tinker with text
Literacy-Based Maker Education
A few nights ago, I took part in a Twitter chat. Another participant posted a photo of a class project to show her learning around literacy instructional strategies. There were books everywhere, engaged and smiling children, anchor charts that students had created, small group instruction, and flexible seating. And this was only what was visible from a single photograph!
It was the words that she added though that caused me to sit up, take notice, and respond. She wrote, “Sorry that my classroom is such a mess.” Why would such a hard-working, involved teacher feel the need to apologize? My response was “Real learning IS messy!”
However, I must admit that I had similar feelings just before Spring Break. I looked around my room and sighed. After seven months of teacher inquiry into literacy-based makerspace, my room was a mess (to my standards) and I still wondered if I was heading in the right direction. It reminded me of an image I’ve seen on social media with two drawings side-by-side. The first drawing is a straight arrow at an angle with an upwards trajectory and the caption states “What I planned.” The second is a tangled squiggle and the caption states “What happened.” This really captures how I was feeling about my teaching and learning this year.
But then as I was cleaning up, I really started noticing. The items that I put away or recycled brought back memories.
Here was the faded green paper chain that was Jack’s beanstalk and I began reading the words on it. The kids had written plot details, character descriptions, questions, and key words on each link. I remembered them talking and smiling while making it as well as planning how and where to put it up.
I put away the graphic novels and fractured fairy tales back in the book bins; and I thought about how that opened an interest into a new genre for one boy in particular.
I picked the sticky tack off the CDs and markers. I’d forgotten about their spinbot doodle art and poems. That seems so long ago. I just saw the mess that still had to be cleaned up. Making spinbots and doodlebots was our first foray into tinkering with text and it gave us a ton of inquiry questions to add to our wonder wall.
I began this blog experimenting with different frameworks. First, I wanted to investigate the intersection of literacy and makerspace. Then I saw it as more of an infinity loop. Further iterations produced a model which showed it as a weaving, and a teacher in my Twitter PLN asked if it might be likened to a bridge.
None of these early models ever proposed that it would be linear and progressing in one direction. So why would I expect that of myself only seven months into it? Why would I question it when all my qualitative and quantitative data showed that the children had learned? Why doubt it simply because my room doesn’t always look like a Pinterest photograph? Nonsense!
REAL learning is messy!
The Full Meal Deal
When we were young, it was a big deal for our family to go out for dinner at a hotel that had a buffet, which we used to call a smorgasbord. Of course, kids notoriously have eyes larger than their stomachs and we were no different. We piled our plates high with anything and everything; and my three brothers would make the all-you-can-eat price worth it.
Nowadays, I weigh my food choices more carefully. Will it agree with my stomach … my heart … my thighs? And unless you're on a cruise, this gastronomic and sensory overload is thankfully out of style. It's much cooler to go to a restaurant with brick walls, live edge tables, and an assortment of quality morsels served on a plank.
When we start anything new, we think we need all the latest and greatest gear. It’s common to see new school makerspaces chock full of Ozobots, Makey-Makey, and shiny carts with bins. But does it all get used?
The same applies to loose parts. We collect all kinds of interesting things and display them in tinker trays, tins, or trolleys. The kids’ eyes pop out at all these objects and they want to touch them all. It’s akin to the smorgasbord - sensory overload and a bit overwhelming. When the students are invited to participate in loose parts play, a guided imagery exercise, or a design challenge, it can take forever for the students to choose their materials due to too many choices.
This is where we as educators may wish to place constraints on their choices. Lately, I’ve been exploring the “5x5 strategy.” (Search Twitter with the hashtag #5x5strategy to find examples.) This is where the teacher selects a set amount of loose parts (say, 6-10) and arranges them on a table or in trays. They may choose 5 loose parts from 5 categories for a total of 25 items. You can add another five or 10 (i.e. 5x5x5 or 5x5x10) to let the students know how many minutes they have to select their parts.
We’ve also done “5+5 strategy” and “5+(4+1)+5 strategy” hacks. Our “5+5” hack was using 5 loose parts to dip in paint using the 5 Olympic flag colours and stamp them on paper to make a design or pattern. Next steps are to write about what their picture represents or what it looks like to them (think, Rorschach images). Some of the prints didn’t work out too well; so those students will be cutting their paper into shapes or letters to create images or words and then writing about that. They may move back and forth between the making, writing, editing, and reading.
