August 25, 2016

When a Ship is not a Ship—It’s a Sabre-toothed Cat! A Story of Maker Empowerment and Collective Agency

By guest author Ilya Pratt, AbD Oakland Leadership Team member and Design+Make+Engage program director at Park Day School

Last year Kyle (a pseudonym) was a kindergartener at Park Day School in Oakland, California—where I teach an Innovation Workshop class in our school’s new workshop space. Like many kindergarteners, Kyle had big energy and big emotions.  When things were exciting, joy was evident in his entire body. Disappointments were equally deep—and came with a long-lasting frown. Several months into the school year, he was still working very hard to temper those highs and lows, and to find his place in both the classroom and larger school community.

In our weekly Innovation Workshop class, Kyle was always very engaged and usually reigned in his energy. While he made safety mistakes with the tools he used in class, he also took them very seriously. However, Kyle often had difficulty really defining and executing projects. In these times, his dissatisfaction would reverberate through the workshop.

One day in Innovation Workshop class things came together for Kyle. After impatiently waiting for me to find my way to him, he proudly announced, “I made a ship!” He quickly followed with a meandering and not particularly convincing explanation of how the four long parts alongside the hull, two pointing forwards and two to the rear, weren’t guns even though they looked like guns (demonstrating a clear understanding of our school’s no weapons policy). He then picked up his ship only to experience the four non-guns, attached by one nail each, falling downwards.

A big whining “Awwwww!” ensued, accompanied by that deep frown.

His tablemates became silent—a pregnant pause in which hands froze in place and  eyes locked on Kyle, well-aware of an imminent emotional meltdown. In that moment I steadied the parts—now legs—and the upset suddenly ceased. With what felt like a tidal shift—for both him and his tablemates—Kyle announced, “I made a cat! I made a cat! I made a sabre-toothed cat!” With this he puffed out his chest and stood what had to be six inches taller. He remained at this height through our gallery walk sharing time, proudly introducing his sabre-toothed cat to his classmates.

The saber-toothed cat developed by Kyle in the Innovation Workshop class at Park Day School.

The saber-toothed cat developed by Kyle in the Innovation Workshop class at Park Day School.

During the next Innovation Workshop class, Kyle returned to his sabre-toothed cat to add to it. For the first time, a particularly skilled classmate—in both building and socially—asked if he could help Kyle. This was a big social success moment. In later classes there continued to be more positive exchanges around their projects, and playground play increased as well.

Kyle and his colleague work together to modify the saber-toothed cat construction.

Kyle and his classmate work together to modify the saber-toothed cat construction.

A couple of weeks later I noticed that the sabre-toothed cat had taken up lodging outside Kyle’s classroom, waiting to be brought home. After another week it appeared on a table by the building’s front door. Eventually it made its way back into the workshop—a teacher had respectfully moved it to its obvious place of origin. I finally asked Kyle if he wanted to take it home. “No. I don’t want it.” he replied. “It’s pretty cool—and you put a lot of work into it. Are you sure?” I asked. With certainty he said, “No, I don’t want to take it home.”

I am left with the thought that for Kyle, the sabre-toothed cat may have been important and empowering in the moment, but it was the social gains that were lasting and most meaningful for him. As a maker educator, Kyle’s experience with the ship that became a sabre-toothed cat reminds me that the products students make in our maker-centered classrooms are important. However, regardless of how cool and interesting the stuff students make may be, it’s the learning and experiences of collective agency that matter most.

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