #makered

I think these struggles fit under that umbrella. In my first Makers post-mortem I bemoaned that my decade of experience prodding everyone through the same borderline dull material at roughly the same pace was largely useless to me in Makers. Two years in, I’m struck by how many of those tools are shortcuts that strip agency and choice away from students in order to keep the classroom machine humming. Classroom management systems, even ones I respect like Developmental Designs, are systems that condition students into automatic/unthinking response. Working within a traditional school day makes some measure of conditioning convenient, if not absolutely necessary. But each semester makes me more aware of what I give up, and what I force my students to give away, with those choices.

Seriously, try the soup

There’s an traditional cycle for how students expect to learn things in school. First, teachers announce what everyone is going to learn. Then those same teachers present a basic framework for how this new skill or thing emerges from what we’ve all learned in the past. For some number of days or weeks after that, teachers provide instruction and examples that demonstrate exactly how everyone needs to demonstrate this new skill/knowledge. Ultimately there’s a project, a quiz or a test where everyone has to prove that they followed all the steps and know the same amount about phytoplankton or the Sedition Act.

Makers doesn’t work like that.

Rule 126

When you walked in today, you got your first glimpse at two strange patterns from a large and fascinating set of patterns. Everyone jostled for markers and started to fill in squares, while proclamations of “I’m so confused” and “I don’t get this at all” drowned out any discussion of the patterns and rules at hand.

In the learning cycle you’re used to, those words are powerful. Those are the words you use to send a lesson back to the teacher for adjustment: for more explanation, for more examples, for clarity about what’s going to be on the test.

The cycle we’re all used to treats confusion as an aberration, a bowl soup that arrives too spicy or too cold. Not only does the soup need to be replaced, but the experience makes the whole kitchen seem less trustworthy.

Makers doesn’t work like that. Here, confusion and frustration are cultivated as an essential part of learning anything genuinely new. Here we serve stuffed bowls of Bún bò Huế or silken gazpacho. If you’ve been trained to expect Cambell’s Chicken Noodle, you might feel out of place. You can take your time trying out these new flavors, but have some faith in the kitchen.

Recipe and photo from Ravenous Couple

Recipe and photo from Ravenous Couple

Marshmallows before robots

I can hear the carpool conversation now. “Mom, I was promised robots and 3D Printers, but all we got was marshmallows.”

It’s true. On our first day of Makers we did the marshmallow challenge and not much else. Tomorrow? Tomorrow we’re going to be sitting in a circle and playing clap games! Shenanigans!

I’m sure that some of my students will go home griping about this extended intro full of camp games and puzzles. I’m doubly sure that those students probably won’t be the ones reading my justifications on the class blog, but I’m gong to write them anyway.

First off, we’re a community of makers. Learning with each other requires some measure of learning about each other, and that’s doubly true for me. These courses will be filled with opportunities to discover your own problems and design your own solutions, but we start together.

Second, it’s the first week! I’m not sure what your summer consisted of, but the only things I did over the break that happened in precise 44 minute chunks was stream episodes off Netflix. Learning and problem solving are slow and messy. Making productive use of these weird chunks of time will be a challenge for you, for me, for the class, all year long. So, one the first few days, we start small. We’ll get a lot more out of these classes if they don’t end in a mad panic.

Finally, don’t think that everything in Makers is just what it appears on the surface. There’s a million name/trust activities that teachers use in these early days. I chose these, and chose them for specific reasons. Sneaky, tricksy reasons.

We’re going to build robots. We’re going to build new CNC machines. We’re going to use all sorts of familiar tools and learn to use more that are new to you. To do all these things together means knowing and trusting each other enough to experiment, make mistakes, and erupt in mad-happy dances when the moment calls for it. Our path towards that point is a bit slow, and it starts with marshmallows.

Reflective Craft & Pop Magic

I’m really bad with paper.

As a student this was academically lethal. My life was a constant search through 3 ring and spiral binders, trying to match my (primarily visual) impression of where a particular piece of text lived in warrens of perpendicular notes.

As an adult, I structure my life around activities where I can ignore paper entirely, and activities where holding a pen and writing is a cognitive stimulant, but the content of the resulting paper isn’t important.

A side effect of my adult coping systems is that I’ll use the same notebooks for years. Sketches, math problems, conference notes (those are notes passed in a conference, not notes on a speaker) will eat away at the notebook a dozen pages at a time, dumped into the middle of the largest remaining section of blank pages.

This four hole Kukuxumusu notebook has Google Apps Script notes (Fall ’10), 6.002x homework (Spring ’11), and all the contact info for my CMK12 colleagues before they were my most trusted professional cohort.

