Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Cardboard City

My school built a Cardboard City. And it was awesome.

I've written about this in more general terms a few times here and here, but this post is meant to be All Cardboard City All The Time. I'm going to get into the thought processes, the workflow, the mistakes, the planning, and the doing of the thing as deeply as I can. Before I start I want to make as clear as possible that, while I was the nominal head of the operation I was by no means the sole driving force, the only operator, The Guy behind this thing. There was a team of four of us- myself and another teacher, a parent, and our principal- and without any one of us this could not have been done. Not "this could have have been done to this level", but simply "this could not have been done." As the person doing the writing about it I worry that that puts me front and center alone, and nothing could be further from the truth. You would be so lucky as to have a team like I got to work with.

The Initial Problem

For the past three years my school has put on a MakerFaire. We did it up right- Individual student projects, class projects, a film festival, TEDtalks, an art gallery, a make-and-take area. They were awesome. And they were also progressively smaller. The first one was huge, a massive success. The second was still successful but smaller. And by the third we could feel enthusiasm waning among even the staff who were invested.

We needed a change.

Our first thought was to go way backwards and cut it down to two big sections- Make and Take and Code With Your Kids. As we started to go over that we started to get ambitious. I want to point out here that part of the instigating idea that started this was to make it easier for us. We narrowed down what we wanted out of a revamped MakerFaire-

a) More family involvement

b) Students and families doing things.

c) Simpler overall, and we can add things later if we think they are needed.

d) Something STEAM-y

The solution to these questions came in the form of rebranding the MakerFaire to Powell Valley Makes. But what do we make? Brainstorming and googling gave us our answer- A Cardboard City. Yes, ok. This appealed for a lot of reasons. It's general but specific. There's a lot you can do under the umbrella of "cardboard city". It makes the layout of the rooms and division of labor very clear. Once we had the basic idea in place, all that took doing was the doing. And the specifics. ...and the doing.

Powell Valley Makes: The Cardboard City Concept 

Families will come to school on the night of. They will be presented with (or make?) a cardboard house. From there they will go to five stations, each station representing one aspect of STEAM. At each station they will do something to their houses. In this way we are demonstrating that STEAM, while appearing as separate disciplines, actually joins them together in a beautiful way. Once the house is built it will be placed on a giant map. In the end we will (should) have a big, gorgeous city made of cardboard created by families as they learned alongside their students.

What's With the Houses?

Now we had an idea, a skeleton. Time to put some meat on it. It's here where I stress that the first meeting where we came up with this idea took place waaaaaaay back in September or October. We know how much work one of these takes, and we wanted to get as far ahead of the ball as we could. 

That initial idea had families making their houses first. I probably suggested this, which probably lead to everyone around the table looking at me like I'd put on clown shoes and a red nose because my class does a lot of building and it is not...clean. So everyone immediately had a heart attack thinking about parents and kids with cardboard knives and scissors hacking through boxes, burning themselves on hot glue guns (where on Earth will we get enough?), and basically spending the two hours just doing construction. 

So that was quickly nixed and the first grade teacher on the team and I agreed to go our own ways and try to come up with a better solution. I put it to my students, as is my way. You can read about that here. While my kids came up with interesting designs, they didn't come up with ideas that could be easily expanded and translated. The first grade teacher, on the other hand, was much smarter than me. She googled house templates, grabbed a cereal box, traced it, cut it, folded it, taped it. Bim bam boom. My "I'll do it my damn self" works against me as often as it helps. Her idea was much better. Cereal boxes are plentiful, easy to cut, easy to fold, and easy to tape. We went with that and started asking teachers and families to bring in cereal boxes.

When the night was about a month away we started pairing up lower grades (K-2) with upper grades (3-5) and asked buddy classes to work together to make houses. We figured if every pairing made one house per two kids we'd have plenty. We were right. Doing it this way also allowed us to advertise the event to the kids, because they were part of the creation of the event. No, students were not able to build on the house they made. The logistics of that still give me nightmares. Every group did great, my own class worked with both a second grade class and a kinder class. It was a lot of fun, as it always is, to see the fourth graders patiently teaching the littles to fold and cut. We had the templates drawn on the boxes beforehand, and with the kinders we'd even cut out the templates so all they'd have to do was fold and cut. Probably didn't even need to do that. Kinders are incredibly capable. The only real trick was getting the folds creased hard, otherwise the houses pop open. 

