There has been a great deal of buzz lately about "making" and production-centered learning. As a professor of literature and writing, I have been enthusiastic about the role "making" might play in the classroom. (Even those classrooms or courses that don't inherently seem to lend themselves to making in the most obvious sense.) But the truth is, this new found enthusiasm is sometimes an uphill march. Should we relinquish our valuable classroom time to such endeavors that seem at best a crafty indulgence, or at worst, a waste of precious instructional time? This summer, I have continued to ruminate on these significant challenges, and certain moments have helped clarify my thoughts:
On July 9, the National Writing Project and the Educator Innovator network helped launch "Hack Your Notebook Day," which featured a special writing-engineering-art "make" challenge developed by NEXMAP and its partner CV2. Working with circuit stickers developed by Jie Qi, a doctoral candidate at the MIT Media Lab, we were charged with lightening up our writing with copper wire, circuits, LEDs, and more. We had many resources to guide us in this unique endeavor. Through our Paper Circuitry workshops (in varying locations throughout the world), we lit up our collective inspiration and our voices, as we crafted through a hands-on STEAM learning lens.
Could this artful hands-on approach to writing serve pedagogic goals in any significant way? In spite of nagging doubts, our paper circuitry "making" brought to our attention crucial aspects of learning. And while we all experienced this innovative approach to writing in our separate local venues, we also simultaneously connected through our social media platforms
throughout the day. Our learning was both localized and networked. Here is a brief video that shares a glimpse of the Kean University Writing Project's "Hack Your Notebook Day":
What was intriguing during the "Hack Your Notebook Day" was the transformative power of this work. The general consensus before the workshop was that the time spent on this engagement would be a pleasant "time-out" craft session…. A bit of time away from the "real work." But for all that, this "detour” workshop effectively opened up the heart of the teaching and learning enterprise. Our KUWP teacher/writers were now assuming the position of the learners, embarking in unknown territory for reasons still somewhat vague to them. In many ways, their positioning mirrored a similar resistance that kids today might feel when introduced to some "random" writing approach in their classroom. By the close of our time together, we found we were transported to a fresh perspective.
What a revelation to consider the palpable frustration we experienced when we couldn't make the circuits work (and the feeling of rising failure that might overcome us if we couldn't make it work). We also discussed the first time the LED lit up — the very real empowerment of that little light coming into view. (There were several audible gasps and exaltations from our group when the circuits started to light up). We considered why we chose certain aspects of our composition to illuminate, and what kind of thought went into selecting certain words and images to highlight with illumination.
The particular care and craft of writing was brought to the collective (and intuitive) foreground. A poet considers the power of each word when composing. With paper circuitry we all experienced the rich nexus of visual and textual representation (and the importance of the choices we made in order to produce certain meaning in this work). We also considered the added layer of circuitry. In this context, the additional engineering knowledge was harnessed to punctuate certain meaning in our compositions. We agreed that this experience was indeed writing, par excellence. KUWP teachers expressed a renewed empathetic understanding of their own students' learning processes. They considered anew how their own students might feel compelled to create and express ideas within this medium. And, we all thought further about how our students turn certain corners…. How they might discover new openings for communicating in meaningful ways. As educators, we want our students to become engaged complex thinkers and expressive writers. Perhaps "making" (as a methodology applied to writing) might help us get there.
Our work with Paper Circuitry was a perfect realization of the Connected Learning experience. We gained a hands-on understanding of how making, creating and producing are powerful paths to deeper learning and understanding. These important learning tenets emerged as we hacked our notebooks together:
#1. Peer Learning — We helped each other learn. We leaned over each other's shoulder to explain when we figured something out. We extended ourselves by describing what we discovered and we brought others along with us. What a powerful "natural" resource that exists in every learning environment. Imagine if every teacher could effectively harness that kind of learning empowerment?
#2. Interest-driven learning — We chose to write about things that mattered directly to us. We were able to express the personal in our individual projects. We found creative inspiration in our immediate lives, and those motivations were valid and counted as real learning. (i.e. an upcoming wedding, an upcoming birth, the reflection on one year in a life, the habits of a writer, etc).
#3. Networked Learning — We were part of a conversation that linked our local network with a broader learning community. We tweeted with National Writing Project colleagues, we posted our work on the #CLMOOC google+ board. We extended our learning beyond the bounds of our classroom's four walls and we realized we were a part of a community of practitioners.
#4. Academic learning — Our work went well beyond whimsy crafting as a time out. We discussed the implications of composition enriched with such complex entry points for writing and meaning production. We discussed how a "maker" approach to writing practice might be an opening or gateway for reluctant writers.
#5. Shared purpose — The work helped us empathize with the younger learners we are employed to engage. We experienced the possibility of cross-generational learning and connection as we ventured into new territory. We remembered that learning never ends, no matter your age or position within a learning context.
The 2014 "Hack Your Notebook Day" clarified for me that when learners are positioned as a "makers," they are given fresh license to imagine, to design, to assert a new vision. They are given the space to fail, and the chance to recuperate with a bit of persistence and help from peers. Writers-as-makers are called to imagine new possibilities.
And, this is where true innovation is born. This is where our collective future seems brightest.