Stitching roots – Exploring family history through code and stitch

I would love to share my experience in a primary school in Italy. The school is located in a peripheral neighborhood where there is a lack of structured opportunities or places to socialize. The origin of the inhabitants is heterogeneous and often there is no family support network. The area is characterized by a constantly increasing population, both from non-EU immigration and from internal immigration of families who move to this area for work. As a periphery of the metropolis of Rome, it attracts families, even multi-problematic ones, and commuters who move in and out during the day for work or study.

In this context, I decided to experiment with a path of self-production and biotinkering (as described in my previous post here) with the girls and boys of the fourth grade, one hour a week. Kids involved in the learning activity didn’t have previous experience and one of the first challenges was to find good materials to use. They need to be low-cost, easy to grow, should not be frightening, and should stimulate creativity and curiosity. 

A material we have explored is kombucha leather. Kombucha is a fermented beverage enjoyed for its unique flavor and powerful health benefits. The fermentation process creates a scoby–a thick, rubbery, cloudy mass. Drying the scoby creates the kombucha leather, flexible material that kids used as a fabric and they embroidered the leather with designs created in Turtlestitch.

The production of kombucha, like other materials, requires patience and care. Before using the material, children need to wait, observe, and understand whether the conditions are right to form the material. This leads to a twofold action: caring for something so that it can develop, and scientific observation of variables to assess the best conditions for growth and/or production of the material.

After growing kombucha, we tried to create a simple project in Turtlestitch, a web-based application where everyone can create an embroidery pattern to stitch. As I said before, kids’ families are from different countries and they all have different roots. I asked them to create a little design that represents their family, something that they view in their home in a quilt or a blanket. 

The project was not simply due to the kids’ age but, helped by imported procedures that created modular objects, we reached the target. 

At the end of the lessons, students share what they did in a group, explaining what activities they plan to do in the next lesson and analyzing what they feel satisfied with. During this moment everyone compared his stitch to others and we noticed that in some way all projects were similar even if different. A representation of individuals, united by deep but unique roots. The floral theme was the most numerous.

The first observation I can make about the experience is an increased awareness by students. They have become aware of the sustainability of a biodegradable product rather than one with a negative environmental impact, and last but not least, they are aware of the time and effort needed to produce it, with consequent attention to its consumption. I noticed a great deal of attention to minimizing waste because the children knew very well the time they took to produce it. As a teacher, I can say that it is an enriching experience. It is not easy to manage biotinkering activities at the organizational level because, you often need heat sources for the production of bioplastics, with consequent challenges related to the safety of students or you need to set up special spaces for the culture of materials such as kombucha. On the other hand, it’s great to experiment and learn with my students. As is the case every time I offer tinkering activities, I also challenged myself on my ability to facilitate group work and to handle frustration with an activity that did not turn out as well as the students expected. I hope that the work started at school will be a starting point for conversations at home and with classmates. For the children, bringing home a product made entirely by them is the best way to get them involved and give them ideas to perhaps reproduce the activity with their families and raise awareness in the community about using sustainable products that are linked to their own culture. 

Biotinkering is still a very new activity in schools and for this reason, is still not well known. Thanks to the community of educators on social networks, I came into contact with pioneers in this field who gave me many ideas and support. I was able to ask for information, suggestions, and clarifications from people from all over the world and I am sure that without a group of teachers with the same goals and interests I would not have been able to find the keys to make this experiment so successful. I hope that this witness can be a starting point for other teachers who are looking for more sustainable experimentation linked to the culture and the territory in which they live. In the future, I hope to expand the trial to more girls and boys. Tinkering and making have taken off in Italy in recent years and many educators have appreciated its potential. The commitment is to be able to see the emergence and contribute to the construction of a local community around the themes of constructionism and pedagogy as a practice of freedom.

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