As part of my job, I frequently field questions from teachers in the trenches about PBL, technology integration, high-ability learners, and more recently, makerspaces. Occasionally I’m asked a question where I know the answer will benefit others. In those cases, I ask if I can publish the Q/A results. Here’s one recent conversation about elementary makerspaces:
A librarian in our district has been asked to build a library makerspace with k-5 students who they come into her library once a week!
How do I help her organize her activities, materials, and time? In my very limited experience I see two options:
- same theme with different tools for K-5
- stations rotated every other week or month?
What are your thoughts?
As you know, the role of librarian is going through a shift for the past few years. In a modern learning environment, the librarian is no longer the lady who constantly shushes you while stamping or shelving books.
Nope. Today’s modern teacher-librarian is truly an information and media hub specialist. And modern libraries across the US are dedicating at least some of their spaces to create a center of making, tinkering, building, thinking, and doing. In other words, they’re embracing the makerspace movement.
A Librarian’s Guide to Makerspaces (a great resource)
So when we’re starting to build and structure that space inside the reality of budgetary restrictions, and with limited weekly time with kids, what should we have the kids doing? How do we get them in there and structure their time? I believe that’s what the question above is asking.
I also want to add that this question comes at the beginning of the school year from a librarian who’s not ever done this before. So I’m guessing we’re looking at a blank canvas. Do we have time, budget, or the guts to go all out and build a perfect space? Or would it be better to start small, add on a little at a time, based on the growth of the students, the teachers, and the courage of the librarian?
Even if she’s won a $10k grant, I would still encourage the slow growth of her program, simply because it’s too easy to get “tool-blind,” buying the coolest toys and gadgets while missing a bigger picture of who the kids are and what they’ll respond to.
You know how that works, right? Have you ever bought a kid a cool (read as “expensive”) present and watched glumly as she played happily with the box? Yup.
My first piece of advice is to go slow.
Put one activity out for each class to experience. And yes, while a true makerspace has kids coming in and building whatever they want to, I stand strong in my belief (based on several years’ experience) that we want to walk both kids and staff into this “independent learner” thing. The reality is that very few of our kids get to experience true independent learning in their regular classrooms, so when we look at a group of kids and say, “What do you want to do? You can do anything!” They look at us as if we’ve sprouted a tail and spoken another language. And IF they do anything right away, the result is often poorer quality (to their own dissatisfaction), or they dawdle and just waste expensive supplies. Psst: If you know that scenario is true, say “yes” out loud right now. It’s ok. No one near you will look at you.
Pro-Tip: The learning is in the process of “kids doing” with makerspaces. What I mean is that as they build and make stuff, they’re learning. So we want that process to always be shifting from helping kids where they currently are (dependent upon teacher guidance) toward developing independence in thinking and learning. And yes. We do have to meet them where they are at first.
As a consequence, we will want that first activity to be active hands-on for the kids. We want to get them where they’re building something exciting and fun! But we also want that process to be pretty darned teacher-guided (I give you permission). Your kids will have better success and you can begin to let go of the reins as they gain more experience. And by “more experience,” I mean by the end of the first project.
So what are some great projects for littles to make?
My second piece of advice is to start small.
Disclaimer: “slow” and “small” depends upon the teacher’s comfort with risk-taking and the students’ and supporting teachers’ readiness to experience independent learning. Apply this as you might apply a fungus cream: as needed.
Ok, so let’s say you don’t have a lot of money (the reality for most educators). There’s still stuff you can do for mere pocket change. Start there. Know that more money can come later. Go to Donor’s Choose or Go Fund Me for help from a broader community. I’ve seen many teachers get their cool maker projects funded there.
Or maybe you do have a nice chunk of change; it’s burning a hole in your pocket and you’re impatient to get started. I get it, if you don’t use it, you might lose it. But the first piece of advice is to start slow and the second piece of advice is to start small, and there’s a reason for it. I’ve seen too many people go out and blow their entire budget on a cool set of gadgets only to be disappointed in them when they weren’t what was promised. I’ve also seen educators do a space make-over and be very disappointed with the tables, chairs, storage, and other equipment they bought.
We want to understand that building a makerspace is less about the “stuff” and more about the process of learning. You can have kids building something out of donated cardboard or styrofoam (see Kevin Honeycutt’s Styrosaurs). Or you can start them out with coding videogames. Or maybe they’re building rockets, robots, or hacking their notebooks.
You see, in our STEAMmaker Camps, I help teachers learn what a makerspace can be, what things and challenges kids can do, how to manage the space and materials, and how to support engaged, empowered independent learning. We’ll often have 10 modules going for the first few days, then by the end, every learner (up to 60 or 70 participants at a time) is working in small groups or individually. It’s a rare teacher who can successfully launch that magnitude of complexity on her first try.
A great way to start K5 could be with one “station” where kids make a bristle bot. This activity can be done with Kinders and be ramped in complexity all the way to 5th grade and beyond. The truth is that at first, there’s probably not a lot of “ramping up” that needs done since even the older kids have probably never done anything like this before. Regardless.
If the teacher-librarian starts with one project, the next week, she can leave that project up, but leave it over to the side of the room. After 2 or 3 weeks of running a new project and helping kids learn how to work in this type of environment, she might be able to begin asking kids how they might “mashup” the stations they’ve already done. She could design a challenge that kids could choose (or not) to use something from each of the previous experiences to solve her challenge. Eventually, by the end of the year — or first semester, depending upon her kids — the students are making their own challenges. Voila, a fully functional makerspace has been born!
Another great place to start is with one small project station that teaches skills or a project station that can be added on to with advanced interest. Leave that station up for the next visit, but add on another station, related or not. By the end of the semester, she’ll have a slowly-built makerspace that kids will understand. Each weekly visit, she’ll want to leave time to allow kids to actively consider how these stations could work together. She could encourage kids to come in before/after school to start to make those connections by making their own interesting stuff. Again, her library has become a hub of activity where kids are exploring, tinkering, building, and learning.
And her smart colleagues will get in a hurry to collaborate with her to extend their own classroom time/space to do hands-on work that relates directly to the content back in the regular classroom. And hopefully soon, those same colleagues will be bringing in their own ideas, or taking her ideas back to change their teaching and learning processes too!
There are other things to consider as well. Should she rotate stations? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we could begin by developing fewer stations with finite products and instead spend time developing more stations that are about skills and actions. Maybe there’s a construction space. Maybe there’s a video production space. Maybe there’s a robotics arena — and we can find our Social Studies, Science, Math, Language arts, etc supported in each of these stations. Perhaps after all, it’s more about the learning we do there and less about the stuff.
Veteran maker-librarians: what am I missing?
Newbie-makers: what questions did I not answer?