At the beginning of this year, I was presented with an unexpected challenge. I would be co-teaching and developing the curriculum for a maker class for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP). This class includes many students diagnosed with learning disabilities who struggle in public school. Speaking generally, many of these students are frustrated and disengaged in their classes. Most of them have major problems with attendance. I’ve mentioned this in past posts, but to me, these are the students I think about when I hear discussions on how to expand the maker/STEAM tent. Students of color and students coming from families with low income are disproportionately represented in this population. If maker education is thought of as a better alternative to the traditional school model, then it must solve the problem of engaging this group of learners who are falling through the cracks. Since the lack of engagement has its roots in social emotional and social justice reasons, the scope of the solution must integrate maker education/constructionist pedagogy with developmentally-appropriate therapeutic techniques.
Before delving into possible strategies, I’d like to explore what’s going on developmentally with adolescent students. FIrst off, I believe that environment, as well as brain chemistry, plays a major role in the diagnosis of learning and emotional disabilities. Many of my students demonstrate their reluctance by keeping their head low, although there are some who are more outwardly defiant. While I strongly believe that project-based approach to learning will improve school engagement for these students, I’ve found the need for additional strategizing outside of inquiry based learning prompts and hands-on project..
I have a background in clinical social work and I’m also lucky to be married to a brilliant psychologist who inspires and guides me with new ideas and thinking. So, in the process of tinkering my lessons, I’ve relied a lot on my clinical training background (and her) to better understand why these students are so disengaged during school. Thinking within the scope of developmental theory, these students are all working through the difficult stage of identity formation, which begins in adolescence. While both Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson use different frameworks to examine this stage, both agree that identity is one of the key challenges of adolescence. Erikson claims that a failure to develop a strong identity may lead to “role confusion”, or to feel uncertain about one’s place in society. Loretta Gallo-Lopez, author of Play Therapy with Adolescents, echoes this concern: “The importance of peer relationships in this time of identity formation leads to the need to fit in, to be part of a peer group, to belong. This becomes problematic when adolescents are drawn into dangerous or self-destructive behaviors as a result of their desire to belong, or when adolescents are isolated, excluded , and even ridiculed as a result of their inability to fit in”.
As result of their struggles in school, many of these students have developed, or even constructed, a negative relationship with learning, which leads to indifference and/or defiance in their classes. When I started this class, I thought that many of these students would flourish in a project-based approach to education. I naively pictured students rushing to gather materials to begin each new project. I’ll be the first to admit that I had somewhat of a vapid outlook on the power of maker education as a way to engage these students. The view that students will love making and doing projects can be a pitfall for maker educators. While developing an interesting prompt that inspires questions and discovery is an important ingredient to developing meaningful projects, there also needs to be creative strategies to engage learners, and ones that are uniquely suited for maker education.
In my high school class, we were able to develop a better strategy. The beginning of the year, my co-teachers and I felt frustrated. Students would hardly participate in class no matter what the project was. My co-teachers, who didn’t know what maker was when we started the year, were frustrated and skeptical of the whole idea of maker ed. During our planning sessions, we would discuss the many hurdles we had to overcome, such as learning challenges, language barriers and indifference. I attempted to stubbornly push forward with my planning until one of the projects “worked”.
It wasn’t until one of my co-teachers, who is a special educator, really pushed back on how I worded my instructions and prompts. He had no issue with what I was trying to teach, but rather he pushed me to consider how I was teaching it. It was this kind of pushback that caused me to reevaluate my approach, rather than my content.
As I started to reevaluate my approach, I started incorporating more dramatic play into the projects. At first, I did this somewhat unintentionally. We started a unit where students were designing public spaces. In our planning sessions, we explored some of the public spaces around the South Bronx. There’s a great public space near the school called the Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary, which served as an excellent jumping off point for the discussion of how to develop unused land for the community. We asked the students to pretend that they were developers and to think about types of public spaces they would build as we went for a walk around the school’s neighborhood looking at empty lots. Afterwards, students would turn their ideas into models and would pitch their project ideas at the school share.
The Drama of Learning
I always tell students that making is a social activity where students can work together and learn from each other, but making is also dramatic. In a makerspace, or maker environment, students transforms into a different type of learning, trying out new roles, such as inventor, researcher and engineer. However, the types of roles students can play in a makerspace don’t have to be limited to these roles. Live action roleplay (LARP) is a type of dramatic play. Reina Cabezas, another 2016 FabLearn Fellow, wrote an excellent post about how her school integrates LARPing into their school-wide culture. It was her post that gave me pause, and led me realize that it was this element of dramatic play that made the students more excited about the public spaces project and inspired me to integrate more dramatic play in in my curriculum.
The school environment isn’t usually a welcoming place for independence. When you have thirty students in your class, it’s challenging for the teacher to focus on independence, especially when using a lecture-style approach. Gallo-Lopez points out that adolescents “are asked to think in concrete terms, to restrain their creative selves, to control their desire for excitement, and to keep their emotions well contained” (84).
By integrating dramatic play into our lessons, we encouraged students to picture themselves as something other than a student. Since we want the maker class to be different than the rest of their classes, it doesn’t help when our students see themselves as “students”. Their constructed identity as a student brings with it negative associations, and we want to encourage students construct new relationships with learning, relationships that will help them when they have to learn something new on their own in adulthood. Students can try on new “expert roles”, such as developer, engineer, designer or inventor, allowing students to not only experiment with the building materials, but also with new and different identities.
Dramatic play frees students from these old identities to try on these new identities, thereby eliminating the need for preemptive defenses like resistance. Furthermore, these new identities, where they role play being an expert, gives them a sense of power and mastery that is not possible in their real world. Students will have an increased ability to regulate affect, reduce aggression, and generate positive feelings. In short, they will be in a prime place to be receptive to learning and discovery.