Reactions to My First Maker Fest, Part 1: From Skepticism to All In
It was April—the fourth quarter—and as a third grade teacher at Discovery Elementary School, in Arlington, Virginia, I still had lots to do before the school year ended in June. Then the principal announced, “After testing in June, I’d like you and all the students to participate in the First Annual Discovery Elementary School Maker Fest.”
My first reaction was along the lines of “What? Another task to add to my already long to-do list at the end of the school year, when we are trying to wrap up and pack up the classroom? Really?” Then she told us we were free to create our own schedules and to choose whatever project we wanted to lead. Maybe this school requirement was going to be a lot more fun than other end-of-the year tasks.
Just like the third graders I teach, I’m happiest when I have a choice. But I still wasn’t sure how I’d find the time. With the words “choose whatever you want” in the back of my mind, I came up with an idea I wanted to integrate into the maker day: students could make pillows depicting a character from the Zoombini app we played in class. Maybe the principal had just inspired me to find the time!
What’s a Maker?
I admit, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be a maker. Fortunately, the principal had put together a Maker Support Team (the librarian, an art teacher, a gifted resource teacher, and a technology teacher) to guide us.
A maker can be any age. Students, teachers, family members, and community volunteers can all be makers. The Discovery Maker Fest would be a gathering of makers who are crafters, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science club members, authors, artists, tech enthusiasts, and more. A festival celebrating invention, creativity, problem solving, and resourcefulness! Our student makers would spend time tinkering with recycled materials, collaborating, and exploring possibilities in order to solve a problem.The “loose parts” and materials might range from everyday items, like recycled fruit trays, pipe cleaners, egg cartons, and cardboard boxes, to PVC pipes, circuit boards, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) at the high-tech end of the spectrum.
Basically, maker is a new term to describe a hands-on, playful, creative person engaged in project work. “If that’s the case,” I thought, “no problem! I’ve ALWAYS run a maker-like classroom, because hands-on learning is my mantra.” I believe children (and adults) learn by doing and learn through play. Whether teaching kindergartners or third graders, I use a workshop approach: I teach an explicit mini-lesson daily in each subject, and then I act as a guide-on-the-side. I watch the students work, and I offer guidance as they think, learn, experiment, and explain. While the state standards drive my instruction, my ultimate goal is to help students think critically for themselves, so they can live richer lives today and every day.
When I realized that maker fest was just a new label for my lifelong philosophy of project-based learning, I was a little perplexed. Why was project work being presented as something new? However, I thought back to my days as a novice teacher, sitting wide-eyed at staff meetings. I dutifully took notes to help me implement whatever new initiative was being introduced. Days later, I’d overhear veteran teachers in the faculty room say things like, “How long do you think that plan will last?” and “Isn’t that like what we did years ago, only with a new name?”
I personally vowed early in my career not to become closed minded or set in my ways. Yet, here I was about to finish my 24th year as a teacher, and I felt myself moving toward that veteran been-there-done-that mindset. However, I realized I needed to keep an open mind and keep listening.
In fact, I was really looking forward to working with my colleagues and students on the maker project.
Read Part 2!
Resources on Making
Making and Tinkering With STEM: Solving Design Challenges With Young Children
Activity page for Making and Tinkering With STEM: Solving Design Challenges With Young Children
Now Read This: Books That Encourage Making
Making With Young Learners: An Introduction
Sally Donnelly is a third-grade teacher at Discovery Elementary School, in Arlington, Virginia