Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How To Start a Makers' Club in Ten Days

Today I gave an "idea talk" at the WVIZ Ideastream conference. Unfortunately, I got the "wrap it up" signal long before I was close to done... Here's my speech with all "ten days." Not great writing, but I wrote as though I was speaking...

Hellooooooo.  My name is Morgan Kolis and I am a special education teacher, intervention specialist, behavior intervention specialist, reading specialist…Though, I am currently being disguised by my district as a reading intervention teacher.  This is my 13th year of teaching in Ohio and, I am also currently studying to take the Board exam to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.  My real passions, however, are special education and inclusive environments.

So, like I said, my district is currently utilizing me as a reading intervention teacher.  Reading intervention is important and crucial to students in elementary school and is… just not my dream job.  Again, there is nothing wrong with reading intervention. It’s just not what I believe I was made to be doing.

So, it was in this job as a reading intervention teacher that I have found my own need for more creativity and more fun in school.  You see, reading intervention is… well, a little dry.  Again, I truly believe that this is an important job and I’m sure there are people out there who love it. That’s just not, well, me.  By nature, doing interventions with kids is rote and repetitive and as engaging as we try to make it, it’s … a little lacking in creativity.

This is where the story really starts.

I started searching for something.  I wasn’t sure what that something was, but I knew something in my life was missing that used to be filled by my job as a special education teacher. And now it was gone.  

And in the way my life often works, there was some divine intervention and…I got an email.

I got an email from this guy named Sean Wheeler. Some of you might know him. He was the keynote here last year and he writes this great blog called Teaching Humans; and he’s now doing some incredible work at the Design Lab in Cleveland that everyone should be checking out immediately. I mean, after this talk, of course.

But I got this email from Sean.  At that time, Sean was working on starting a entire Makers’ School and got a grant to support that mission.  And Sean decided to ask a few educators he knew if we’d want to participate in a teacher makerspace to put ourselves in the place of our students, in order to remember what it feels like to be in a space where you’re not sure what you’re doing and you’re not quite sure what might come out of it.  He said “Let’s do a six week class where you learn to make some things and get to talk with other educators.”

Okay, I’ll bite.

Then he wrote “it’ll be a woodworking class at a woodshop.”


Okay, I don’t know about you, but wood has not really ever been my preferred medium.  I’m more of a canvas, clay, scrapbooking, really great creative lesson planning kind of person.  But wood?

This was NOT my comfort zone.  I really do not engage in stuff I am not going to be great at.

I was really not sure about this, but, here I was, searching for something. And maybe this could help me find it.  

So, about ten people said they would join the six week class and we all met at this amazing community woodshop right outside of Tremont called Soulcraft. It’s in this old, creepy, factory like building where they used to do meat -packing called the Hildebrandt Building.  REALLY out of my comfort zone. And these two guys, the owners of this “community woodshop” offered to be our “teachers.”

So, we met there.  Some of us knew each other from twitter but had never actually spoken and some of us were total strangers.  Even more awkward and somewhat uncomfortable.

And there we sat on that first day at Soulcraft with all of these exhausted and inspiring and excited and terrified educators from all different districts and walks of life… educators like Tom Grodek and Julie Rea and Karen Wheeler and Jeremy Shorr and Vicki Turner, some of whom are even here today.

And then Peter and Jim, the owners of Soulcraft, started talking about the properties of wood.

And all I could think was “What in the hell am I doing here?”

So, long story short, it’s now been about 57 weeks since we started this six week course and about 5 of us make it back to the shop a few Saturdays a month to continue this experiment with “making” and talking. Lots of talking.

And I’ve gotten so much out of this experience that I was thinking, how can I bring this back to my own school?

And it was through this inspiration that I was able to start a “Makers’ Club” at our school where I currently teach… reading intervention.

So, during lunch time every Thursday and Friday, we host a Makers’ Club for the students at our school in second and third grade. And when I say “we,” I mean my awesome co-reading intervention teacher, Sharon Wiesler, who has graciously also given up her time to help me with this and has dealt with the great amount of “treasures” that we have collected for the club.  She really jumped in with both feet and I couldn’t possibly thank her enough for going with this...

And now I’d like to share with you How to Start a Makers’ Club in 10 days.

Day one.  Think.  What do you want your makerspace to be?

I knew immediately that I wanted our space to have very little structure.  Reading Intervention and special ed are VERY structured and I wanted a place that would be 100% opposite.

I also knew that I wanted to incorporate STEM activities, but I didn’t want the club to be solely based on STEM activities.  I wanted this space to be a place where kids make their own rules about what they create.

We have very few rules but we did need to set up a little bit of structure for second and third graders so they know what to expect.

First rule, you must share.  Second rule, be respectful.  Third rule, if you make a mess, you clean it up before you leave.  Last rule, be safe.  As the club has gone on, we’ve also made the rule that you may not create a weapon and if you do, it may not leave the room.

Day Two, get rid of your crap.  By crap, I don’t mean your physical crap.  I mean your own personal crap.  

Here’s an example of my crap: I was great at playing the game of school.  I could rock a test and loved to read.  But the other day, I was telling my friend about this “talk.”  And he says “Why are you worried? Have you ever failed at anything in your life?”  Okay, that’s exactly my “crap.”  I don’t typically put myself in situations in which I COULD fail, so NO, I DO NOT fail, I am actually TERRIFIED of failing. 

And I have to let that go for our club.  Because how dare I pass that on to our students?  Why would I give them my crap?  