We All Work with Constraints
The “5+(4+1)+5” hack was for older students who are learning to sketchnote. Their task was to research an Olympic sport and find 5 facts (new to them) about that sport. They write the fact on a sticky note and move them around on their paper to plan the layout before beginning their sketchnote. Their challenge is to include 5 facts surrounded by 5 frames, 4 connectors in between and 1 banner (4+1) above, and 5 relevant drawings. This project is still in process. (Note: Search the internet for some “how-to’s’ on sketchnoting and let the students play with the process and familiarize themselves with the components before doing an actual project.)
Some may say that no constraints should be put in place for the child … to let them explore. I agree, but not in all circumstances. Constraints are a normal part of life. When making dinner, we look in the fridge and cupboards to see what we have and then be creative with those ingredients. Many teachers do not have a “fully stocked” classroom; but we make the best of what we have and need to be innovative thinkers to create learning environments and experiences based on our situation.
Something to Consider
In regards to constraints, Angela Stockman (author of Make Writing) wrote this on Twitter: “I'm not sure there is one ‘right’ way to use constraints when designing challenges like these. I tend to play and test in order to see how changing variables changes learning.” She added: “For me, it's always about elevating the writing or adding complexity. So, I will use 2x2 or 3x3 or different variances. ‘Given these three materials and three mins, build me your counterclaim…’”
From time to time, try implementing constraints in the loose parts play, makerspace creations, or design challenges in your classroom and notice how your students respond. You may agree that a few well-selected morsels are more “delicious” than the grand buffet.
I’ll be honest - the first time I heard the term “loose parts,” I thought, “What the …?” It’s not the kind of thing you like to think or talk about as a middle-aged woman, especially not in mixed company. It brings to mind all the jiggly bits that we struggle to get rid of, even though it’s just a war against time and gravity. Even now, I still chuckle inwardly or cringe just a little when someone mentions it.
What are loose parts?
However, in the field of education, it means something quite wonderful. As explained in this article, loose parts are “open-ended materials that can be combined, transported, and transformed.” They can be re-purposed, found or acquired objects. These objects can be used as a springboard for inquiry or makerspace and are a staple in Reggio or Montessori classrooms. Although loose parts have typically been incorporated with Early Childhood Education, literacy lessons, or outdoor education, there’s really no reason not to use them across the curriculum and across the grades.
Connecting to the core competencies
At the beginning of this term, I delved into Laura Fleming’s latest book, The Kickstart Guide to Making Great Makerspaces. The book includes a planning map. At first, I was going to use it as a poster in my classroom but then I thought, “No, use it.” So I set to work and added sticky notes with notes that were relevant to my practice, place, and students.
All good design begins with empathy. The first section I tackled was called, “Understand your learners.” I’m a reading intervention teacher based in an elementary school. Almost all of my students have a learning disability (LD) in reading and/or writing or have an LD profile. Some also deal with anxiety, ADD, lack of self-confidence, or speech/ hearing/ behaviour/ social issues.
So I took a look at the BC Core Competencies and decided that I really wanted/ needed to dig deep into these competencies with my students:
The next steps are what I’ve used as my framework throughout this inquiry process and what I’ve explained since the inception of this blog.
We devoured these books through read-alouds, read-to-self, shared reading, and book talks. We examined these books as mentor texts and used favorite or repeating lines to help us shape our own writing. We wrote journal entries and “I statements.” We drew, we read some more, we wrote some more, we talked lots. And in the midst of all of this, we used loose parts to explore what we thought, felt, heard, learned, understood, and questioned.
Loose parts allow students to “mess about,” set the imagination free, and create visual representations of their learning. Tinkering with text allows children to grow as readers, writers, and compassionate learners who believe that love and kindness is all around them.
Moving sucks. It's exhausting. There are endless trips to the thrift store or recycling depot to get rid of stuff, and to U-Haul or the grocery or liquor store for more boxes. You also need an arsenal of bubble wrap, packing paper and tape, and cleaning supplies.
