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Middle School Maker Journey: First Month's Reflections

Kevin Jarrett

Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator & Trainer, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI #GoogleET
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It's been a heady first month in Northfield Community Middle School's Technology, Engineering, and Design program. Kids are raving, parents are beaming, and it was a great start. But . . . what assumptions have we made that were valid? Or not? What's going well? What could be better? What adjustments are we making now that "Design Experience Zero" in Digital Shop has wrapped up, and our gamified learning management system, Black Mesa, is in full swing? Finally, what's ahead for the program longer-term?

Back when our fantastic new learning space was still all gleaming and ready for kids to experience, compliments started rolling in, but I reminded people that creating the space and even building our LMS had been the easy part. The hard part would be (and is!) creating authentic learning experiences that purposefully engage the kids in mindful exploration (the Manifesto, remember?). Our goal: make the kids "life ready" by challenging them to take charge of their own learning -- something that school had never really asked them to do.

Assumptions Validated and Disproven

Using the Rose, Thorn, Bud Technique, we collected student feedback to learn that, while some of our original assumptions about the program had panned out, others had not.

Sticky notes with lots of thoughts up on the wall rated by Rose, Bud, and Thorn

Physical Space

We assumed that the kids would love an inviting, unique workshop unlike anything they'd ever seen, a space with tools and high- and low-tech resources where they could easily move around, collaborate, and learn. Evidence suggests that we were right.

Online Environment

We assumed that kids would immediately gravitate to the LMS because, after all, they're "digital natives," We designed Black Mesa to be inviting and easy to use. We were largely right about that, too, but the feeling is less unanimous than for the physical space.


We assumed that the sheer uniqueness of the program and space, the ability to collaborate with friends, and working from any device, anywhere, at any time, would create an experience so compelling that kids would be hyper-engaged, even outside of school. While we have anecdotal evidence from parents that most of the kids remain highly motivated, it's not true for everyone. Work on projects outside of school is still homework, no matter how cool adults may think it is.

Time and Schedule

With only 40 minutes of daily time available per grade level, we felt constrained. The five-day Experience blocks help a lot, but 40 minutes are barely long enough for any significant work, especially when factoring in transit times, assemblies, and fire drills. We need more time!

Afternoon Open Lab

Opening Digital Shop in the afternoons and by teacher reservation has been incredibly successful. We currently have seven or eight active, interesting, challenging projects under way, all competing for the space, our equipment, and my guidance.

Paradigm Shift

Perhaps our biggest assumption was that students would instantly, magically accept responsibility for their own learning. This has largely proven not to be the case. Despite inspired work by some students, the majority still expect to be told what to do, when, and how. We've got our work cut out for us!

What's Going Well

5-Day Rotations and Multiple Iterations

The first five-day Experience was a wild ride -- it's extremely difficult being unsure what works pedagogically, where the pitfalls are, the supplies that we'll need or use, etc., for five days and four grade levels. Second and later iterations allow me to reflect, revise and refine, which has proven invaluable.

Maker Pass Fridays

These have been huge! We have the photos to prove it. Administratively, it's a bit of work to gather all the permissions, but having ten-plus kids in the lab on Friday afternoons, working on different projects, creating, making, and learning, has been powerful for everyone. Kids have started reflecting on their experiences on our dedicated blog.

Community Support

We are blessed with a fantastic community of parents that provide never-ending support, resources, and advice. Our Parent-Teacher Organization and Education Foundation do a fantastic job of marshaling resources and supporting our program. We love them!

Staff Support

This has been the most powerful part of the experience for me. My colleagues are on fire! Not only do they get what we're trying to do, they also dive right in and help during sessions. It truly is a team effort!

Lunch Bunch

I was terrified of eighth grade kids initially. Some are physically larger than me, all have more complex social lives than I do, and school means more to me than it does to them. So imagine my surprise when a small army of them decided to stay in my room to eat lunch, design things, program drones, and use the 3D printer. Lunch Bunch has restored my faith in humanity and allayed my fears of being eaten alive.

Writeable Table Surfaces

Our worktables, the best design element of Digital Shop, are supercharging kids’ creativity -- check out this super-cool time lapse of students working away.

Black Mesa

Though I've been publishing with Wordpress for many years, I'm still in awe of the power, flexibility, and extensibility of our LMS. Black Mesa came together quickly, works beautifully, is simple to maintain, and remains, for the most part, easy to use.

What Could Be Better

40 Minutes Aren't Enough

As mentioned above, we are seriously constrained by our schedule. Transit time and other interruptions can reduce our 40-minute blocks to as little as 30. We simply must find a way to schedule this class in larger blocks next year.

Following Instructions

We should have seen this coming: kids struggle with following instructions, orally or written. We assumed they'd easily interact with materials and navigate any challenges. The reality? Not so much. Which leads to . . .


