The Summer I Became a Maker

I’ve heard the word pushed in my meetings and educational conferences in a million different ways. Making. MakerSpace. Maker project. Maker initiative. Make, make, make. It can be frustrating, as an educator, to have new teaching trends and discoveries constantly sent your way. And admittedly, from the outside, the idea of making in education looks like a big mess – tin foil and beads flying all over the place, kids getting tiny fingers dangerously close to hot glue. But as I was grumbling about another new thing to fit into the school day, I did some research – and it turns out that the idea of making is nothing new.

According to an article by Vicki Davis’ Edutopia article How the Maker Movement is Moving into Classrooms, “The Maker movement is a unique combination of artistry, circuitry, and old-fashioned craftsmanship. Certainly, learning by doing or ‘making’ has been happening since our ancestors refined the wheel.” Davis goes on to immediately address most educators’ concerns: “Don’t treat making as a sidebar to an already overtaxed curriculum.” Citing research from educational legends Piaget and Papert, she drops the mic on maker-haters and makes a clear case for adopting the hands-on approach to create meaningful learning opportunities for students. Read more here. For visual learners, Intel Education shares this helpful infographic titled Learning in the Making to give more statistics and details on making in education.

You’ve heard me talk before about my passion for inspiring students, getting them engaged in their learning, and showing them that they can be more than they’ve ever imagined. You’ve read time and time again about my goals of getting female and minority students more involved and confident. But let’s be real here. I’m a librarian – we live our lives by the Dewey Decimal system. It’s no secret that I like things neat, and that a messy desk is enough to ruin my mood. It’s easy to shout my maker goals from behind a circulation desk; but when I heard about a local summer maker position that would force me out of the frying pan and into the fire, I figured it was time to get my hands dirty. So I set off to find out… what is a maker, and how do I become one?

Local nonprofit Computers4Kids is a haven for teens living at or below the poverty line in Charlottesville. From their website: “C4K’s mission is to empower underserved youth by bringing together technology and imagination through supportive mentoring, youth-driven programming, and skill building for life success. We provide a creative and safe out-of-school learning environment where local low-income middle and high school youth work with volunteer mentors and staff to build college and work readiness skills. At C4K young people explore their own ideas, build skills, and gain confidence in themselves through positive relationships, the mastery of technology, and the opportunity to get a free laptop with lifetime support.” Computers4Kids is part of the Clubhouse Network, a global network of makerspaces connected through the Museum of Science, Boston and the MIT Media lab. They were searching for a summer Maker Corps Member to develop programming and work with aspiring makers via the Maker Ed Intiative. This was my chance – C4k was the real deal. Would they see right through my wannabe maker resume and find the obsessively organized, color-coded librarian that I truly was inside? Could I really hang with the makers?

In early June, I arrived to my first day of work at Computers4Kids. I had no idea what to pack, what to wear, or what to expect. Would I get a grand tour? Would I be left alone in a room full of teens? Would I be expected to use power tools on my very first day? That afternoon, two young men named Ricky and Samir blew my mind. I was nervously walking laps around the Clubhouse, trying to figure out what to do, when Ricky marched right up to me and said, “I want to make a rocket. Would you please help me?” Immediately, I grabbed pencil and paper to create a list of materials and sketch the shape of the rocket… and realized that I was alone. Ricky and Samir were already headfirst in the materials bins, tossing cardboard tubes and wooden dowels onto the floor. I shut my mouth, shoved my hands into my pockets, and tried not to go into teacher-mode. They let me snip duct tape, man the glue gun, and taught me the ins and outs of a boxcutter. While I played the supporting role, Ricky and Samir were the stars – no blueprints necessary.

Bam – rocketship 🌑💫🚀 #makersgonnamake #imadeitatc4k

A post shared by Computers4Kids (@c4kclubhouse) on

And that was how it went. Day after day, project after project, the kids taught me what I needed to know. They showed me patience, resilience, bravery, and creativity. They taught me to look at things upside down, sideways, backwards, and inside out. A piece of cardboard is not just a piece of cardboard. Nothing should be thrown away. I watched their confidence grow as they dremmelled, balanced, saudered, stitched, and programmed. “This project is gonna get me into college.” “This is just the prototype, I’m going to sell a million of these.” “I’m making this for my baby sister, ’cause she doesn’t have a lot of toys.” There were no lesson plans or lectures; they did just fine without my constant intervention. As I walked in circles biting my fingernails, trying not to control things, they took me in, shared their passion, and moved slowly so that I could keep up.

