Challenges, Constraints, Competition?

Stick with me, this is a bit of a long story to get to some things I am thinking about in terms of making in the classroom.

I can now check one thing off that bucket list, I won a blue ribbon at the San Mateo County Fair. (What, that is not on your bucket list?) I do not raise livestock, and my quilting abilities are not quite there yet for serious work. I don’t make jam either. But San Mateo County is in Silicon Valley, so the organizers of the fair try to keep things up to date with a thriving Sustainable Living section. Think of it as home arts for the recycling set. One of the categories was sponsored by my personal favorite recycling and reuse organization, FabMo. (If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and you don’t know about these folks, stop reading my post and hop over to their website to check out how they collect fabric and other decorator materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill and make them available for a small donation to teachers and makers.) The FabMo challenge for the fair was to take a bag of their materials and make something. The rules were that at least 75% of the entry had to be the materials from the bag (so I added thread, glue, and the cardboard base, but the rest came from the bag). While there was no requirement that you use all the items in the bag, the notes said that judges would take that into account. I took on the challenge and created this little bear house and its two occupants.

The rules also asked for up to two pages describing the entry and your process. This is what I wrote:

At first I thought of this as a fun challenge for myself, but I also had it in the back of my mind that next year I might want to see if students in my “Maker Elective” would want to try the challenge.

Having finished the process, and enjoyed seeing my winning entry at the fair, and talking to some of the organizers about the idea of having students participate, here are some of my thoughts.

  1. Constraints: time and materials

The idea of this challenge is to reuse materials, so the material constraints are essential and they forced me to be creative. Looking at the other entries, I could see that people took that creativity in many different ways (I don’t have photos because it was not clear if photos were encouraged at the fair display). There were several bags (including a really nice backpack) and some interesting pieces of art. The entries by children were great, including a wall hanging mask, a battle field (with added pipe cleaner soldiers, and a model home for a dog that looked like a fantastic apartment for a full family!). People thought of different things looking at the same (or similar) materials and that was fantastic.

The other constraint was time. To enter your item, you had to make the deadline, so the project could not go on for a long time. I had to make some quick decisions, and I might have made other choices if I had more time, but the point was to make a decision and get on with it, which forced me to keep moving and not get stuck. The same thing can happen in the classroom, sometimes with good results, but sometimes it can be painful.

  1. Lack of Constraints: make anything

The lack on constraints was also a source of creativity. The blank slate meant that anything was right. I don’t get a chance to teach this way that often in history class, but it works well for the “Maker Scouts” elective that I teach. It can be challenging to come up with an idea, (hard fun) but when you have one that works for you, you know it is right, and you can go with it. You can also change it as you go. I was sure at the beginning that I would make little outfits for the bears in my house, but that never happened. I think that was fine, they don’t need clothes, they are bears. At the last minute I did decide they needed books, so I made books, which were not on any of my early planning drawings or lists.

  1. Research and just-in-time learning

I knew how to sew, but I did not have a pattern for small bears or for a fabric house, but I know I can find these things on the web or at the library. One of the things that I think making brings to the classroom is that confidence that if you don’t know how to do something make something there is someone out there who does know, and has probably published some tips or even full instructions. I had never needed to use the band saw in the maker space, but I knew I could learn to use it when I needed it (which I did to cut up the wood tiles and make the table and bookcase).

  1. Having the right tools (maker lab)

Which leads me to my final point, the right tools are essential. I had access to the internet, but I also had access to a sewing machine (mine at home, but there is one in the lab as well), sewing supplies (a good cutting mat and a rotary cutter are essential), a laser cutter (for the map of California and the bear silhouettes on the walls), scrapbooking punches (for the flowers and leaves), and a really nice hot glue gun (where would we be without hot glue?). Part of what allowed me to be creative was knowing when I thought of things that I had tools to make them. I was ready to go to that place in my head that says “yes, and…” not “I don’t have the tools for that.”

I don’t know if I will get any students interested in the project next year. Part of that will depend on the timing of the registration for the FabMo Challenge bags. I hope students will see the fun in this, and I can’t wait to see what they make. Since this is a moment when my personal making might cross over into my making with students, I am already making a list of things I might want to make next year, if the kit has some of the same materials. Knowing how things go, I will probably think of something else altogether.

The final point I want to make is the competition aspect of this challenge. I am not sure if that will be motivating or intimidating for students. Some people love the idea of having their work judged. Others find it terrible. And some just don’t care. What I like about this challenge is that everyone who enters (and pays the $3 entry fee, which I am sure I can get the school to pay for student groups) gets at least two tickets to the fair with free parking. So in that sense everyone wins, even if they don’t take home that blue ribbon. I like the authentic audience part of the competition, but I do wonder if some students will find it an unpleasant part of the process.

If I get student interest next year I will blog about how it goes.