But What Happens In The Rooms?

Ok, so there's a Science room, a Technology room, an Engineering room, an Art room, and a Math room. So what's that mean? Not only that, but how do you set expectations that can be met by a kindergartner and a fifth grader?

We got our principal to give us a full work day with paid subs so we could hide out in the MakerSpace and get a good chunk of planning in. The Big Goal for the day was figuring out what the rooms would be, making posters, and answering various other organizational questions.

Every room's plan came with an explanation, general ideas, and Guiding Questions that helped aim people in the direction we were thinking without dictating exactly what would be built. Our hope was that people would be creative. (Boy howdy did that pay off.)

Science would mean Earth Science, mostly because that simplified things. So in the Science room the kids would think about their plants and their yards and the animals around their homes. They could build a yard or a tree or an origami animal. 

Technology gave us a chance to use our left-over LED lights, batteries, and copper tape. "Make your house light up." How? That's tricky and it ended up falling to my students to come up with a way to modify the flashlight directions into something that could be applied to a cardboard house. I had a small group of kids who figured it out, and then I made them type out their directions in specific detail, then I made them make a video demonstrating the directions step-by-step, then I made them reshoot the whole video as a close-up on their hands so it was clear what was happening, then I made them rewrite the directions so they matched the video. Lotta learning in that process for them, and they never complained once. 

Engineering was a tricky one, and we landed on the general cop-out of "Uhh, make a garage that opens on its own, or a better door, or something." We put Popsicle sticks, glue, string, stuff like that in the room and hoped for the best.

Art was the easiest one. "Make your house purdy. Here's colored paper, markers, etc." 

Math was easy to plan too. In the process of building everything and planning the map I did more math than I would ever do on purpose and figured out the area of the map in square inches, and the footprint of the basic house in square inches. We put up a Public Record and invited families to measure their finished homes and record it so they could, in theory, figure out the total area taken up by homes, the volume of the homes, the amount of people who could live in the city, that kind of thing. It will not be a spoiler to say that, while people did this it was not as busy as the other stations.

The Eyebrows

All that done, we needed to figure out the pieces that would add to the experience and tie the room together, man. 

My first order of business was to make a paperslide video which would serve three purposes- 1) Explain to the staff what the plan was as we explained it to them, 2) Explain the idea to the kids and get them excited at assembly, and 3) Be running during the night of so families could see what exactly they'd shown up for. I have to say, I'm real proud of how the video came out. That's one take, done all alone. y

It's not impossible to get volunteers for stuff like this, but it does take a lot of people to run. We got parents, teachers, and one brave high school student to come help us, and then we had to explain to them exactly what we wanted in each area. There was a lot of explaining the vision, but not in a bad way. I understand that "We're making a Cardboard City using STEAM" doesn't exactly translate to normal people.


The brochures and signage were another thing. We got together a two-sheet with an explanation on one side and a map on the other that every family got as they came in the door. And we got the signs put together. This was a fun pain in the tape dispenser because we wanted Big Posters for the rooms, but the district print shop couldn't do it like we wanted, and we couldn't afford to have Kinko's or whoever do it, so we ended up printing a grid of the posters that had to be taped together first by us and later by my students. We also got everything translated into Spanish. Every room needed an outside sign and two big inside signs. That's a lot of signs.

We also needed a big Welcome To Cardboard City sign like you'd see off the freeway, and a smaller version of the same sign that could go on the map. Oh yes, the map...

The Map

I measured out the map with yellow butcher paper before I made it. I didn't make it with yellow because it's a city, the ground can't be yellow. This ain't Oz. So I figured out I needed five strips of green butcher paper, each strip 12.75 feet long. I wanted a river to bisect our city so I needed a strip of blue the same length. The only problem was we were out of both green and blue butcher paper. It was ordered on rush and arrived Monday. The event was Tuesday. So after school on Monday I got down on my knees on the stage in the gym and spent however long it took rolling out green and blue butcher paper and then laying grids and cul-du-sacs of roads so the houses would have somewhere to go. And taping on my little sign of course.

