“School is for learning, not play.” growled the district maintenance worker. Truly. A growl accompanied by a sneer. It was the expected ending to a 15 minute debate about whether I was completely sure I wanted an electrical outlet capped so I could mount my Lego wall. He told me I’d change my mind, and still I persisted. My wall was the cornerstone of my makerspace.
I’m not the first person to get push back when developing a makerspace. I’m sure I won’t be the last. Change is hard, especially in some schools that are entrenched in “the way it’s always been done.” Status quo is usually the first barrier to innovation. In just the fifteen years I’ve been on the job I’ve seen teachers and schools balk at ebooks, BYOD, differentiated instruction, cool down or safe spaces, and behavior plans- technology and pedagogy that are now standard best practice.
What’s so different about a makerspace? Honestly, the best I can tell is it looks like fun to an outsider and fun is the opposite of the expectations associated with rigorous academic standards like rigor, fidelity, and accountability. And while those things are important, we have to remember we’re teaching students before standards. What’s been lost in our work supporting Race to the Top are those skills that aren’t measured on a test, the social-emotional skills like cooperative problem solving, perseverance, and conflict resolution. Those same skills that today’s employers rate as their highest priority when looking to fill an open position.
Makerspaces provide a link to academic standards and social-emotional skills in an engaging way. Science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) can and should be a part of every makerspace. I began my makerspace by introducing one new activity every month. I wanted to ensure I had time to teach my students the procedures. We started with the Lego wall, and added cup stacking, coloring, and crafting. Next year the space will expand to include electrical circuit activities and coding. My makerspace is the most popular space in my library. And when the kids are here, they’re picking up books as well. It’s win-win.
After I had worked with students in the space for a few months I was invited to present to the parents at the School Advisory Committee (SAC) meeting. They wanted to know what all the “play” was about. I split them into two teams and gave them an equal amount of plastic cups. I told them to build the tallest structure they could in two minutes, and then I got out of their way. When I called time, I asked them to reflect on skills they employed during the exercise. As predicted, I heard cooperation, communication, teamwork, problem-solving, engineering, out of the box thinking, and hand-eye coordination. I’ve been to many SAC meetings and don’t remember a time I heard as much laughter as I did that day. They were hooked!
If you’re thinking of incorporating makerspace activities into your classroom (and I highly recommend it) you may encounter some resistance. You’ll need to show, not tell, your stakeholders why they should support “playing” at school. There was power in that simple cup stacking activity. The parents experienced the happiness their kids found in the space, and emotion is a powerful motivator. In the end that’s really what parents want for their kids; to know that they are learning in a safe and caring environment. Makerspaces provide that.
Julie Hiltz is a National Board Certified Media Specialist at Van Buren Middle School in Hillsborough County. She believes in the power of leveraging social media for personal and professional development. Follow her on Twitter @juliehiltz.