Of course, there is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow ... a new place that you love, furniture shopping, settling in and making this house your home. However, no one actually likes all the packing, cleaning, and paying thousands of dollars to real estate agents, lawyers, and movers. Moving sucks.
For some, learning to read is kind of like moving. It's hard work and you're wondering how you'll ever get there. You're tired of living in a mess. For some, the act of reading is constantly being in this state and never getting to the "new place." Check out this paragraph about someone who struggles with dyslexia. Then click on the red link on that page or this one to experience how a person with a learning disability may see text.
Eye opening, isn't it? Let's get back to my moving experience for a minute. Imagine that I would receive report card comments for my "moving skills" (a task that I don't enjoy and am frustrated with) that are similar to the ones we regularly give to struggling readers and writers.
I'm not trying to be facetious or cavalier about this at all. My point is that some activities are really hard work and much harder for some than others. So, when a student says "reading sucks," believe them and empathize. The bookshelves in our classrooms may be their equivalent of the mountain of boxes in the corner of my living room.
I love this quote by Maya Angelou: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” (italics mine) Granted, sometimes it is misquoted and used in the wrong way, but let's just take a minute to absorb the enormity of that statement.
In my first year as a teacher, my Dad gave me similar advice. It wasn't going well and after one tearful phone conversation, he told me to hold my head up high and tell myself, "I'm doing the best I can, and I'm going to get better." (Wow! Growth mindset in the 80's!) I've tried to live by that advice ever since.
This year, I ventured into the world of literacy-based makerspace within my reading intervention program. There's been hills and valleys, for sure. Now, as I wrap up the term and do my assessment and reporting, I've had to take a hard look at how I've done this in the past. In essence, I did the best I could but now I know better. I still have to do assessments as a requirement for my job, but I do have a choice in how I relay that information to parents. Do they really need to hear or see how far behind their child is yet again? This way of reporting, that includes charts full of percentiles and pre/post test scores and pages of commentary, doesn't fit within my educational philosophy anymore. It doesn't fit me.
And so, while I have known better for a while now, I've decided to also do better. I've designed this new reporting template and have integrated the Core Competencies, First Peoples Principles of Learning, and Digital Literacy. I've also tried to build it around my theme of "tinkering with text." In a sense, I'm tinkering with my own words as I seek be to more empathic in my reporting. I'm thankful that I live in this province and am teaching at a time where this flexibility in reporting is not only acceptable but encouraged.
If you are a specialist teacher (LAT, Resource, ELL, RTI, etc.) and do not have to use a specific district or ministry report template, feel free to download my template (below) and make it your own. Make it fit your pedagogical beliefs and practices, reflect your community, and serve your students and parents in the best way possible.
Don’t we all get more than a little bit excited when the sign at Starbucks says that pumpkin spice lattes are back? That creamy, dreamy, spicy, sweet coffee is as much a sign of a new season as colourful leaves and a brisk wind. What makes it even more special and welcome is that it’s only available at certain times of the year.
Teaching practices are bit a like that too. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that many strategies last for a season. The “season” may be short-lived or long lasting. Sometimes schools or districts have bought an expensive program that we are strongly encouraged to use, or there have been extensive workshops offered to train teachers. There have been times when the fit was good for me and felt as welcome as pumpkin spice; other times, I’ve endured it like a mug of lukewarm milk … it’ll do, but it’s not what I’m after.
I’m kind of at this point in my journey with literacy-based makerspace right now. I know what I want, and I know what it should “taste” like. It’s humbling to admit that it’s not working out the way I had envisioned, but I also want to be truthful and vulnerable on my blog. It would be easy to post colourful photos and cute anecdotes, but it isn’t like that every day. It would also be easy to give up and go back to my tried-and-true teaching strategies, to write it off as a fad.
So many of my students also have ADD or written output issues and it takes them forever to get anything done. I swore that I wouldn’t use the making as a carrot or a stick, but it’s so tempting to have something to hold back so that they get the reading and writing done. Or once we get started on a makerspace project, that’s all they want to do. It also feels like I’m trying to do too much in the amount of time that the students are with me. Add to this that my computers are old and don’t work great, and I still don’t have a CEA. So, I’ve put the making on hold till I get through my term assessments and reports.
