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Middle School Maker Journey: The Making of a Mantra

Kevin Jarrett

Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI
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A young teenage boy and girl, in middle school or ninth grade, are working at a classroom table. The boy is working on a HP laptop, and the girl is putting super glue on a piece of paper that's on top of a red lunch tray.

Care. Think. Design. Act. These words are the first thing that people see when entering Digital Shop, our middle school makerspace. This mantra anchors the threshold experience, a visitor's first visual impression of the space.

But what do the words really mean, individually and collectively? Why those words, in that order? And how do they resonate with our learners and with my colleagues in regard to their impressions of the program?

In the Beginning. . .

In July 2015, we visioned our program during a design charrette with the help of designer/consultant David Jakes. The latter part of that day involved synthesizing an entire morning’s worth of ideas into our Manifesto or credo -- what we do and why we do it. As we summarized the day's thoughts into a coherent whole, four crucial concepts became clear amid all the post-its, stickers, and scribblings on bulletin board paper:

  1. We wanted our kids to care about problems they see in the world, acknowledging our desire to have empathy become the anchoring force in our learning community.
  2. We wanted our kids to think deeply about the problems, coming to an understanding of what each problem really is.
  3. We wanted them to use their creativity and imagination to design something (an object, process, or system) that could solve the problem.
  4. We wanted them to act toward putting their design into production, whether that meant creating a physical prototype to present or a behavior that they or others can exhibit.

With that as guidance, our manifesto came to life:

  • Caring: We listen, we admire, we question, we connect, we wonder, we appreciate, we celebrate The Human Condition.
  • Thinking: Then we ask, "How might we?" "What if?" "Yes, and?" . . .
  • Designing: . . . so that we suggest a plausible future.
  • Acting: . . . so that we build, create, make, extend, unify, and believe in The Human Condition.

And thus, our mantra was born: "Care. Think. Design. Act." When I approached my friend and colleague Monica Keenan (also mom to an NCS eighth-grade student) about painting the words on a wall in my space, she suggested vinyl decals from Do It Yourself Lettering. We quickly chose the font, colors, and size we wanted, placed the order, and within about a week had our four giant decals ready for installation.

Reaction Time

With the space completed, all that was left was to see the impression that it made on visitors. Kids were the first to see it. I recall overhearing a few of them read the words aloud as they entered the room. We felt the meaning would be intuitively obvious to a casual observer because the beauty of the mantra is its simplicity. But would students make the connection between all four words to see the larger picture, the importance of empathy, and how the mantra (and the larger Manifesto) was a call to action, not just a handy slogan? Would they get it?

Yes, they would -- and none more so than Isabelle V., a sixth-grade student who, with nothing more than an assignment to "create an iMovie trailer," made this terrific one-minute tribute to our program, how it impacts her, and how it and she will change the world.

But wait, there's more! We're currently in the midst of our third Design Experience (DE.3), The Weather Challenge. Winter storm Jonas hit our area in January 2016. Though we did not get as much snow as surrounding areas, it was still a major event, providing the perfect context for a lesson on design thinking, and a field test of the mantra. (Special thanks to Mary Cantwell for the idea.) Kids are being challenged to explore the impact of the recent severe weather, both negatively (injuries/deaths, property damage, disruption to pets or wildlife) and positively (recreational opportunities, time off school, time to spend with family), to come up with inventions that solved problems or made life better. So far, students have come up with:

In every situation, students had to care about a problem or issue, think how they might solve the problem, design a solution, and then act on or create it.

Parents Weigh In

While students are primarily served by our program, they're not the only ones to see and experience the magic. Our mantra is an equal-opportunity inspirer. Everyone can care, think, design, and act -- it's about empowerment, contributing to the greater good, and changing the world. Here's what some parents are saying:

"I love what is happening in the school. It feels so fresh and innovative."
"I love that there is no limit to what they can dream up, create, and aspire to. That is really the take-home message of the year -- anything is possible, just give it a try. No limits. The kids aren't treated as 'just kids.' Their ideas and thoughts are important and are taken seriously. And they are 'doing,' not 'listening,' in the design studio."
"The program is opening up a world of possibilities for the students' futures and giving them advanced experience in fields that are growing in today's world. There is something to interest everyone, and the program may only be limited by one's own imagination. A child who struggles in other parts of the school day can flourish with creative, hands-on class time that will only benefit his future."
"My son comes home from school excited to share what's new, what he is creating and/or working on. Today he spent a good 15 minutes explaining to me their invention to melt the snow in the driveway. Definitely a far cry from me asking how his day was and him saying 'OK' or 'boring.' Now he tells me how fun school is!"
"I have definitely witnessed my son's interest in technology increase as well as seeing that spark of creativity lit. Never did I think he would want to build or design anything, and now he is always on his tablet designing buildings or neighborhoods, using empty boxes and cushions to make a car or something, and also teaching himself how to make gaming videos, etc."

Staff Has Their Say

A seventh-grade teacher observes:

"Students are showing a new love for education in the classroom as a result of the new program. The middle school in general has seen a huge transformation. Students, staff, and administration have worked together to make learning not only fun but challenging. As a result, students have been more inquisitive in class, [striving] to produce a better quality of work."

