Adapting makerspaces for language instruction

Makerspaces have been talked about in education circles for some time now, and I have listened to several presentations on the topic which left me inspired by the potential for creativity, inventiveness, and learning. If makerspaces are new to you, you can see some related resources here: http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/a-librarians-guide-to-makerspaces/

Despite my interest in the topic, I felt frustrated after each presentation, because

  1. I work in a school where almost every square inch is needed for multiple purposes
  2. Every model of makerspaces I’ve seen requires a lot of physical space dedicated to it
  3. All models of makerspaces I’ve seen require a fair amount of technology
  4. As a language teacher, I need to focus on teaching the language rather than the technology.

As a result, I had the sinking feeling that although makerspaces looked amazing, I wouldn’t be able to use them in my subject area. But then I started thinking about some of the other aspects of learning I’d been able to transform by rethinking how I did them. For example, it’s fairly easy to transition from physical portfolios of student work to digital portfolios. There is a wealth of technology available to facilitate such a move, and this year I’m using FreshGrade with my juniors and Google Classroom with my seniors. Continuing with technology-related transformations, it’s also easy to create video of oral presentations and transform them into a learning tool that can be revisited rather than a one-time event. I have incorporated a number of technology tools that are free, easy to use, and allow me to focus on language instruction. I was determined to find a similar application of the makerspace concept to languages in a way that would facilitate the literacy focus I and my department have been working on. After a great deal of thought, here’s what I’ve come up with.

Using a limited number of graphic organizers, I can focus on key skills and competencies in our curriculum in a wide variety of ways. The skills I want to focus on are

  1. description
  2. narration
  3. explanation
  4. comparison
  5. analysis

The graphic organizers I’m using to support the above are

  1. a blank frame
  2. the outline of a human body
  3. a basic timeline
  4. a Venn diagram
  5. a T-chart
  6. a simple cause and effect diagram

The basic idea is simple: I will print about 15 of each graphic organizer (enough for a class to work on in partners, or to use in small group formats) and have them laminated. Students will draw or write on them with erasable markers, and depending on the task and level they can take a picture and post it to their digital portfolio or create a short video explaining what they have created, and post that instead. The graphic organizers can be wiped clean and put back in the box for the next group of students to use. No more need for a large paper portfolio of learning samples that rarely get looked at again!

Students can use these at a wide range of levels. Each tool can be used to support a range of tasks in each of the core language skill areas (speaking, listening, reading and writing). My beginner students will be focusing on the description, since that’s the basic focus of their curriculum, and I am working on building a list of key words they can use to describe people and places. I want them to learn structure for  organizing their descriptions, and my key words will be focused on teaching them structures like describing a scene from left to right or foreground to background, or a person from head to toe, moving from general to specific, etc. The content of each unit will change, and the level of difficulty will change, but these are meant to be simple, quick activities that will be repeated many times within a semester. My goal in assessing them is to see that over time, students are able to use appropriate organizers to represent thinking, and that the complexity and sophistication of expression increases as we go.

I’m adding some concrete manipulables for those students who want a more 3D representation of their ideas, especially the boys in our programs. We’ve found over the years that boys tend to drop out of language programs and gravitate to areas like math and science, applied science, trades, etc. I’m hoping that by adding simple tools like Play Doh and Lego, I can engage them more in visually representing their thinking and participating in languages-related tasks. Lego has developed education kits to support common core instruction in the US, and I have this one on my current wishlist: https://education.lego.com/en-us/products/storystarter-core-set/45100 

I’m currently working on setting my plan in motion, but I think that so far my plan will allow for more creativity, flexibility and innovation, all without needing an extra room or lots of expensive technology to do it. I’m also hoping this is going to be something that can be adapted to other subject areas, such as English language arts, Social Studies, or any of the humanities-based courses. Once I get my classroom up and running, my next goal is to work on building a common language of instruction to allow students to explore cross-curricular possibilities. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Title photo attribution: Photo credit charliecurve via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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