My learning has had its highs and lows this season. For now, I’ll sit back and savour what has been accomplished; then tweak the recipe some more. I’m not there yet, and that’s okay.
I love to meet up with friends and colleagues for a coffee and a chat. The warm ambience and the aromatic brews of trendy coffee shops are so welcoming on a blustery November afternoon. Sometimes, it’s not possible to get together though, due to conflicting schedules and full calendars.
Developing a Professional Learning Network
So, over the past year, I’ve become engaged in several online educational communities on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve “met” amazing people from all over the world and learned from them, as they have from me. To a certain degree, we’ve even become friends and I hope that I will have the pleasure of meeting them some day.
Schools in British Columbia (where I live and teach) now have a redesigned curriculum. We are teaching and learning about core competencies, as defined by the BC Ministry of Education:
Core Competencies are sets of intellectual, personal, and social and emotional proficiencies that all students need to develop in order to engage in deeper learning. The Core Competencies include thinking, communication, and social and personal competencies.
Communication is Key
One of the Communication competencies is to “connect and engage with others (to share and develop ideas).” Not only do our students need to develop this competency but so do we as educators. I’m thankful for the connections I’ve made and all that I’ve learned from others, locally and globally. Now, I’d like to share some of my work, especially with the BC educators who have expressed interest in the posters which I’ve posted previously.
I’ve created these posters based on the sample “I statements” for the Communication core competency. Please keep in mind that these statements are meant to be “progressive and additive,” which means … don’t stop there! Change the wording to fit your class, your community, your teaching, and your students’ learning needs. Remember, the competencies and the statements were never meant to be a checklist. You might post one or two of these posters for a month or for a whole term and use them as talking points or check-ins. (How are we doing with this?) Or you might wish to post them by your desk or in your plan book as reminders to yourself and to help you focus your planning. (How might I incorporate this CC in ELA or STEM?)
I’m learning too and feel like I’m developing a clearer concept of what this is all about. I’d love to hear how you are teaching the Communication competency in your classroom, what you’ve seen in your students, and how you are practicing it yourself within your own Professional Learning Network (PLN), locally and online.
N.B. The image is Creative Commons and the sample statements are from the Ministry website. I created these posters myself and am offering them to BC educators for free. They are not for sale and never will be. You are encouraged to edit them and make them your own. Once you’ve made a template, it’s easy to just change the “I statement” and the CC at the bottom. Other free Creative Commons images are available through Pixabay, or a Google search and click on Tools > Usage Rights. Within Microsoft Word, click on Insert > Online Pictures > Licensing > Creative Commons only.
For the past week, I've had excruciating back pain. I had to stay home from work for a few days because I could barely walk. While at home, I had a lot of time to watch "Beat Bobby Flay" ... and think. Of course, I thought about my new adventures in teaching and learning. I believe in the idea of literacy-based makerspace but I was starting to doubt myself. I was wondering if this new way of teaching was making a difference for the students. Were they indeed learning, or was it a whole lot of Lego, Play-Doh, and duct tape and not enough reading and writing?
An educator that I follow on Twitter and Facebook (who has become a "distant teacher" for me) is Angela Stockman, author of Make Writing. She posted the model below on her blog and it came across my newsfeed. It's brilliant! I had spent lots of time empathizing with the students and knew they needed and deserved more. And I felt like I had moved through the other stages but perhaps not with enough intention. Where I felt "stuck" was at the prototype and test stages.
So, I decided to take Angela's advice and "gather consistent feedback from [my] students." Most of my feedback was observations, notes, and intuition. It occurred to me that I hadn't even asked the kids what they thought of it, let alone to do so consistently. So, today I asked them the question, "How does making help?" The answers are quite profound.
The Grade 3 students said:
The Grade 4 and 5 students have really found their "flow" in the classroom. This group is operating pretty closely to what I had envisioned. Their responses floored me. They said:
I'm so glad I did this and will use the feedback to continue to tinker with my curriculum framework. I'm still a believer!
The graphic novel, "Jak & the Nano Beans," was the springboard for our next stop along the journey. It's a fractured fairy tale based on Jack and the Beanstalk. My group of Gr. 4/5 students loved it and the book led to all kinds of ideas of where to go next. We decided to make a beanstalk to the ceiling and there are key words on the leaves. I gave several questions for them to ponder and write about on green index cards or in their journal, such as, "How does the story change if the characters are different?" The kids also have plans to make a huge cloud on the ceiling with the giant peeking through.
