Monday, February 4, 2019

Build a Better House Pt 1 and 2

I built two cardboard houses. Then I challenged my students to make better ones that are also easily reproducible. Then I realized I'd made a big ol' mistake and had to take it all back.

(That is called in media res which literally means "in the middle of", and it's a literary device which allows the author to hook the reader/viewer with an exciting, interesting, or mysterious action in the middle of the story and then rewind to the start of the story and work towards the previously seen part. If you knew that, high five. If you didn't, now that you know the name you'll notice it all the time and annoy the people you watch TV with too.)

My school has put on a MakerFaire for the last three years. It has always been awesome, but the first year was easily the most awesome and every year since then has been progressively less so. Still cool, still proud, but not as great. The committee decided before last year's that it was time to rethink it come next year. Next year has come, and rethink it we have. Previously, the MakerFaire was a giant affair with student projects, class projects, TEDtalks, a Film Fest, an Art Gallery, and a Make and Take. Go big or go home, ya know? It got to be too much though, and we were having a harder and harder time getting teachers involved or excited about it. We'd plateaued. Perfect time to change things up.

We set two goals- A) Get families more involved, and show them what their kids are learning with STEAM and how it works. 2) Better show the integration STEAM across all subjects. We kicked around a few ideas, the best of which was breaking the Faire all the way down into two sections- A big Make and Take and a big Coding room with a bunch of computers and bots going. But then one of our number, one of those teachers that not only always has great ideas but also loves finding ways to make them work, a kindred spirit in other words, landed on a greater idea- Powell Valley (my school's name) Makes. We rebranded (I know, but the terminology works) the Faire completely, going so far as to stop calling it a MakerFaire.

The full name- Powell Valley Makes: A Cardboard City.

Oh yeah. Feel the goosebumps? I know you do.

The Big Idea- In the cafeteria families will come in and make or grab a pre-made cardboard building of some kind. Then there are ten classrooms set up, two for each aspect of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math). Families will take their buildings to each of these rooms, where they will be presented with challenges and ideas relating to that aspect of STEAM that can be done to their buildings. So in the Engineering room- make a garage door that opens or an elevator; in the Technology room- make your house light up, and so on. Honestly, we haven'y fleshed this part out completely yet because it needs to be workable for everyone and scaled so a fifth grader and a kinder can both be successful in the same room. There are staff meetings coming for this. But you get the general idea of the rooms. Because everything is being done on one building, it is a literal representation of the STEAM ethos.

The completed buildings will be placed in the gym, arranged in a city-like fashion. There will also be options for kids to make  and bushes and cars and other things you might see in a city. For realism and differentiation, you see.

The first big challenge (aside from supplies and planning the rooms more clearly), is how the heck are we going to have buildings ready for 300+ families so they don't have to spend the night building the basic building? The solution we've come up with have the older kids slowly over the next few months build buildings a few at a time. But how? Hooowwwwww? Can't just tell them to build houses, that's not clear enough for the plan. And it'll take too long.

I took it upon myself to have my class work the problem. First, I built two sample houses, seen below.

As you can see, one is an A-frameish house, and one is a wall template. The full house is a little more complicated because the design when you're adding angles like that changes things. The wall template is straight-forward, could be mass-produced, and could work for any wall or roof with very little modifications. They wouldn't be fancy, but fancy should come on the night, not with the template.

I brought these two examples to my class and explain everything that I just finished explaining to you. Then I laid a challenge before them- Build a Better House. Here's what I came up with, can you do better? This is your PV Makes, after all.

I forgot what I had been teaching my kids all year. They went BIG. Too big. I wanted easily reproducible designs that could be given to anyone, and that person would be able to look at the design and the template and build the house with no further input. I told my kids that. And then they set about building freaking cathedrals and sky-scrapers.

I should be proud. Our whole thing all year has been going above and beyond. In the words of Frank Zappa, you gotta "put the eyebrows on" your design. I've trained them to take it to 11, and now I'm asking them to hang back at a 5. Too much. Too much. Too complex.

So I had to pull the chute. Today I froze that side of the project and I revamped it. I realized that there was a disconnect stemming from the idea that someone else would be building their designs, they wouldn't be able to. So all the problem solving they do as they find errors in their design needs to be done before the design is actually completed. To be efficient that means designs should be KISS- Keep It Stupid Simple.

I hit the brakes and gave them a new assignment that looked a lot like the old assignment.

As you can see, this time we're working completely inside our room first. Student pairs will design a simple building, then they will trade designs and test the simplicity by having to build someone else's plans without being allowed to ask clarifying questions. Then we see how well the finished product matches the designers mental image. This, in theory, will force design clarity and simplicity.

We started it today.

Designs are still a little bonkers. They really don't get the line between simple and bad yet. Some are also still wildly unclear. Which brings back into stark focus something I hit on last week- There's a lot of failure in Making, and a lot of Teacher Worry. I approve all designs before they're traded and I'm going to end up approving designs that aren't ready because the group bringing them to me can not see that they aren't ready. So a bad design is going to go out, and a bad building will be made, and then a serious reflection and revision will take place. It's an important process. I need to want kids who are uber-confident in their lacking designs to crash and burn, so that they can learn why. I won't let them blame the construction workers, it'll be on them being unclear. Then they'll do it again. I have faith they can do it. I have faith in the process. I also know how hard it is.

This process will take a month probably. Once it's over *steeples fingers evilly* not only will students know how to write clear design plans, we will also have a bunch of clear designs that can be used by other classes moving forward. They'll be tested. But I'm not letting my kids think about that, I want them thinking in their class first.

We're only a day into the revised Build a Better House project. I look forward to seeing the learning that's about to take place. I also have my teeth gritted and I'm braced for impact because I know it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

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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