Days Three and Four, start collecting crap.  Now you need actual junk.  Junk that people are about to toss away is perfect.  We collect popsicle sticks, toilet paper rolls, cardboard of every kind, leftover pieces from crafts that the class has done, scrap paper, plastic containers, straws, plastic forks and spoons, styrofoam… if you can think of it, we probably have it.  Ask for donations,  It’s amazing the things that parents will dig out from their basements to bring for you.

But PLEASE learn from my mistake here. Know where you will STORE these items BEFORE you start collecting them!  Currently, we have crap spilling from the reading intervention room out into the hall and down half the hallway...

Day Five.  Find a funding source. There will be stuff you can’t get donated.  Next week, we’re going to make “electric dough” also known as “squishy circuits.”  I needed to buy the items for this one.  At first, I didn’t mind just buying the stuff myself, but then I realized that between 40 and 60 students go through our room every single week, so I needed some funding source so that I didn’t end up broke.

Our funding source has mainly been our PSO and now our STEM department in the district.  I believe our principal also kicked in money from her principal’s fund as well. 

And just last week, we received a grant from our Schools Foundation for almost $2500 to buy items from LEGO education to introduce some LEGO Robotics.  Grants are all over the place, if only you can find them and write up a blurb about what you need and how it connects to learning.

Day Six.  Decide on some challenges.  You don’t need a hundred ideas, just two or three to get started.  There will ALWAYS be more ideas.  Someone will always share their thoughts with you, you’ll always have the internet, and you can always ask the kids, and I really don’t think Pinterest is going anywhere.

Day Seven. Decide on how you’ll share what the kids are doing.  This is crucial.  If you are doing great work in the classroom, that’s awesome.  But if you’re sharing what your kids are doing with the world, that’s even better. This is tough for second and third graders to do on their own.

One thing I try to do every week is remind the kids to keep “making” at home.  I let them take materials with them if they haven’t finished their project to be able to continue at home.  I ask them to take pictures at home and even send them to me.

I also take a million photos during the club and post them on our website and on our PSO Facebook page.  It seems like the parents really like this and parents comment that their children have already told them all about the project we did that day.

I’ve started to use my twitter page to share out actual quotes and thoughts from the kids.  This is almost more important to me because then I can reflect on what the students are telling me they need or want each week.

Days 8, 9, and 10.
Figure out how to INCLUDE ALL KIDS.

One of the main reasons I wanted to give this talk today was to talk about including girls in technology education. Last year, during THIS conference, did you realize that every single speaker was male?  Include girls in making.  Include girls in technology. Include girls in robotics and coding and in EVERYTHING that boys are doing.  

And just buying pink duct tape is NOT what I mean.  

We had the high school robotics team visit and there was ONE girl.  Where are we losing them?

Surprisingly right now, girls are the majority in our Makers’ Club each week.

So PLEASE INCLUDE THE GIRLS!  Make an extra effort to get them in.  If one girl comes, tell her to bring two friends the next week.

INCLUDE them. 

PLEASE include them!

You will find out so many things about so many kids through this process. 

You’ll find your makers.  You’ll find the problem solvers.  

You’ll find the leaders and the followers and the kids who HATE doing projects like this, but HATE going out to recess even more.  

You’ll find the gifted kids who can’t problem solve but rock the “game of school.”  You’ll find the students who naturally help the kids with special needs.  

You’ll find the kids with special needs who stink at the “game of school” but who ROCK at making and problem solving.

But, realistically, how can you include ALL of these kids?  Well, some kids will need to come with their aides.  

And some of these kids will need a visual schedule.

And some will need to know about the project ahead of time.

You may have to put in a few extra minutes, but including ALL kids will make all the difference.


I’ll tell you a short story about one of my favorite kids on the planet.  His name is Luke.  He is funny and playful and smart and curious and empathetic (always saying “Miss Kolis, don’t be sad.” if he notices I am not over the top happy).  He’s brave and he’s amazing.

He’s in third grade, and he also happens to have autism.  He was my student for Kindergarten, first, and second grade and since then I’ve been tutoring him privately.  

He comes to Makers’ Club every. single. week.  His amazing parents talk about it with him at home the night before.  I tell him, during our Thursday night tutoring sessions, what the project is that we are making.  And one week, I needed to give him a visual timer so that he would know how many minutes were left in the club.

But, here’s the great thing about Luke.  Until he started coming to Makers’ Club, even after knowing him for 5 years now, I didn’t know that Luke cared much for other kids.  He never seemed to notice them and he certainly did not appear to care who was around.  He’s always been verbal, but he’s never necessarily been conversational about other kids without some kind of prompting.

Now?  Luke joins me for lunch before the club so we can chat about school and prep for the project.  Luke repeats “Hello everyone.  I’m waiting for the kids to come” over and over throughout the lunch.  He LOVES the other kids!  He can’t wait til they all get there! 

Every week, on Thursday, Luke asks “Makers’ Club on Friday?”  And my heart is broken if we ever have to cancel a session and I have to say no.

Luke is my proof that Makers’ Club is working.  He is the reason that I believe this club is successful.  Because every kid can get what they need from coming to our club.

Some kids need some freedom.

Some kids need to have an outlet during their week.

Some kids need to engage in the creative and problem solving process.

But some kids, like Luke, just need to be around the other kids.

And there it is, How to Start a Makers’ Club in 10 days!  You can do it too!

Please tweet me or email me if you do!