The notebook is just about cached. When I was looking for empty space this afternoon (sketch for caster-mounts for Makerspace tables) I found this, scrawled in purple ball point.

This is also why I type

Saying “who knows what X will be like in N years” does not absolve us from preparation. No matter what choices you make, when you have to pivot, there will be costs and conflict.
Treating your school like a startup means positioning your organization to pivot quickly and minimize those costs.
Schools, by historical practice and temperament, are slow.How do you prepare for a future you can’t see? How do you prep a school to pivot in an unknown direction?
+Trim and minimize org structure.
+Focus on and respond to student needs.
+Maximize student choice throughout.

The “who knows?!” future is the ultimate rebuttal to “being hit on the head lessons.” What do you imagine the learning experience / classroom environment looks like for the seniors of 2025? What are you changing about the lower & middle school learning experience / classroom environment now to prepare them for that?

I wrote that a few years back as a way to solidify a train of thought, but it has come to define my professional life.  Some of the tone in that piece makes me thing I was trying to shift the structure of a school by arguing with and convincing adults. How appropriate that the next batch of pages is all Constructing Modern Knowledge,where Gary and Sylvia taught/reminded me that the way to change a school is through students first, faculty second, and administrators when it’s too late to argue.

Most of the time, I don’t write to convince others. I write to confer with myself, and set my own unseen/unconscious rudder. Even when a thought stays locked as set of purple squiggles, the experience changes me, changes my mind, and pushes (gently!) on the world. It’s not as dramatic or profane as Grant Morrison’s Pop Magic Sigils or Alan Moore’s Creation Performance, but it’s a power I can feel and track across the last decade.

Beginnings and Plans

As I’ve mentioned this in our (now weekly) #makered chats, I’m working out of a new room this year. Let’s be clear, the stunning news is that there is a, singular and exclusive, classroom, not closet or forgotten corner, for middle school Makers at Flint Hill this year. This is phenomenal.

My MakerEd world is filled with people and schools building incredible spaces. Just check out Vinnie Vrotny’s photos and tweets about their new Innovation Lab, or Hillbrook or Neuva or Abermarle, and you’ll see a bevy of casters, concrete floors and open space.

While my heart says we’ll get there, that’s not where we’re starting. As giddy as I get thinking about those transformed spaces, I have to fight back against my stuff-focused Grinch self. Those rooms will be wonderful learning spaces, but they’ll also be a message to your colleagues and other schools: “To transform learning spaces, first you must call the contractors.”

No. To transform learning, first you have to open the door to students.

One experiment I’m trying this year is starting off with fewer tables and seats than we’ll need. Especially on the first few days, I want students up! Moving, thinking, noisy and active, exploring all the unformed corners of the space.

My dream follow up for this start is to only allow “built” seats in the MakerSpace. This could include student sewn pillows and cushions for milk crates, shaped and stabilized cardboard boxes, one-plank chairs, one-sheet chairs, one-day chairs, or wikiseats.

I decided I needed to build my own before school started.

It’s worth restating at this point that I didn’t thrive in shop class. I didn’t major in EE, and I don’t have a thriving robot factory at home. My investment in the skills and crafts that constitute my corner of #makered  comes from my experience as an adult novice, not a lifetime of honed expertise. I have enough experience to use a woodshop safely, but not enough to complete any project with fewer than three trips for materials.

When I start a project, I don’t have an unconscious process that scouts ahead for common mistakes. In this case, I found a neat design on Thingiverse and charged ahead. A more careful Maker would have looked at the brief instructions, looked at the plans, and wondered what might need to change when using different sized plywood.

This is where I started wondering about that.

This does not look comfy.

If the material had matched the plans, these slots would mesh and form a stable, smooth exterior.  This monstrosity doesn’t do that, since I’m trying to shove 3mm plywood into 2.3mm slots.  It looks like a Westerosi portapotty.

After a frustrating evening, and some napkin estimates of how long it would take me to widen each slot with a Dremel, I started over from scratch. Illustrator to laser cutter to assembly. All told, the  project and false starts burned through much of a weekend.  While this fulfills the original objectives, giving me a stool to sit on, it’s a confusing artifact


Here’s a physical object that serves as an object lesson for the unimportance of stuff for #makered. Everyone at school is going to see the stool, maybe hear the story, and think about “that class where kids make the stuff.” Very few people from inside those walls will see my remixed project on Thingiverse, where I uploaded my modified Illustrator files with the incrementally wider gaps. No one will see the shift in kids’ perceptions as they realize that there are plans for all the things in their world.

Well, no one will notice… up to the point where we build the GyroGlider!

Plans available!

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