Teacher to Maker
by Jessica Lura | 06.21.16
Jessica Lura is the director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at Bullis Charter School in Northern California. Having taught for 17 years, Jessica aims to help incorporate more hands-on learning and technology in the classroom, as well as create opportunities for greater teacher professional development.
I’m a curious person, but I’m also used to making mistakes — I think that’s always been a part of how I learn. At my school, we have this whole initiative around supporting teachers and taking risks, specifically with hands-on making and STEAM activities. The goal is to be able to say, “Now you know how to use a circuit board because we teachers figured it out together. How can we use that in the classroom?” So much of it is just about being interested in learning new things and knowing that ambiguity is okay. You don’t need to know what the end of a project looks like before you begin it.
Just over a week ago, I hosted a School Maker Faire — my principal and I had been discussing [this] for years. We were excited to try out a new format and move our students’ parents away from a science-fair mentality to a more engaging and more inclusive celebration of learning and creativity. Over 100 students signed up to showcase their making skills. There [was everything from] kindergartners showcasing mixed media work, Star Wars creations and circuit work to middle school students showcasing dance, sewing and programming skills.
The best was hearing the stories behind the student work — why they chose what they did, the process and what they were proud of. One sixth grader showcased a homemade drone that he’s been working on all year. It didn’t bother him that it wasn’t finished — he was proud of all the work he’d done so far and excited to continue working. Parent responses like, “Our daughter is on the quiet side, but really loved being able to share her passion with other kids” showed why having a forum for students [to] focus on their interests is so valuable. I think so often students are the best ambassadors for this type of learning. If it’s done well, they can articulate so much to explain their learning, and it shows how much they’ve really learned.
Our eighth graders are currently working on a design project, developing fun and educational apps for a specific user. We have them focus on the younger students as a user; that way, they can actually go to those students and get feedback — you know, really understand what their need is. Sure, there’s some coding involved, but it’s more about the whole app designing process. So, gathering information from the younger students about what they struggle with in school, what they think is fun, what they like, as well as asking, “What do teachers think? What do parents think?” They’re looking at all the different stakeholders, really being empathetic about all the different needs. Then, trying to define what the problem is.
I think one of the biggest benefits of these hands-on, inquiry-based making activities is the opportunity to really figure out how to problem find as well as problem solve. If a first grader says, “I want to be better at math,” then what’s he or she actually struggling with? Is it math, or is it actually more of a language problem, since they’re solving word problems and [the student] can’t read very well?
The eighth graders have to really grapple with some of the things that we as educators deal with. Then, they utilize experts in the field, learning how to conduct user research, how to code, how to wireframe. Ultimately, they produce pitches that show off the wireframes and what they’ve coded, then they pitch their apps to venture capitalists — as well as students — asking, “Hey, do you think this is fun? Is it educational? What would you change?” In doing that, they utilize their communication skills. So, what they might learn in, say, English, is a big part of what they’re learning here. It’s just a really great way to dive deep into learning.
I’m always pretty impressed. I feel like we often dismiss middle school students, but this is really sophisticated thinking. You know, one of the great things about this project is not just the challenge, but also the opportunity to rise to the occasion — and they rise to the occasion. They’re able to stand in front of a panel of experts, app developers, people who fund app developers and say, “This is our app, this is why you should invest in our app and this is why it should be developed.” And they have really good reasons.
The bigger projects — for the older students, at least — tend to be designed around two different things. One is opportunity. So, we’ll come across an expert or a newspaper article and say, “Hey, this is an actual need. Let’s create a project around this need.” The other is current events — trying to make things relevant for the students. It’s always about, “How do I engage them? How do I hook them?” There should always be a reason behind every project; that intentionality should always be there.
I think one of the reasons why the school invested in an actual physical [makerspace] with a teacher was to show the commitment that we have to making — to the parents especially. But, all of the projects still involve the homeroom teacher. We actually have planning time at the beginning of the year so [teachers] can sit down with the makerspace specialist and say, “Okay, these are our standards. This is what we’re doing. How can we make this into a project that works for all of us?” Most of the teachers are really strong in their content areas so the makerspace just gives them another perspective on things.
There’s a lot of collaboration that does happen, and that’s just the expectation. So, some of the project will happen in the classroom, some of it in the makerspace — partially just because it has big tables and a lot of prototyping materials — but we wanted to be really intentional about the kids not thinking, “Okay, so this is the one place where you make.” No, you make everywhere. And everybody makes — adults make, teachers make. We are a making community.
I would definitely say it’s about learning together — especially when it comes to technology. Teachers have gone from, “I need to know everything about this tech tool to share it with my students,” to “I know a little bit about it, and we’re going to learn the rest together.” I think it’s actually really useful if we’re talking about student mindsets — just articulating, “Hey, I’m a teacher and I’m taking a risk.” It just reinforces what learning really is. You don’t have to be an expert at everything — you can make mistakes and you learn from those mistakes.
Below, Jessica shares three tips for teachers who are interested in the maker movement and are looking to start small:
1. Find little spaces to bring in hands-on making activities that reinforce the curriculum you’re already doing. As a first-grade teacher, I taught reading comprehension. So, we’d read something like, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. As a class, we’d ask ourselves, “Okay, why is he having a bad day?” Then, we’d spend 20 minutes using materials — things that I’d collected — to actually create a solution to his problem.
2. Look at local libraries or local museums and any opportunities there. If you’re still really limited, you can bring the kids on a field trip to, say, a science museum and draw in experts versus just trying to create [a hands-on experience] by yourself. Even if you have a very structured curriculum at school, principals understand the value of an art or a science museum and that will help with the legitimacy of wanting to incorporate more hands-on learning.
3. The making community is a really great community — as is the educator community. Everybody is really willing to share, so it’s nice to be able to say, “Hey, I have this idea. Who out there has tried it, wants to try it or wants to talk about it?”
Outside of the school, what’s just so helpful are online communities like Maker Ed. I’m actually involved with several Bay Area online groups, so we’ll get together — both teachers and informal educators from all different types of organizations — and chat about different projects and ideas.