Believing in Learning Through Making and Doing


juliereaFive years ago, I was sitting in a classroom with six eighth grade boys who all read at a third grade level or below. This was my first day as a teacher, six weeks after completing my last education class and receiving a provisional teaching certificate.  I was a mid-year hire:  these students needed more help than they could receive with existing staff.  And what they had was me.

You might be expecting now to hear how they tortured me or each other, or how I left teaching or, conversely, became a heroine teacher worthy of a film.  No. I am no heroine.  On any given day, these boys were hyperactive or sleepy, they did things behind my back, they tried to get out of class, because after all, they were teenage boys, but they were actually a great group of people.  They knew they were the bottom of the barrel academically, but they were still in there trying. Perhaps what is worthy of a documentary is their heroic spirits, their continued efforts at learning despite years of failure, their willingness to go back to the basic skills they had struggled to master and try something new. Again.

In the four months we worked together, we tried lots of things. I asked everyone I knew, everyone I could find, about what might help these students succeed. Very quickly I talked myself out of my unrealistic expectations that I should already (by virtue of having amassed enough hours in college courses to obtain provisional certification–ha!) know how to create meaningful learning experiences for 8th grade boys struggling to read.  Once I saw them actually working to gain basic decoding skills or to grasp some meaning out of a text, a chill went up my spine:  these boys were including me in a sacred trust–they were trusting me to teach them to read. Oh, man. And so we soldiered on. With limited results.

About a month before school was out, we were all exhausted from our efforts. We needed a change. I stopped in the principal’s office.  “We need something to DO, some real something that we can work on together, with real results. I don’t know what I’m talking about; do you?”

He said that the teacher of students with autism wanted to have a fundraiser for Autism Speaks, the organization that supports autism research, and maybe we could help with that. My colleague was excited and grateful about my offer to help, and in 10 minutes, a viable plan began to take shape. We could anchor our work around the English Language communication standards, including research, understanding voice and audience, presentations and visual communications–a welcome relief from our routine.

My students were excited about the idea, at first because it sounded easy, and then because the fundraiser was to be a Dress Down Day, in which teachers and students could pay $1 to wear hats, sunglasses, pajama pants, hoodies–all items banned by the dress code. As implementers of the fundraiser, they would have a definite cachet. Cool.

To prepare, we spent time in the autism classroom, and learned how autism affects people in different ways. We did puzzles and watched videos and played ball with the students. The reality of autism began to dawn on the boys. Discussions arose that I didn’t have to start; more writing took place in four weeks than in the previous three months; the boys ran to class to find out what we were doing that day, rather than to get a Jolly Rancher for being on time. They made posters. They made ribbons to give away. And the pièce de resistance? We planned to make PA announcements about the fundraiser.

In every school across the U.S., who is chosen to make PA announcements?  It is an honor reserved for the good kids, the smart kids, the kids who have the inherent self-esteem that would overcome an embarrassing gaffe, and most definitely, the kids who can read. Even these boys, who would never admit to coveting anything to do with school, secretly wanted to make a PA announcement. Their jaws dropped when they heard they would actually live the dream.  We began to plan and practice. And practice, and practice.

The day arrived when we stood in the school office while the principal made announcements of the day, and the boys hopped from foot to foot, and hid their faces in their hands and took deep cleansing breaths, and looked at me with fear in their eyes. The principal handed me the microphone, and I held it out.  And there was dead air for a full 15 seconds, while I nodded encouragingly, and smiled, and motioned, and finally, one of them leaned in and started. It wasn’t perfect, but they did it. The high fives, the hand shaking, the whoops at the end were unbelievable. The boys had attained middle school rock star status, and we had to process the event for a full three days.

Does this sound like small potatoes to you?  Maybe. It’s not Freedom Writers. It’s not AP Calculus. It doesn’t involve Arduinos.  But. Real learning took place, learning through making and doing. The boys were involved in solving a problem, creating solutions and they were definitely engaged. And for a brief moment, students were directing their own learning and they were excited about it.  It is this moment that I try to replicate every day in the classrooms I am in with students:  let’s find a problem we care about, let’s create some solutions, and let’s learn by making and doing.  And it’s why I am working with a group of teachers who think that designing a school around a makerspace and a maker mentality is an idea whose time has come.

Editor’s Note: Julie Rea is an Intervention Specialist, working with students with disabilities in algebra and geometry classes at Lakewood High School. She is also an active part of a teacher-led team in the Cleveland, OH area to create a Makerspace school, slated to open in fall of 2014.