One middle-school specials teacher declares:

"This program is like nothing I've ever seen before! It's about the kids actively learning, having a purpose, working together, problem solving, and enjoying themselves all at the same time -- every class, every day. This class allows kids to be creative, think in ways they've never thought before! This is the best thing that has happened in Northfield Schools. You will not believe the change in students! More confident, happy to be in school, eager to share ideas, eager to learn."

Another seventh-grade teacher adds:

"The digital shop is a place for students to learn without even knowing it. I have never seen a student not want to join in the fun. Students look busy and happy, completely engaged."

Student Voices

And let's hear from the students themselves. One sixth-grade boy says:

"I learned that I can push myself over the limit and do something great."

A seventh-grade girl tells us:

"When I'm in Digital Shop, I feel like I'm able to create the inventions I've always wanted. I've learned that if I am interested in doing something, I will do anything to stick to the subject until it's perfectly finished. Even though I mess up, it's fun to go to Digital Shop and try again."

An eighth-grade boy admits:

"I'm more creative than I thought, and I'm good at making prototypes."

And this, from another seventh-grade girl:

"One thing I have learned about myself is that I can do way more than I expected. I walked into Digital Shop looking at other people's amazing work, thinking I would never be able to create something that good. But with the right amount of time and patience, I am getting closer and closer to the designer I would like to be."

So there you have it. It's hard to believe that four words, plastered on the wall in giant letters, can make such an impact -- or maybe it’s not that hard. In our program, design thinking is the engine, passion and imagination are the fuel, and creativity and innovation are the exhaust. We've got the pedal to the metal, and we’re having the time of our lives!

If you don't have a program like this in your school, getting one started might be easier than you think. Gather your stakeholders, dream big, come up with a manifesto to guide you, and invest in the space, the program, and the kids. You'll be glad you did!

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

Great job, Isabelle! And you, too, Kevin! It's so exciting to see all your plans and dreams turn into action from your students. Now we just need you to share your day-by-day curriculum with us... Maybe a book in your future?

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

This is great Kevin, I enjoyed reading the step by step approach in your program design, and I also loved reading the student and parents' comments and feedback! This is the future of learning.

theDoctor's picture
Transitioning the world to a collaborative, sustatinable society.

Those are great imperatives, but I think they are better for college-level students rather than middle-school or even high school. At these ages, students don't even have independence yet. They're going to have to achieve basic personal and peer-acceptance, discover who they are, etc. At high school, they're going to worry about their own survival once they're booted out of their family unit. To worry about the rest of the world is unrealistic, though entirely commendable. I like the work (the four words), though, and you should consider assisting college-level pedagogy. For primary school, I'd go with words like: Look, Care, Communicate, Learn. High school: Discover, Explore, Try, Express.

In any case, teaching Responsibility begins with teachers, not students.

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

Ah, Mark, I must disagree. Although middle school students are often self-centered and unaware of needs outside their little worlds, they can also be the most passionate and devoted when their eyes are open to others' needs. I have seen this with my own students time and time again. Perhaps the saddest thing about middle school education is underestimating what these students are capable of and expecting too little of them. I am eager to hear more of Kevin's stories that will help us see the great potential of giving middle school students opportunities to improve the world.

theDoctor's picture
Transitioning the world to a collaborative, sustatinable society.

There's no argument at all about the potential of students--at any level. Only that giving them electronics projects is going to be a huge distraction--because they haven't learned electricity. The four cores give a lot of room for students to explore and discover their potential. Unfortunately, most primary level education curricula are too impoverished to do it well and, further, students are not emotionally prepared to do it well. Teaching conflict resolution, for example, should start in kindergarten, so students have the confidence in class to learn effectively.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI

Thanks Laura! (I'll tell Isabelle you gave her props.) A book is an interesting idea but I don't know what I could write that wouldn't be obsolete within a short amount of time. Things move fast in education these days!

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI

Thank you Rusul! It has been quite a ride! We've enjoyed every minute. And as we begin to look at September 2016 and v1.1 of this program, we can already see what we need to change, improve and eliminate. Iterate or die!

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI

Thanks, Mark, and Laura, I hear what both of you are saying, and you both make excellent points.

What we're seeing, Mark, is that giving kids the freedom to explore topics like electricity and circuits in the context of a design challenge is incredibly powerful - but not as a means to teach them electricity - as a way to teach them how to DESIGN, how to INVENT, and how to MAKE ... all while we meet NJ state standards in technology education. See: That's what I'm accountable for.

My program is, essentially, a course on creativity, innovation, and changing the world.

Watch this video: "Teen Inventor Alexis Lewis on Youth and the Innovative Spirit" -

The whole video is incredibly inspiring, but the very last lines offer the key takeaway. Alexis says her hope is:

" inspire the next generation to have a fascination with the world around them, and to understand that they are capable of changing it."

That's a perfectly succinct statement about what drives me, why I built this program, and what gets me up at stupid o'clock every day, seven days a week. Not kidding. (Check the time stamp on this post.)

And rather than teach conflict resolution in kindergarten (as helpful as that might be), I'd rather the kids learn empathy, as the foundation of the design thinking process, because if they truly have and exhibit empathy, I believe conflict resolution will follow naturally. See:

Thanks again for commenting,


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