We decided that Jack might need a safer way to get down the beanstalk with the golden eggs. So I gave them a design challenge to build an elevator. We looked around the room for available materials and they could bring extra materials from home.
I'm currently reading Launch by John Spencer & A.J. Juliani and LOVE it! Here are some quotes that really spoke to me recently:
Keep in mind that these students all struggle with reading and/or writing. They have been called "at-risk" or "reluctant" learners by some. The next day, they came rushing into class; they all excitedly reported that they had looked at some videos at home and they knew exactly what they wanted to make. So engaged, so happy, so eager! I know from experience that assigning reading as homework never got this response. These kids are curious and innovative; they want to learn and create. While it is my responsibility as a reading intervention teacher to help them improve in reading, it's just as important to introduce them to other ways of learning and knowing.
No longer do we limit writing, reading or technology to a set time block in our schedule. Children learn best when they are using writing for authentic purposes and making text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections in their reading. When they write about what they are doing in school, they will automatically make connections to the text that they’ve written since it was a lived experience. The same is true for makerspace. It is most definitely cross-curricular.
Makerspace is a huge trend in education today. It can be as low tech as creating cardboard towns or as high tech as coding and robotics. Makerspace enables all children to participate in hands-on learning. It also acknowledges a child’s natural inclination toward imagination and play. But don’t stop there - integrate the making with reading and writing.
Last week, we created a doodlebot aka a wigglebot. It’s one step up from a spinbot (see last week’s blog post), and a precursor to more high-tech robots like Ozobots. The children experimented with motors, batteries, electricity, balance, weight, and vibration. There are lots of examples on Pinterest and YouTube on how to make a doodlebot so I won’t go into how to make one. Just do a search.
However, I have to say it was a good lesson on grit and growth mindset when looking for all the parts and trying to make it work. You will need a DC toy/ hobby motor and some batteries. Hobby or electronics shops might have them, if you have one in your town. Sometimes you can find cheap or old, broken toys and take the motor out. Apparently, you can order them on Amazon but pay attention to what size battery (volts) it will need to work. I finally found two motors at an electronics and cell phone repair shop. I had a 9 volt battery already, which one of the posts said I needed. The guy at the shop said that that was too many volts for that motor. So, I bought 4 AA batteries from him and a battery pack to hold it all together. The original doodlebot plan was a cup and three thin markers as legs. Well, the battery pack was way too heavy and it wouldn’t move. Oh, by the way, if the motor doesn’t have wires connected, you will also need to buy some alligator clips with wires. They look like mini booster cables. I was ready to give up.
So, then I saw the plan for our doodlebot online and went with that. You will need:
After playing around with it and creating abstract art, the kids decorated it as a cow, since we had cow patterned duct tape. They even named her Clara the Cow! The googly eyes move around like crazy too when it’s turned on. (The kids are even trying to come up with a lightweight udder that won’t slow her down and a tiny cow bell.) Lots of questioning, discussion, and laughter occurred throughout each phase, and the play inspired more creative thinking. We picked her up and moved her to other parts of the long sheet of paper; we set up an obstacle course to see if we could change her direction; and experimented with colour combos. While some students continued to play with Clara and create more doodles, others began writing about their experience.
Throughout the week, we drew more out of this experience. We wrote down some inquiry questions that arose from their interest and curiosity. We also enjoyed the storybooks “The Most Magnificent Thing” by Ashley Spires and “A Squiggly Story” by Andrew Larsen.
As we move along, other ideas have evolved. One student created her own abstract art with “Clara” and is now building a fall poem (thank you, Angela Stockman!) in her journal. Hailey is using sticky notes with phrases that she can then move around till she finds the right flow. Then she plans to write the poem in black marker on her doodle art.
Today, poor Clara became the cow that Jack has traded for a measly five magic beans. She led us to read various fractured fairy tales based on Jack & the Beanstalk, create a giant beanstalk with key words on the leaves, and talk about how a change in setting and/or character affects the story. Long live Clara! She just keeps giving and giving.