Fifth Grade Help
One of the fifth grade classes helped get the city started by taking some time to build bigger structures to situate around the city. We got a massive church, a museum, a McDonald's and a 7-11, an office building, a boat to float on down our river, and a bridge to span the river. We put these out before the night started. These really helped overall, because they gave people who weren't sure some ideas and let them see the scale we were thinking. They fleshed out the city and gave it some life right away.

It was suggested to me that we pipe city sounds into the gym where the map is, which was a great idea. After looking around for a while I found that the best, least obtrusive city noises were from the new Spider-Man PS4 game (great game). Someone had made a YouTube video of Spidey perched on a streetlight for an hour, so the sounds of the city just went on around him. Looped that on a Chromebook and plugged it in.

The Night Of

Finally it was time. You know that feeling where you're not really stressed anymore (even though you're still stressed) because you're so far past the point of no return that whatever is going to happen is going to happen and there's nothing you can do about it anymore? That feeling. School got out just past three and the team spend the next two and a half hours getting everything ready, hanging signage, going up and down the hall endlessly, helping the food people get set up, making sure all the t's were dotted and the i's were crossed. Hoping hoping hoping that people would show up, it would make sense, and something cool would happen. 

I knew what we'd done was cool. I had no idea what would happen when families started coming in. 

I should have had more faith. Even when I have faith in the power and creativity of my kids, I should still have more faith. 

It was outstanding. They Got It. They got it so much more than even I got it. Kids were coming out of the engineering room with swing sets made. I saw a Jacuzzi and a pool. A few kids made garages that opened and closed, but one or two had eyes for my heart and switched their garages over, turning them into drawbridges. I want a house with a drawbridge. And you know how the back of Kix boxes have a baseball diamond for some game? Two different kids saw that and thought, "My backyard needs a baseball diamond." Brilliant.

 The lights in the technology area weren't easy, no matter how clear the directions were. I got reports from the volunteers up there that it was a lot of fun watching parents hit frustration levels when their light wouldn't light, and how the kids would help them figure it out.

The math area wasn't terribly popular and I don't think our Public Record is that great, but that's on me too because I was supposed to be running that area for a while and I got busy doing other things. Oh well, we'll do it better next time.

I saw a bunch of creative plants coming out of the Science area. Big yards, potted plants, gardens. Then one kid came out with no plants and I was confused so I asked him what he'd done. He pointed to a gray dome with hints of green inside it. "I made a greenhouse." Oh dude. Wow. I didn't once think, "Maybe a kid will make a greenhouse!"

I knew this worked in my class- Multiple pathways + multiple unclear options + narrow bandwidth = interesting results. I didn't know how it would scale.

And the map. Friends, readers, as the map grew it got more and more beautiful. Not just because the lights added a special something to it that really made it glow. But because of the pride I was seeing. Kids would go to place their house, or hand it to the shoeless volunteer who's job it was to step on the map so kids wouldn't have to, and stop and ask their parents to take their picture with their house by the map first. So many smiling kids and parents proudly displaying what they'd built together before adding it to the community we'd all built together.

I didn't know it would be beautiful. I didn't know how much the kids would blow me away with their creativity over and over. I didn't know that at the end of it I'd be moved to tears (might also have been the exhaustion and the oncoming sickness). I'll be honest- I made a deal with myself before the night started. I told myself, "If this just goes ok I'm going to take next year off. We'll shelve this, let it rest a year, then bring it back." But it didn't go just ok. Which means instead I'm inspired to top it next time. Crap.

But damn it was beautiful.

I cannot say enough about the team that made this happen except to say you'd be lucky to have them. More than that, I can't help but use this as an object lesson and tell you to Go Bigger and Trust Your Kids More. Whatever your ideas are, pump *clap* them up. I'll help, email me. Tweet me. Make something cool.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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