Laura Fleming: Creating Spaces for Students to Make

Laura Flemming

Personal Story compiled by: Howard Rheingold

Key Takeaways

  • Start with the learners! Find out what they are doing in other classes, at home, or in after-school and weekend workshops. Speak with others in the school and community who are engaged in making. Find out what learners want to do. Then order tools and materials.
  • Begin with theme projects derived from what learners are already interested in. Set up both fixed and flexible stations – fixed stations with very low barriers to entry where anyone can sit down and get started, flexible stations for specific projects as they grow.
  • Encourage peer learning – know when to step back and let the learners teach each other. Encourage learners to ask each other “what are you making?”
  • Encourage tinkering and play, and emphasize that failure – and debugging of failure – is part of the process.
  • Connect with other maker-teacher-librarians – the #tlchat hashtag is a place to start cultivating a personal learning network (PLN).

Traditional geographic community-based places of learning and knowledge are now also growing into places of learning and knowing through making. If you are interested in adding a makerspace to your school or public library, Laura Fleming, media specialist for New Jersey’s New Milford High School, can give you helpful hints. In fact, she just published a book about that subject: “Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School,” which is part of an entire series from Corwin about and for connected educators.

Fleming has been a New Jersey educator for 17 years as a classroom teacher and media specialist for K-8 schools and now a library and media specialist for grades 9-12. Like a growing number of contemporary librarians, Fleming came to the maker movement through literacy. “I loved the idea of playing with story and mashing up stories and allowing students to become content creators.” Her experiences with digital content creation as a pathway to literacy led to her invitation to develop a formal makerspace at New Milford High School by the then principal, Eric Sheninger. “I have pictures online of what my library looked like on my first day of school – a room with tables and chairs in a room where not one human being walked into the room.”

Fleming knew that the invitation was also a challenge, “But I didn’t realize how big a challenge I had until that first day of school, when nobody walked in. Through our makerspace, we were able to transform that situation within a month. I have more pictures of what our library looked like after a month – thanks to the inclusion of our new makerspace. Especially during lunch time, it’s standing room only.”

The process of planning a school or community library-based makerspace is as important as sympathetic administrators and parents, says Fleming. “Some people think that a makerspace is just a corner of the room with a lot of stuff and gadgets, and it’s really a lot more than that. Start with the learners!” Fleming followed a distinct process in setting up her makerspace: “The first thing I did was not to buy a bunch of stuff. The first thing I did was take some time to understand our learners. I talked with the kids. I asked about their needs, wants, and interests. At the same time, I assessed the existing curricula and program within the school community.” Based on what she discovered, Fleming started with programs that had originated in the community, such as robotics.

“Robotics was only taught to about 30 engineering students out of our entire school population, so I took that theme out of our engineering class and started integrating it into our makerspace and exposing our wider school population to robotics concepts and projects.” Looking at the standards, programs, and curricula within the school community, Fleming emphasizes, is a good place to start the planning process.

“I also took into consideration global trends in education. Through Twitter (via the #tlchat hashtag and others), I feel like I do have a finger on the pulse of education throughout the world.” Starting with robotics, Fleming developed themes for the makerspace, and then she ordered the equipment and supplies needed for those themes.

Like other maker-educators, Fleming sees tinkering as a pathway to peer learning. “One of the most rewarding things to come out of our makerspaces has been those peer-to-peer learning relationships. Mostly, it’s informal, and definitely, interest-based learning. My students come to the makerspace throughout the school day, because they want to. Nobody is telling them to come here. Nobody is assessing them on what they do. It’s not a requirement for any class. They come during their lunchtime and independent periods. Seniors here can leave campus, go home if they want to during independent periods, but many of them choose to come to the library and its makerspace.”

Because it is an informal learning space, different kinds of kids from different classes and age levels mingle. “Our engineering students are working in that space alongside our developmentally disabled students. Often I see them naturally just start collaborating and modeling and demonstrating. My all-time favorite question is when one student turns to another and asks ‘What are you making?’ I love that. It opens the door to so many possibilities.”

Perhaps not so obviously a makerspace as much a place to play, Fleming points out that it can be an important place to fail: “I’ve worked to make our informal learning space a place where it is okay to tinker, play, invent, and take chances. Failure isn’t penalized. At best, we recognize failure as part of the inventing process.”

What have her learners done to surprise her? “When I established the space last year, I didn’t have computer-building in mind, but some of my learners have taken making concepts home with them and started furthering those interests in the evenings and on weekends and then brought them back to our makerspace. One of those activities that I never planned, but the kids came up with was building computers.”

After she ordered tools and materials, Fleming started creating fixed stations and flexible stations. The fixed stations are in place indefinitely; the other stations come and go with projects. “All my fixed stations are based on Henry Jenkins’ idea of participatory culture – building in low barriers of entry so that any student at any level of proficiency even if they don’t speak English – can sit down and do something independently immediately.” Fixed stations include a Lego table, littleBits bar, 3D printing and design station, a MaKey MaKey station, and our take-apart technology station, which is where the practice of building computers evolved. “The makerspace kind of runs itself. The less I’m in the middle of it, the more risks the kids are willing to take and the more empowered they feel by doing so.”

Images provided by: Laura Fleming and New Milford High School