Recently, I participated in a workshop in Orlando, Fla. organized by the National Writing Project to introduce about 50 teachers to making. It was part of a new initiative in partnership with MAKE Magazine to use making to teach writing, connecting two subjects that mean a lot to me.
Teaching informative writing is a requirement in schools. Unfortunately, the choice of topics is often uninspired. “How to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” is one example. Can we get kids making something and then writing about the process? We can engage them through a hands-on project and provide a better context for writing.
When I began talking with folks from the National Writing Project last year, we hit on the idea that getting teachers to see themselves as makers was a great way to encourage making in schools. Thus, the goal of this workshop was to provide a gentle introduction to making for about 50 teachers. There were about eight stations with a variety of projects. Without too much in the way of preliminaries, the teachers sat down and started making. They talked to each other while working (or playing, as I might prefer to call it) and they helped each other. The projects were not simple but they were fun. The teachers were making drawbots and brushbots, flickering mood lights, stop-frame animation, bottlecap jewelry, and bracelets that functioned as snap-circuits.
Travis Powell, co-founder of the Child’s Way Charter School in Oregon, was one of the makers who hosted an activity for other teachers. He worked with his students to develop the project and build kits that he brought with him. The project was a drawbot built with a plastic cup and some kind of vibrating motor. In the video below, Travis starts off with a variety of student-built drawbots and then he shows some of what the teachers made as well.
In the video, you can see how engaged the teachers are. This is what I saw in the room at each of the tables. The teachers were happy, playing like kids, figuring out how things work and how to put things together. They were also proud to share their work with each other once they were done.
They participated in a writing exercise, documenting the process that they followed to make something. This exercise in technical writing is also a good way to reflect on your own learning process and think about how others might benefit from what you had learned. As I said to them, Tim O’Reilly and I were technical writers and this is what we did that helped us start a publishing company. We wrote about what we learned to do ourselves.
Technical writing — communicating a process or procedure in detail — remains a useful skill. It also takes a different approach to writing as it is usually taught. Too often, writing is framed as a creative exercise — an end in itself. So, too, is reading. Yet, reading can be seen as the means to an end — to help you learn to do something, for instance, just as writing can be seen as a way to help others learn as well.
A couple of teachers commented how they could use hands-on projects to teach a range of subjects from math to history. One teacher said it made her realize that she was a “hands-on learner” and enjoyed learning this way. Someone made the comment that this workshop was unlike any professional development she had experienced; nobody was talking at them. They were experiencing what it means to be a maker, and I bet that will help them become better teachers.
Thanks to Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Christina Cantrill of The National Writing Project for organizing the Orlando workshop and seeing the potential of using making to teach writing.