Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Maker Centers - a Learning Experience for All of Us

Right before school let out for Winter Break, I decided to shake things up in the library and finally experiment with some ideas for Maker Centers that have been gnawing at me since last Spring.

My goal was to expose kids to the variety of things they could learn about using library resources or carefully selected Internet resources, and to support our theme for the year: "Read, Create, Collaborate".  

I wanted to give kids a chance to tinker, problem solve, imagine, and create.  I also knew that I wanted to make use of many items I already had and supplement with a few key items that I would use to expand our resources.  I also wanted to be sure that the centers connected to our learning standards and could be an example for students and teachers about how they could connect library resources and technology to classroom learning.

The Maker Centers

After much deliberation and a review of what I had available to me or could get at a reasonable cost, I settled on the following Maker Centers:
  • Poetry - we have a ton of great poetry books of course, and last year I made magnetic words using magnet paper for magnetic poetry
  • Art - the kids love the how to draw books and our art teachers are using a center approach, plus I already had a lot of markers, glue, and colored paper
  • Music - we recently acquired a book about songwriting, and I was inspired to have a music center after hearing Mary Amato speak at our Fall conference - it also seemed like the perfect time to try out GarageBand
  • Drama - I inherited a puppet show theater from our first grade after one of our teacher retired last year, we also have some nice drama books, and I've been collecting Kohl's Cares stuffed animals over the last two years.
  • Coding - our maker weeks coincided with Hour of Code, so this one was a no brainer
  • Raspberry Pi - I have really been itching to get a Raspberry Pi to see what the kids can do with it, and now was the perfect time to invest
  • Snap Circuits - these came highly recommended from a few sources, and I figured it was a good way to introduce kids to circuits.  I invested in two kits, and I figure it could be a good thing for teachers to check out for the new NGSS standards.
  • Lego City- last year I received a very large donation of Legos and have had plans to bring them out into the library, but just haven't had a chance to actually do it.  This was the perfect opportunity to use the legos to have kids work together to build the setting to our 1 book, 1 school book - Because of Winn Dixie.
  • Lego Pixel Art - for kids who wanted to work with Legos independently, I got the idea from to challenge kids to create Lego pixel art using extra base plates I had left over from building the Lego table. 
  • Lego Robots - the Lego robots were a donation from our district Robotics club.  They were upgrading, and the robots they had were essentially not working anyway.  With a GREAT deal of help from "The Technician" I was able to learn a little about how they work.
  • iPad/Technology - I used this only with Kindergarten and taught them how to use the Chatterpix app to make story related videos. 

I ordered the materials I didn't have from Amazon, put together the Lego table I've been dreaming about and began work on matching my standards.
I feel like I stared at standards forever, and thank goodness for the CCSS and NGSS apps, it made flipping through things much easier in my planning process.  The collaboration boards I added to library tables at the beginning of the school year came in very handy for making my notes as I planned out my "I Can" statements. 
I decided to put a sign at each Maker Center that included some brief direction, a QR code to an example or to a resource for additional help, and the "I Can" statements.  
The "I Can" statements were really important because I knew I had an observation coming up, and even though Maker Centers are a bit of an experiment for me at this point, I wanted my principal to see that the risk I was taking - especially during an observation cycle- had some merit when it comes to standards based learning.  

Here's a link to my first round of Maker Center signs.

Once I had everything set up at different stations around the library, I couldn't help but be really excited to share the concept with the kids.

Day 1: A Bump in the Road

Student building the "Mistake Tree" from Because of Winn Dixie
After all of my dreaming and planning for Maker Centers I was super excited for my first day with it.  My first group was 4th grade.  They came into the library, met at their tables and after I explained each center and the idea that really the only thing they needed to do in class was to "make" something, they were off and building and really feeding off their own energy. 

There was some real excitement as they tried the Lego robot, they had two buildings up for the setting of Because of Winn Dixie in a flash, and they were figuring out the Raspberry Pi in no time.  
I felt confident that Maker Centers were really going to be a vehicle to help students find new interests and be exposed to new ideas - until the first graders came in. 

What worked so beautifully with 4th grade was a near disaster with first and second grade.  In advance I had realized that I wouldn't be able to give those grade levels as many choices, and had simplified it down to 6 choices: Make a Play, Make Poetry, Make Music, Make Lego Pixel Art, Make Art, Make Code. They seemed lost in what to "make" and they didn't quite get the whole concept.  Even though they were excited to try different things it looked more like the playground than self-directed learning.  As I looked around the room, and jumped from center to center trying my best to help them with the things they didn't understand, it became obvious that the only center where something was actually happening was the Lego City center where kids had a task - to build the setting of Because of Winn Dixie.

