This two-day workshop emerged from a months-long dialogue that began as a discussion about coding and literacy and evolved into a conversation about the parallels between making and and writing. We began to wonder how we could invite language arts teachers into the collaborative learning space at Brilliant Labs and create the conditions for them to see these connections while providing opportunities to reflect on their experiences as learners and creators and on how these experiences might shape the decisions they make about the learning and creating in their own classrooms.

Purpose and Audience

One of our priorities was to create an authentic learning experience by establishing a purpose and audience for the work participants would be doing. We wanted to ensure that everyone in this space was provided the time, materials and support they needed to create something meaningful to them that they would want to share. Because we know the value of teachers being readers and making their reading lives visible with their students, we decided to invite each participant to create a representation of their reading identity. This then inspired the title of our session: Making Your Reader Identity.

Breadcrumb Thinking

Just as we would support student writers by offering lots of opportunities for them to play with ideas in their writer’s notebooks, we spent the first morning generating very early-draft ideas about the topic (Who am I as a reader?) and the form (How can I represent my reading identity in a tangible, physical way?). We were not naive to the fact that these two questions were quite abstract for a participant to use as an inspiration, however we became increasingly curious about how the abstract would take on a tangible form. Participants used their notebooks to capture and reflect on their thinking, hence the name “Breadcrumb Thinking.”

Iggy Peck by Andrea Beaty

Be Like Iggy – This activity was inspired by the wonderful picture book Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty. After an interactive read-aloud, participants were invited to spend time making, collaborating and then sharing their Iggy-inspired constructions. Learn more: Amazon

“The Cube” – Such a simple title for such a multi-faceted (deliberate pun) activity. Using a paper cube, participants created a six-part narrative. This is an activity from Alisha Panjwani’s book Start Making!: A Guide to Engaging Young People in Maker Activities. Learn more: Amazon

Inspiration Stations – These were collections of texts and images that participants could “write about” or “write like” in order to begin crafting possibilities for how they might represent themselves as readers.

​Materials Showcase – From scissors and tape to coding and 3D printing, Jacob Lingley, Brilliant Labs, NB, Program Director, introduced participants to the limitless creative potential provided by these materials.

Reflection – Participants spent time exploring the breadcrumbs of their thinking to see what was bubbling to the surface by identifying patterns and big ideas that were emerging.

Round-Table Reflections

At the end of the first day, we all gathered around the conference table to reflect. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more time for us to gather as professionals, as what came out of this conversation was particularly insightful. Admittingly, this table around which we conferred was already becoming a shared space. Mentor texts were intermixed with sketches of contraptions and découpaged, inspirational author quotes were being transcribed into colourful computer code. In another setting, the diverse materials that were assembled in front of our participants would distract, however they quickly became artifacts to punctuate the following conversation.

There were really two goals to this round-table reflection: (1) share observations and curiosities from the day as well as (2) each participant was to pitch their representation to the group in an effort to further refine their initial idea. What was fascinating, although we had no doubt that our conversation would naturally evolve in this way, is that as soon as everyone was gathered around the table the roles of facilitator and participant were not occupied by any one person, nor were they exclusive from each other. Participants were quick to turn to their elbow-partner to share their notes from the day and ultimately take the listener through their thought process on how they planned to use their notes to make their representation on day-two.

We both watched as clusters of elbow-partners enthusiastically nodded their heads or leaned back in their chairs as they considered what their partner had just said and how it inspired an idea for their own project. Every time that we thought we would jump in and serve as a facilitator, another participant would shout across the table as they had just overheard someone make a point that would benefit their own project. If it sounds like it was a chaotic, chattering, coffee shop-like scene, you are absolutely correct, however it was in that chaos that each member walked away from the table with an idea that was much more refined than when they had approached.

It’s interesting to use this round-table reflection activity to reflect on the value of conversation. We do not often take the time to think about how our initial ideas grow from when we first begin the conversation to when we finish. It is important to realize that, frustratingly enough, this growth does not always happen in a forward motion. We have found that when individuals have the opportunity to express their ideas with their peers, they frequently realize that they have to go back a few steps in order to refine their idea. This can be misconstrued as a waste of time or even an exercise in futility if we do not feel supported. However when this, “backward growth” appeared during this conversation, new, supportive, collaborations between group members that lowered the risk and reassured those participants who realized that they had a bit more work to do.

Another observation from this activity was that what we, as teachers, used to call copying when we were in school, is now known as collaboration. There was no shortage of collaboration around this table. Similar to our classrooms, as soon as one person shared their idea you could hear another instantly say: “wouldn’t it be neat if…” While we can all appreciate that openly sharing your ideas may be initially intimidating, the opportunities that exist once those ideas have been heard by your colleagues immediately creates a potentiality for that project that had yet to exist. After the first-day discussion, we found individuals collaborating on day-two that were brought together by a communal idea – brought together through collaboration. It’s strange to think that in another era of education a similar experience might have been perceived as copying.

These instances of sharing were incredibly beneficial and significantly influenced the final prototype. From the round-table discussion, all participants left day-one with a sketch and a plan of action for their return on day-two. Of course, no one left Brilliant Labs with the ability to time travel, therefore we cannot go back to see what would have happened had participants not listened, shared, and collaborated in the way that they did. Nonetheless, we know that the final prototypes of their ideas are unique because of the sharing and brainstorming that occurred during that discussion.