It wasn’t always easy. That aforementioned making passion is a double-edged sword – the joy is electric, but tempers can flare. Failure happens everyday, which means that shame and frustration are common. It’s not always easy to deal with these feelings in a graceful way. There is a responsibility that comes along with using maker materials, and not everyone is thrilled about cleaning up after themselves and their peers. Makers can get a little too cozy in their comfort zones, and it can be harrowing to be the one attempting to push them into something new. Some days I left discouraged, exhausted, or nursing a serious hot glue wound. These were the days that changed me the most.

Today at @c4kclubhouse: Grand piano, MakeyMakey style #imadeitatc4k #makeymakey #makered #makercamp #virtuoso

A post shared by Sarah FitzHenry (@fitzbetweentheshelves) on

In a school library, most of our making projects center around curriculum-based standards. STEAM is the key – science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. I thought that all maker spaces centered around MakeyMakeys and engineering challenges; but C4K showed me that a truly inclusive space has the tools, the patience, and the heart for all kinds of projects. From state-of-the-art recording equipment lining the walls of the music studio to video game programming software to silicone molds for making soaps and chocolates, makers of all types are free to try new things, regardless of their connection to standardized testing.

Computers4Kids is such an incredibly unique space – with a talented, patient, and one-of-a-kind team – that the makers are drawn to it, day after day. The program caters exclusively to students at or below the poverty line, facing things at home that I can’t even imagine. It’s their summertime, and they could be sitting at home on the couch, eating popsicles and watching cartoons. But they choose to spend their days at C4K, participating in camps, creating one-of-a-kind projects, pushing themselves creatively and intellectually, spending time with their mentors and peers in an educational, engaging, and challenging environment. In the mornings, C4K offers a selection of camps that teach participants real-world skills like marketing, branding, engineering, and coding, as well as more niche interests like hip hop recording, drone flying, and design. Lucky members can arrive in the morning for an amazing camp, mull over their inspiration over lunch, and spend the afternoon in open studio making their dreams a reality.

The more time I spent at C4K, the more I felt my philosophy on making develop. Kids and young adults should be free to pursue the things that they feel passionately about, whether or not the adults in their lives find it “worthwhile”. The quest to create a perfect beat in the studio is just as meaningful as a determination to understand physics through a rocket launch. Growth mindset comes naturally in a makerspace: the brave and determined makers fail everyday – multiple times a day! – and don’t bat an eyelash. “I’m not good at this” quickly turns into “I can do this, I just have to work a little harder.”

Making isn’t just a new trend in education. In many ways, it is the antidote to a generation that is often helicoptered, easily frustrated, and pushed to strive for a mass-produced picture of success that doesn’t always fit. In making, each individual gets to find the best version of themselves. They take their own way to find and reach their personal goals. We can be there to guide, to suggest, and to provide safety goggles – but the journey is theirs.

This summer, I worked to let go. My most extensive teaching experience is in kindergarten, a world where clearly stated expectations are the only way to survive. Explain the craft. Outline each step. Sing a song about how we sit, how we glue, how we clean up. Make sure everyone’s project looks the same. Maintain the course. But in making, there is no set course. My vision wasn’t important anymore. I didn’t get to choose the materials, the process, the end result. It was their design, their responsibility. I watched, keeping to the background, providing a hand or a suggestion when prompted. It is both rewarding and difficult to stay back and watch the struggles and the successes take shape without me. I need a lot more practice. But the makers at C4K were patient and kind, teaching me far more than I taught them, and sharing the joy when their projects came to fruition.

My summer with Computers4Kids was nothing like I expected. It was challenging, frustrating, and incredibly rewarding. I learned so much from C4K’s amazing staff, members, and through my online training with the Maker Ed Initiative. Although I still can’t stitch a straight line and may need some help with my power tools, I am now armed with the maker spirit – and I am excited to see how it transforms my teaching.

On my last day, my friend Samir challenged me to a sword-making contest. In June, I would have panicked – sat to create a list of materials, sketched multiple drafts, refused to start until I had outlined each step in detail. But not anymore. Samir and I cut cardboard, carefully smoothed duct tape, and unbent hangers. We tried this and that, adding things as we went, laughing at our mistakes. In the end, we posed, dueling, in front of the building. I checked out Samir’s dark and menacing final product, while he laughed at the hot pink duct tape and purple glitter on mine. “Miss Sarah,” he said, “You really made this?” Yep, Samir. I really made it.

Computers4Kids has been an asset to the Charlottesville community for 15 years. Membership is free to Charlottesville and Albemarle youth who are eligible for free or reduced price school lunch. In our 15 years of serving over 1,400 youth, 97% have graduated from high school on time. Learn more about the organization, including ways that you can help make a difference, on the C4K website.

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