More inclusive project descriptions

The following post is a journal entry I am submitting for my grad school class on informal learning. The topic is inclusivity. The context is the informal workshops I have been running in the makerspace this year. (The second journal entry on the makerspace is on the topic of sustainability.)

I have been thinking about the success of the makerspace workshops I have been facilitating this year in qualitative terms: the energizing effects of having different students and faculty participate in and co-facilitate workshop activities; the community-building effects of offering whole-school invitations (lower, middle, and upper school students, parents, alums, faculty, and staff) to every workshop; the sense of ownership that some students develop by participating in a workshop, which then empowers them to return to the makerspace to work on projects of their own; the collaborative effects and emerging interdisciplinary work among faculty. Thinking in these terms has allowed me to employ a broad definition of success instead of measuring the success of the workshops with simpler metrics, such as workshop attendance numbers. I am confident that the workshops are making a positive impact on the school community by any of these broader measures.

Nevertheless I spend considerable time reimagining my approach to the workshops, hoping to find ways to make them more inclusive and more accessible to a wider group of students and to increase the attendance numbers which sometimes have been weak. I wonder: how many missed connections are falling at the feet of my workshop invitations? How many students might have had an enriching experience in the makerspace but did not take the first step to enter? I have experimented with changing lots of variables about the workshops (time of day, day of week, who facilitates them, how they are publicized) in order to learn what might hold some students back from participating.

While I have learned many lessons, the one I would like to focus on here is the craftsmanship of the projects’ descriptions. A successful workshop description accomplishes three things in less than a sentence: it is attractive to a wide audience, it stimulates sustained engagement with the project, and it suggests multiple points of entry to invite a diverse range of learners. In navigating these challenges, I strive to find synergy between open choices and compelling narratives in pursuit of inclusivity.

In October, for example, one workshop invited participants to “sew their own fuzzy monsters.” It was just after Halloween, and the whimsical activity worked toward two observable goals for the makerspace: to draw students into the space who had not been there before and to provide context for the participants to learn about hand sewing and machine sewing. Some students sewed ghosts, others made stuffed animals with lots of googly eyes. The project triggered ongoing work: one middle school boy returned during lunchtime for the next six weeks to sew a Christmas present for his brother; another middle school boy continues to work with textiles in the makerspace during lunchtime on projects of his own creation. The workshop also created a new faculty connection to the makerspace: the activity was facilitated with the support of an English teacher in the high school, who later returned to run an in-depth project with her ninth grade classes.

Other successful workshops share similar roots: projects that favor exploration over instruction, that clearly connect to student interests, and that have carefully tuned descriptions tend to have the most satisfying outcomes. The fuzzy monsters project was straightforward (monsters just after Halloween provided a clear frame) but also open-ended (what constitutes a monster was left entirely to the students). In just a sentence fragment, a project’s description shapes expectations that expand, or limit, participation in the workshop.

While students and teachers were entertained by the idea of using conductive thread to sew LEDs into ugly holiday sweaters before winter break, participation was minimal. However when students were invited to design their own stickers on the vinyl cutter to decorate their school iPads, enthusiasm was contagious. Although the difference in their descriptions was subtle, the difference in their attendance was clear. A description that is too open creates a narrative that is transparently gimmicky, while a description that is too structured creates a narrative that is confining. Perhaps the best project prompt this year was also the shortest: Hack n’ Jam. I collaborated with three faculty/staff members to put together a three-hour workshop on a Saturday afternoon in March that invited students to “hack” something into becoming a musical instrument then join a “jam” session. The title was catchy, clear (with the explanation that inevitably followed), and still open-ended enough that students were excited to bring something new to the workshop. If the workshop descriptions suggest ideas that are not simultaneously open-ended and compelling, participation will suffer and the dialogue about the workshops in the wider community may go astray. These descriptions are the seeds that give rise to larger narratives that serve to include or exclude members of the school community.

And from a larger view I see that a new narrative is emerging: a narrative about who uses the makerspace. There is a risk that, if the opportunities and invitations to participate in activities in the makerspace speak only to a limited audience, the makerspace will be come to be seen as a resource that is used by a single affinity group instead of learners of all ages, inclinations, and abilities. If this meta-narrative is not carefully attended, I see a risk that the makerspace, which is rooted in values of collaboration, pluralism, and inclusivity, may become another silo in schools, which are already plagued by social cliques and academic departments.

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One thought on “More inclusive project descriptions

  1. Pingback: Mindful making | They Call Me BC

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