We taught an after-school program teaching 5th and 6th graders at Teachers College Community School (TCCS) in Harlem. The program focused on how to make art and craft projects using creative technologies, three times a week. On most days we worked with the students in a classroom at their school, but on Fridays, we brought them to the makerspace at Teachers College for them to experience and utilize the digital fabrication tools available. We did all of the lesson planning, materials purchasing, budgeting, and classroom management for the club.
Since TCCS does not offer regular art classes, our students were allowed to express themselves creatively in ways that may not have been available in their regular classroom. For example, students had never explored Scratch from a creative perspective. When asked what they learned from our clubs in an exit survey, students believed they grew the most in creativity. Since our lessons incorporate the other elements of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math), students were also exposed to other subjects in a way that encouraged free play and exploration. Suddenly those who had used Scratch in their Science classes before and claimed to hate it were suddenly having fun with the program and creating animations in their free time at home.
After our unit on creative circuitry, a parent was amazed at the project her child brought home. She thanked us and said, “I didn’t know she had it in her!” Because our club explored engineering through art, it created opportunities for students, who may normally have felt left behind in Science and Math classes, to realize that they are smart, creative, and have the power within to create amazing things.
We gave students opportunities to have authorship and responsibility for their work. Each activity began with personally meaningful engagements before we showed them technical aspects of the work to get them invested. We invited classroom teachers into our room during club time on several occasions and spoke regularly with the students’ classroom teacher about what we were working on and what behaviors we were noticing in the students. Students that were often categorized as having behavior problems in the classroom were often seen invested and hard at work in our club, teachers hopefully saw that these students were capable of a lot once they were invested in the lesson. Our hope is that this inspired these teachers to incorporate more STEAM based activities and creative work in their own lessons in order to better engage all types of learners.
We created a climate in the classroom that focused on respect, kindness, creativity, and most importantly Grit, or long-term resilience. The students understood that the club was an environment where they were encouraged never to give up and be resourceful in solving their own problems. Students had the opportunity to build emotional regulation skills through the creative process and work through their frustrations. One incredible student who was regularly bullied by her classmates and seemed to have additional hardships she was dealing with at home. She would often show up to our club in tears, and any small setback in a project would lead to a meltdown. Our lessons emphasized resilience and persistence, and we spoke with our students often about the importance of grit. This student was highly creative and often went above and beyond with her projects. With a lot of encouragement from us, she finally learned how to stick to her work and problem solve when things went wrong. The amazing things she was able to create earned the respect of her classmates and incidents of bullying decreased significantly within our club.
Another student came into our class extremely shy and quiet. She was often reluctant to share, and when she did other students would call out that they couldn’t hear her. Students often had opportunities to share their ideas and present their work. We regularly reminded our class about respectful listening, and the student worked hard on her projects and showed increasingly more creativity and pride in her work. Now, she is one of the most outgoing students and often takes a leadership role in group work. She presents her projects with confidence and humor and it was such a pleasure to watch her come out of her shell!
Finally, we had a student that was regularly a behavior problem in the classroom. His teacher told us that he was often disruptive and had to be sent out of the classroom during lessons. He became incredibly invested in the work he was doing with us and was often so eager to start work that he squirmed in his chair during the introductions to lessons. Later in the school year, his teacher reported that he had become significantly less of a behavior problem and was much more invested in his school work.
We are incredibly proud of the work our students created this year. The students learned about simple circuits (LEDs and motors), circuit bending, 3D design and printing, scratch creative coding, and 2D design and laser cutting. This semester we worked on digital design concepts and their final project was to make a board game with 3D printed and laser etched parts. The best part was watching their faces when they saw their digital designs come to life as 3D prints or laser cuts. You could see the difference in ownership students felt over their work when they were handed professional looking products that they had designed themselves. They had opportunities to see themselves as creators and not just consumers. A favorite moment this year was when walking back from the TC makerspace and two students were walking and debating over whether 3D or 2D design was more interesting. They decided that they enjoyed creating 3D models more, but that they preferred creating pieces with the laser cutter, coming to the conclusion that they should make more 3D forms out of laser cut pieces. Fifth graders, who had never heard of a laser cutter before and never had art classes as a part of their regular school day, were now debating about digital fabrication techniques and thinking about 3D forms and mathematics without any prompting from teachers. This is why we did the work we did and this is why we’re so proud of what we’ve created at TCCS.
Written and Edited by Avery Forbes and Trisha Barton