While our district provides campus-wide wifi and we have a BYOD program in place, we've still had issues with wifi speed, slow logins, problems saving work, access to network shares, printing, etc. We love our IT department, but they're sometimes overwhelmed, and all we can do is patiently wait for our help tickets to be addressed.

Kids Hate Documentation

As an elementary teacher, note taking wasn’t a big part of my program. Moving forward, we'll implement engineering journals that I hope will become important to kids developing a lifetime passion for creating.

Dry Erase Wall Surfaces

The Sherwin-Williams Sketchpad coating has been somewhat problematic. Our writeable walls don't seem to erase well, even though we're using new and correct dry erase markers. (On the desks, however, the coating is outstanding.)

What’s Ahead

We're just now finishing up our first five-day Experience. As you read this, we'll be into our second Experience, a design sprint intended to get teams of kids actively thinking, planning, creating, and iterating. With one full Digital Shop cycle under my belt, I've now seen every middle school student once. They know what to expect. They're on board.

And since we'll soon end our first academic quarter, another group of students will start experiencing Mrs. Kennedy's class and our Black Mesa LMS. We're adjusting the curriculum, revising and adding challenges in response to student feedback.

Next month, we'll look at technologies and tools, how work gets done in Digital Shop, and students' project work. Thanks for reading!

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Building STEAM: A middle school teacher launches a new kind of digital shop class.

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

Your struggles are so similar to what I've seen in implementing similar programs. As much as we think kids will jump at the chance to own their learning, most of them don't have enough experience with that to jump in with confidence. Time will always be an issue in a shop-type class. We have 90-minute classes (every other day), and that's perfect for my Digital Design and Broadcast Media classes. When I started a coding club a couple years ago, I decided it had to be after school. Most clubs meet at lunch, but I knew the kids wouldn't get enough work in during that 1/2 hour. Oh, and following directions! Ha! I have learned to give students a hard copy of step-by-step directions and requiring them to check off each step as they do it. Otherwise they get so distracted by what's on the screen that they forget to follow my directions. My favorite answers when they get stuck are to point to my directions or say "read the screen." They need lots of practice! But good for you, Kevin, for launching such an ambitious program! You and your kids will learn so much, and each iteration will benefit from what you learned before it.

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

Thanks Laura! This is all new to me, from every perspective - grade levels taught, content, pedagogy - and I'm definitely learning. The idea of printed instructions in a technology class is something I need to chew on - in the end, I'll do anything to get this program to the lofty heights I'm expecting. I wonder though about truly gamified environments like Classcraft ( and, honestly every other straight up, for real, actual GAME kids play - our LMS certainly has MORE written instructions than those do. So, hmmmmm. One thing is certain, we are without a doubt directionally correct, and that helps take some of the sting out when we have to fix things. So happy to be on this adventure!

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

For those interested in more pics and videos, check out these albums on Flickr:

Digital Shop - Main Set:

Design Experience One:

Maker Pass Fridays:



Denine Jimmerson's picture

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences Kevin! I love the fact that you intentionally add the "act" component to your maker space learning cycle, even though it might be implied in the assumptions of what might happen as a result of the process... I believe it is important to "teach" in order to ramp up the rigor and authenticity of the student products and learning experiences. I'm looking forward to the next blog in this series. You are doing amazing work :)

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

Thanks Denine! As I tell the students, "Act" can take many forms, from building and making to changing a behavior or saying something. It is crucial to and the final stage of our program manifesto:

Which, if you've been following, was developed during a design charrette led by David Jakes in our district over the summer.

I am, coincidentally, presently immersed in planning our next Design Experiences, and rigor / authenticity are front and center ... for two of the four grades' worth of classes I teach. (I have two challenges in mind, and need to develop two more). Those won't be talked about for a few more posts, but, I hope you like my next installment.

Thanks again for the kind words and thanks for reading!


Denine Jimmerson's picture

Well said! I am sure I will, and I am looking forward to reading more about your design experiences that will focus on rigor/authenticity. Thank you so much for sharing!!

Heather Pang's picture
Heather Pang
8th Grade History Teacher

Great points, much to think about here. I have been working on the following instructions part with my 8th graders in our lab, and in my history class, and one of the things I try to do is require them to ask a table-mate for help first (mostly they are used to doing that) and then to tell me what step they are on in the instructions before they ask a question. It is often the case that figuring out what step they are on answers their question!

I am looking forward to hearing how things keep going. And you are right, 40 minutes is not enough.

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

Thanks Heather - I will pass that bit of advice along to my colleague Colleen Kennedy, who facilitates the LMS we've built. Tomorrow starts a new term - and a new group of kids for her. Looking forward to seeing how the next group of kids does!

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