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Supporting the Teacher Maker Movement

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Dear Principals:

We have all heard about The Maker Movement and the innovation and excitement that students generate as a result of participating in a Maker-based unit. But what if teachers could be encouraged to participate in their own Maker Movements? What might that look like?

In the Maker Movement, students are asked to innovate, create, and problem solve. They are asked to design, write, present, and eventually to produce a product. For a teacher, their “maker movement” is in curriculum design, and their product is an original unit. After all, in order for us to encourage valuable innovation of our students, teachers need the freedom to be innovative as well. Teachers need to be a part of curriculum creation. After all, enthusiasm for learning is trickle down.

When Teachers “Make” What They Teach

The reality, unfortunately, is that teachers are rarely encouraged to actually “make” anything that they teach. By denying teachers their chance to develop their own creativity in curriculum, we deny them the power of modeling enthusiasm for their content and the process of delivering that content. We also inadvertently cause a stagnation of imagination and critical thinking in the very troops closest to the students themselves and those tasked with bringing out those very traits in our clientele.

Sure, there are those teachers who only want to present the textbook or scripted curriculum, but, ask yourself, are you based your professional development decisions or support based on this group alone? Does their existence mean that you shouldn’t support the talent from those who want to be producing more? The fact is, we need to differentiate how we support teachers who want to contribute more to our school sites.

After all, those talented creators are out there, and they can do more than simply work the die cut machine in the lounge. Look around your own staff. There are people out there secretly yearning to design their own standard-based units. They are itching for the opportunity to be creative. There are also those who simply don’t know where to begin. To be innovative, they need leadership and encouragement. To broaden their definition of teaching, they need advice and support.

That’s where you, the principal, come in.

The fact is that a great, innovative, juicy, kid-engaging, standards-based, the students-will-never-forget-it unit cannot be pulled off without support from the administration. Case in point, I could never have accomplished creating my own project based learning units (many of which I have written about in the past), or seen the consequential growth in my students, had it not been for my principal’s support of these methods.

Eight Ways to Support Teachers

So what can principals do to support the teachers who want to develop curriculum?

It takes a village, as they say, to implement true, rigorous units. It can’t happen without eager, innovative teachers and it can’t happen without supportive principals. So here are a few things you can do to encourage these methods within your own staff:

#1. Identify those teachers who are interested in curriculum design, and ensure that they have your seal of approval to try. Some teachers might even meet resistance within their own department if they aren’t “lock step” with curriculum decisions. Make sure department chairs know that you are on board and encouraging this level of standards-based innovation.

#2. Be open to advocacy projects that focus on school site topics. The easiest units to start with begin in your own school site. I once had my class try to save a tree from an upcoming construction project (we lost the battle, but at least the head architect came into the classroom, showed us blueprints, and was transparent with the class about the rationale behind losing the tree). Another class launched a campaign to change the annoying school bell.

After studying Executive Summary as a writing genre, graphing the results from different formats of surveys, researching the kinds of technology used in our school’s servers, and petitioning the principal, it worked. As a result, the kids felt like heroes to all those students who hated the sound of the old bell (not that the new one was much better, but that wasn’t the point). Find humor in the things that kids want to see changed and encourage their professional-level attempts to try to better their school environment.

#3. Be present for the process. Be an authentic audience if they need you. If they need someone to sit on a panel and evaluate presentations or read a handful of essays to give feedback on their pitches, give up a little time to connect academically with those kids. It keeps you more present in their minds and you get to touch base with and be more in tune with student accomplishments.

#4. Have teachers communicate every step of the way. Make sure they can feel comfortable sharing what’s working and what’s not.

#5. Create a standards-based matrix that teachers can check off to help them keep their unit focused on the academics even while they design for their hearts. By providing the matrix yourself, you’ve taken something off of their plate and given yourself a tool to provide evidence of the learning from a data-driven standpoint.

#6. Ask if teachers who are experimenting will open up their classrooms for other teachers to come and observe what’s going on. The only way to spread a movement is to see it in action from those who are doing the teaching.

#7. Provide collaboration time. Don’t have the money to give more already? Then donate faculty-meeting time. Better yet, have an administrator substitute in a classroom to allow two teachers to meet during their preparation time. (Oh, and that includes you. It wouldn’t hurt to get your own tushie or your assistant principal’s into the classrooms as subs on occasion.) There are ways to give teachers the time they need to feel supported and be excited again.

#8. Encourage teachers to show their own personalities and design around their own interests. The best way to get a teacher on board is to allow them to be themselves in the school community. There’s a garden to design. There’s a movie to produce. There’s a piece of land to protect. There’s a concert to plan. All of these interests can become teacher-created curriculum units if you encourage it and give teachers the support to create them.

I’ll end on an idea I’ve said in the past, that enjoying the job we all do trickles down to students and ultimately their achievement as well. Allow and encourage teachers to design something that will spark their excitement again to teach and allow yourself your own participation in the classroom’s learning process. Do those things and you will be hitting the most effective teaching standard of them all for you both: enjoying the job.

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Rafranz Davis's picture
Rafranz Davis
Executive Director of Professional and Digital Learning, Lufkin ISD

As much as I am anti-buzz word when it comes to "making", it's all about creating something that you are so passionate about that space and time are irrelevant. This is a great post about how teachers need to be more innovative but it's a stark contrast to "making".

The question that principals need to ask teachers is what drives them to create? What are their passions? What do they do with their time when they aren't grading, planning and having meetings. What and where do they learn the things that are not a part of the required curriculum? That doesn't mean that teachers are not passionate about what they teach but it acknowledges that there are other passions...other modes of creativity that are often missing in school.

Maybe you have teachers who make quilts, sew, cook gourmet meals, build race cars, write music, paint, draw, create jewelry, make puppets or even code. How can you bring those elements into the classroom? What about the school?

As an attendee at the Discovery Ed summer institute, I witnessed a room full of teachers sharing their passions at our maker fair. Being in that room was absolutely incredible as teachers were sharing things that they created with everyone else and we all had the chance to take part and create as well.

If you really want to support a "Teacher maker movement", give them a place to share these parts of themselves that are often void in curriculum units. Talk about what that type of learning has meant.

When you do that, talk about why we aren't including more of this in what we do daily.

To make is to learn and we all know that learning extends well beyond "curriculum".

VariQuest Visual Learning Tools's picture

Heather--Thank you so much for sharing these insights on the Maker Movement! As exciting as new movements in education are, it is so important to make sure teachers are prepared. We wanted to let you know that we quoted and cited elements of this article in a recently published white paper, "Understanding the Maker Movement," found here:

Thanks again for your insights!

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