George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As a high school math teacher, it was important for me to create a learning space that welcomed on-demand wonder and exploration. I knew that I planned to have a few essential hands-on math tools, and in the last few years, I also knew that I needed to have other items that were essential for providing kids more creative freedom. With a few containers, manipulatives, and supplies, along with some technology, I created a space that my students would go on to name "the wonder shelves." What you are about to read was not an overnight process, but one that grew over an eight-year span.

Components of the Wonder Shelves

A few years ago, the wonder shelves housed our classroom math manipulatives sorted into individual or group containers. I knew that I wanted our learning tools to be accessible as needed, but I also knew that I needed to keep them organized to save time. Using disposable food containers individualized by purpose or tool, I created a system for organizing tools that kids could explore during lessons, after lessons, and sometimes before or after school.

As I got to know my students, I began learning about their other interests outside of class. I found that many were dabbling in the creative arts, so I added quite a few things specific to those pursuits during the course of the year. Our shelves grew to hold art pads, sketchbooks, air-dry clay, molding tools, various markers, art pencils, beads, string, Legos, K'nex, and glue.

While this may sound a bit much for a high school algebra 1 or geometry class, it was amazing to see students use their downtime to explore their interests, create, and learn. On many occasions, I found them creating items specific to areas that we were studying, like making bracelets or necklaces that involved recursive or geometric sequences, and then challenging their peers to determine the equation. They created structures using Legos and K'nex to build us a geometric city where we explored concepts like taxicab geometry, angle pair relationships, and even measurement.

Through our school’s Upward Bound Math and Science program, which I sponsored, we inherited a Lego Mindstorm kit and that opened up an entirely new world to students in the area of robotics. We had no idea how to actually program the robot, but the Mindstorm kit didn't sit idle on the shelf. We learned together, and in the process, we developed meaningful relationships that enhanced our growth in and out of class.

When I received classroom technology like laptops and iPads, they were housed on the wonder shelves and not locked away in a cabinet. Doing this created a space where learning extended to whatever students could create and interact with on a device. I was pleasantly shocked to turn on an iPad and see a stop-motion creation using clay to illustrate changes in volume of a cylinder -- and this was something that I hadn't assigned! When you give kids space and access to explore, this is what can happen.

Our latest addition was a MakeyMakey after I learned about it through Twitter. I never told the kids what it did. They looked it up on their own, and before long, it became the hit of the wonder shelf as if their daily goal was to try "crazy" ideas and test them. These were the moments that the early-morning Edmodo alerts came through. Kids wanted to make sure that I was there!

From Wonder Shelf to Makerspace

What I created in my classroom space was a place where kids could explore learning and create. Until this summer, it never occurred to me that what we had developed was in essence the "theoretical" definition of a Makerspace. As I talked about this space over the summer, many teachers asked how we did this with administrative holds on creativity outside of the curriculum. Simply put, my students and I had designed in-class learning that adhered to our goals. What kids did when they met those goals or on their own time was fair game, and this space gave room to the idea of learning beyond our standards.

The wonder shelves also meant that my students, with a majority of them falling into more marginalized populations, were provided experiences that they would not have had in any other learning venue.

Do you have a wonder shelf or something similar in your classroom? Please tell us about it.

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Katherine in Oakland's picture

There is another application of this idea. Your welcoming approach reminds me of working in an Elder Community where we encouraged Residents and their loved ones to engage in reminiscing through Enrichment Baskets. Accessible wall niche featured theme baskets with objects that represented through the senses, moments in time, archetypal value and creativity. Learning doesn't end in Eldership. We have lots to learn from them and the joy of being seen and heard through active listening is immeasurable. Thanks for your article.

Randy-oh's picture

Fantastic idea...reminded me how I got started as a kid.
I'd been thinking about putting up some knic-knac shelves and putting up a rotating set of interesting artifacts, say a gear mechanism from a machine or a section cut of an electronic module, etc. But I like your Wonder Shelf/maker center idea better. It can still have the artifacts, which can blend in with supplies (matched to the tools you have to fabricate with) to inspire creative builds.

Kimberly K's picture

I haven't done this yet, but this idea led me to another. How about an "I wonder" shelf where students can place their own items they wonder about. "How does this work?" "It's broken, can someone help fix it?" Even written "wonders". "How much do I weigh on Mars?". Using free time students could work cooperatively to answer their wonders.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

What a great way to incorporate the Maker philosophy in a small space, within an academic class, and without a lot of work! Love this.

DawnS's picture
I teach elementary Art and Learning Lab, a hands-on experience related to current content

What a great opportunity for your students! I'm teaching Art at a camp for gifted kids. To entertain campers who finished early, I made a "bag of tricks" filled with the classic Fifteen puzzle, the Cracker Barrel golf tee puzzle, a few interesting books, Mad Libs and a Spirograph. They LOVE it. I'm going to add to and expand on this for my own classroom this fall.

JG Flagg's picture

We're doing a great deal with makerspaces and design thinking at our school. What we've learned and how we're teaching it to your learners is that in doing hands-on projects, this opens up a realm of possibilities for creativity, contextual learning (math and science), and reflective experiences. It is important that as you "make" to allow the learning at hand to be process-driven. Planning, materials, collaborative learning, and communication are essentials to the whole project. That isn't to say that making something is not just should not be the force that determines the full experience...or even the assessment of skills.

Will Minton's picture
Will Minton
Traveling the world to learn about education

I love this. Very concrete ideas for a very important goal. As Paul griffin recently told me, ( "Creativity is the highest form of empowerment." Too often people think this is just for Language Arts or extracurriculars. It's great how you've shown how this can work in a high school math classroom as well and it shows how much you trust in your students. I just wish the picture was of a high school student. I almost didn't click on the story because I thought it was for elementary school.

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