Making a Culture for Making

The idea of maker education or makerspaces may seem like a relatively new word that educators have recently added to their vocabulary. The truth however couldn’t be further from the reality. The pedagogical philosophy behind maker-centered learning doesn’t need a long definition and is really rooted in the very essence of the learning experience: we make something. If we think back to some of the most rewarding learning experiences, that likely involves raw material, tinkering and the solving of a problem with what we have created. What’s interesting is that raw material can be crafted into any number of outcomes, however it is the individual maker and their constructionist environment that ultimately inspires the final physical form.

One of themes that emerged during our planning conversations and throughout the workshop was the parallel between the processes of writing and making. Neither follows a straight line from idea to finished product. Like makers, writers begin by considering their purpose and audience, they tinker with the design and the form, and their work is often improved by brainstorming and sharing with others. The environment that supports making and writing is one that offers time, choice, talk, models, materials and collaboration. With this in mind, we strove to create an environment that invited exploration, experimentation, playing with ideas, and hopefully inspired participants to think of ways to adapt their experience for the learners in their own classrooms.

Curating Artifacts of the Learning

Over the two days of the workshop, we took photographs of the participants as they engaged in the activities and printed them with an HP Sprocket. This wireless device prints 2×3 pictures with backs that peel

off to create stickers. At the end of both days, participants selected one of the photos, stuck it in their notebook, and reflected on the experience captured in the shot.

These little photo mementos were not the only artifacts participants took home at the end of the session. Not that we were doubting the abilities of our participants, however we were absolutely amazed by the perseverance for each of our participants to make an incredibly expressive, physical representation of their reader’s identity – in only two days!

Participant Feedback

We had a vision that we had hoped to realize, but the question is, “Were we successful?” If you are still reading this, you clearly know that Jill and Jacob are passionate about the possibilities for this style of learning opportunity (for students and for teachers), however, we really wanted to know what our participants thought. After the session, we sent out some reflection questions and this is a sample of the feedback we received:

How relevant was this session to your professional learning?

  • I came in with an open mind and surprised myself during the making process. I was able to relate the making process to the writing process and clearly understand how important the sharing component is.
  • I really enjoyed being in the learner’s shoes. Regardless of what makes me take off my teacher hat and be placed in the shoes of a learner, it is always a valuable process for me to reflect on.
  • I took everything I learned and am already applying it into my teaching.

How did your thoughts on our PL topic “Making Your Reader Identity” change from before to during to after our days together?

  • I never thought about creating something beyond writing when contemplating my own reading identity. This process pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed new thinking to emerge.
  • This topic of “Making Your Reader Identity” was great to do as a teacher for ourselves. We as teachers ask the students to reflect on their own reading habits and strategies, but seldom do we reflect on our own. And, the more we read, the more our identity changes. Me as a reader last year, is not where I am now or where I was 10 years ago. My reader identity also changes based on what I am reading. I think that we as educators need to take notice of our own reading identity and then share that more often with our students.
  • It made me reflect on myself as a reader. The more that I do that, the more it allows me to relate to the students as readers. Understanding that everyone has a “different story” as a reader was crucial for me.

What was special about the space?

  • Everything we needed was there and people who knew how to use it. I liked that we had space to wander and work.
  • Having access to a wide variety of materials and support from an expert like Jacob made my making experience memorable and engaging.
  • I liked the freedom of the space. I was free to get up and move around, take a break, see what others were doing, have conversations, and then go back to my project with fresh eyes.
  • It was so important to be in the making space, it was inspiring and welcoming. It was perfect for collaboration and amazing to have all the tools right at your fingertips.

We’re curious about how successful this style of project would be in your classrooms. What elements from the workshop do you see yourself replicating in your teaching?

  • I see myself getting students to share their thinking and listen to the thoughts and ideas others had to help their ideas grow.
  • I believe that this style of project would be extremely successful in my classroom. My goal is to use technology to create an interactive story book for children.
  • I’ve already opened up the ideas of creating artifacts to represent students as writers. We are using their writing pieces and then creating something from that. It could be a drawing, painting, computer game, interactive story, clay sculpture, etc. that represents their writing. We are then displaying them together in a gallery style interactive class.

Any additional feedback?

  • I really enjoyed having the time to think with a partner, reflect, repeat.
  • I found the round table discussion especially helpful. From an educator’s perspective I was intrigued to see the value of the collaborative process. From a learner’s perspective, I felt safe sharing ideas about my own project and others’ projects. Ideas multiplied and diversified quickly when several people were encouraged to brainstorm together.
  • LOVED everything about these two days. So inspirational! It was nice to be able to participate, make and be involved in the process.

Phew! (In Conclusion).

We say “phew” not out of exasperation from writers fatigue but from all of the inspirational moments of learning that we experienced during these two days. At this point, we feel that we must go into full disclosure mode and come clean with our readers: neither Jill nor Jacob really knew how this session would unfold. Although we are both passionate about this style of learning, we were both cautiously optimistic about what would come out of this literacy and making mashup. Throwing caution to the wind, we asked ourselves “What’s the worst that could happen” and quickly chanted that conversation to “What’s the best that could happen” and found that this session far exceeded our expectations. We learned as much as our participants and really had an opportunity to understand the value in creating a space where teachers can participate in learning rather than merely talking about learning.