At the end of the first day I had a splitting headache and felt like a bit of a failure.  I realized that I got so caught up in the "Maker" concept that I had lost track of good principles of teaching and learning.  Just because I had "I can" statements and nice signs, didn't mean I had actually executed the idea appropriately.  I thought about it for hours that evening, and realized that the Lego City Maker Center was successful because the kids had a goal - a question to answer - "What did the setting of Because of Winn Dixie look like, and how can you create it with legos?".  The rest of the centers were sort of a free for all.  In order to really make this work, I had to have some guidelines and a question or theme to help give the kids a framework.

Time to Regroup

The next day I came in with a plan.  Since, as a school we had just finished Because of Winn Dixie, and because every student in the school was familiar with it, I knew that I could use that as our inspiration for the rest of our first week of Maker Centers.  I also knew that I would need to give my Kindergarten students a lot more support.  For my older students, I was able to give them the direction to create something for Because of Winn Dixie at the poetry, music, art, pixel art, lego city and drama centers.  For the younger kids we sat down and brainstormed some ideas for what they could make.  We talked about what instrument some of the main characters would be for the music center, and what scenes would be the most fun to recreate for the drama center.
Winn Dixie in the trailer - Pixel Art

For kindergarten I knew, after working with first grade, that I wasn't going to be able to turn them loose in the library for 45 minutes.  We read a story first and talked about each of the Maker Centers and what they could make for the story.  They were able to choose from the: "iPad/Tech Center" to make Chatterpix about the problem/solution in the story; "Make Music", where they wrote songs that went with pictures in the book; "Make a Scene", where they could act out the book; "Make Pixel Art" where they could design scenes from the story using legos; and "Make Art" where they could draw or cut and paste to create artwork related to the story.  Of all the grade levels this method actually worked the best for me.

With a theme and some discussion, things went a lot smoother through the week.  And I had plan for the next week.  

Week 2: Maker Centers - much smoother

For the second week I used a general theme of Winter Magic.  After theThe primary grades each heard a story and we would pause every now and then to discuss the way they could use elements from the story in the different Maker Centers.  
  • The Kindergartners heard the story Snowmen at Night and I asked them to answer the question "What would snowmen do at night?" in whichever center they chose.
  • First Grade heard It's Christmas David and I asked them "What does Christmas or Holiday magic look like for you?".
  • Second Grade heard poems from the book Winter Lights.  We looked at the pictures of the quilts in the book and talked about different ways they could show winter light.  Their goal was to make something that represented the different kinds of winter lights that we see - fire, candles, Christmas lights, luminaries, stars, beautiful sunsets etc.

  • The older kids were just given the task to make something that represented the Holiday season.  They Coded the Holidays on Made with Code, used the Snap Circuit kit to create lights, and even made sharpie art and volunteer gifts that highlighted our library theme

Make Art project for our library volunteers

 Lessons Learned

I will for sure do Maker Centers again and expand the materials that we used, especially in the "Make Art" center.  For the future I know the following now:
  • It helps to give the kids a theme or a question to answer in their choice "Maker Center" so that they have a framework on which they can build.  This may not be true for everyone using Maker Ed concepts - but for my library program it worked much better.
  • I need more books about coding, uses for the Raspberry Pi, and the basics of circuits for the kids to explore on their own time now that they've discovered new interests.
  • As a follow up I want to encourage the kids to find a use for the Raspberry Pi and get into how to use that more - there is also a group requesting a coding club, and I'll for sure look into that as we move into the Spring
  • The kids weren't really interested in the "Make Poetry" center at all.  I think I could do a better job of exposing them to types of poetry and activities surrounding the poetry books we have in the library to spark some ideas - or maybe I need to broaden the topic to be more of a Writing center versus strictly poetry.
  • Provide students with some guidelines - it's their choice to find what they're interested in, but it helps if they give a certain center at least 10 minutes before they give up on something.  I also think having guidelines at the Lego table are critical.  I told kids that they could build only not destroy and that they should leave notes about what they were working on so other could build upon it.  That strategy worked great for us.
  • The kids really found some things that sparked their imagination and problem solving skills, moving forward I need to capitalize on that and encourage them to research and pursue these new found interests through things like Genius Hour and by sharing these interests with their teachers and parents so they can help cultivate the learning as a school community.

My experiment with Maker Centers has really been a fantastic learning experience for me, and a great reminder to always stay grounded in solid teaching practices.  Simple things like group discussions, brainstorming, modeling and questioning can go a long way in giving students freedom and a framework for success in their own exploration.



  1. I recently wrote a grant for many of the materials that you have in your Maker Center. I hope that I get the grant because I think that my kids will love having a chance to make and explore. I work with older ones, so I am interested to see if they can be self-directed.

  2. I love how you always talk through your thinking and doing processes so that others can learn from that and replicate it. Thanks for always being open with what worked and what didn't work. I'm so excited to see so many KY librarians working toward the example you are setting!