I once taught an eighth-grade student who had written four novels online, despite the fact that she had only been learning English for three years. She spent her free time in class looking up how to set up lead magnets for an email list. She read blog posts about how to create more suspense in a plot and how to use actions rather than descriptions to develop characters.
She had a maker mindset.
I once had a student who taught himself how to code by playing around with Scratch when he was in the sixth grade. With the help of a teacher who mentored him along the way, he is the first child in his family to graduate high school. And now, he’s working on a master’s degree in engineering.
He had a maker mindset.
But I also taught students with immense talent who never pursued their dreams because they were waiting for an invitation that never came. They were compliant and well-behaved, but they weren’t self-starters. So, they continued for years, waiting for an offer that never materialized.
Creative thinking is as vital as math or reading or writing. There’s power in problem-solving and experimenting and taking things from questions to ideas to authentic products that you launch to the world. Something happens in students when they define themselves as makers and inventors and creators.
Every day, I ask my kids, “What did you make in school today?” Too often, they can’t give me an answer. But on the days that they do, their eyes light up and they passionately describe their projects. It’s in those moments that I am reminded that making is magic.
I want to see teachers transform their classrooms into spaces of creativity and wonder. But here’s the thing: this is hard to pull off. We all have curriculum maps and limited resources and standards we have to teach. We don’t always have the money to buy fancy new gadgets.
So creativity becomes a side project, an enrichment activity you get to when you have time for it. But the thing is, there’s never enough time.
But where do we even begin? How do we create these spaces when we don’t have the time or money? How do we transform our classrooms when we have state-mandated tests and constant pressure to perform? Where do you even begin when there are so many different options and you don’t know how to code or do circuitry or run a 3D printer?
It starts with three guiding beliefs:
#1: Every child is a maker (and every teacher is naturally creative)
All students deserve the opportunity to be their best creative selves, both in and out of school. All kids are unique, authentic, and destined to be original. Too many people have believed the lie that there are certain “creative types” who are the exception to the rule. And too many teachers have believed this same lie. But this is a huge lie. We are all creative. Every one of us. We just need spaces and opportunities for our creativity to thrive.
#2: Every student should have access to creative projects
Too often, making is reserved for the students who are already finished with their work. It’s like a prize for those who finish their work quickly. Meanwhile, design thinking and project-based learning are reserved for the honors and gifted students. But every child deserves access to creative projects. All means all. And this means special education students can thrive when they are given the chance to make and design and tinker.
#3: Every subject should have a makerspace
Too often, we associate makerspaces with STEM classes. People think about coding or robotics or 3D prototyping. But I’d argue that we need a bigger definition of making. When students create blogs, podcasts, and documentaries, they are exercising a maker mindset. In fact, makerspaces can be the perfect context for informational writing and authentic research.
I first heard of makerspaces over a decade ago. It was a part of the do-it-yourself culture that I found intriguing. I visited a few places where people were doing high-tech fabrication and I wondered if I could somehow tie that into our economics unit where students were developing products.
But I got frustrated.
I had a vision for a really cool classroom makerspace but I simply couldn’t pull it off. There were too many moving pieces that I couldn’t figure out. Besides, I didn’t have the money or the resources and I didn’t know enough about grant writing to make it happen. I also didn’t have all of the skills to teach students about high-tech prototyping.
But then something happened.
I met a teacher named Javi who always asked, “Why not?” When we didn’t have enough computers, he said, “Let’s figure out how to hack old computers and make them work.” So we did. We learned Linux over the summer and transformed the space.
When I said, “I wish I had standing desks,” Javi responded with, “Where would you stand if the chairs were gone?” From here, I turned our heavy bookshelves into standing centers.
Javi approached things like a hacker, turning all of these limitations into opportunities to innovate.
Over the next three years, I slowly transformed my classroom into a makerspace. It never felt like a real makerspace because we didn’t have a 3D printer or the fanciest gadgets. But that was just one of the many mistakes I made on this rocky journey.
#1: Spending too much time thinking, reading, studying and never actually doing the work.
I read tons of books and watched videos to see the right way to create a makerspace. I made plans of plans and then plans for the plans of the plans. I brainstormed new ideas. I spent forever daydreaming about the perfect makerspace. I was spending so much time consuming information and dreaming up new ideas, that it left almost no time to create, make, and design something different.
To be honest, I also was also a little jealous of what others were doing. It didn’t help me personally, or my students, when I spent this much time consuming. This lasted for nearly two years. But once I teamed up with Javier, things changed. I began to take action. Don’t get drowned out by the massive amount of information (which is really good) and not make time for creating. Let it be the inspiration for innovative work instead.
#2: Waiting until I had the best supplies.
I had this mental picture of what a makerspace was supposed to be and so I spent forever focusing on the funding issues. I thought up ways that we could raise money with online campaigns or grants. I researched high-tech supplies and created spreadsheets. I was obsessed with the stuff that I missed a deeper reality: it’s about the maker mindset.
I eventually learned that some of the best items in a makerspace are cheap. Yes, 3D modeling is great but so is duct tape and cardboard! I could create a green screen studio and kids could use their own devices to record. Meanwhile, each year newer, less expensive options came out. Now we have options like Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and low-cost circuitry.
#3: Trying to do it all by myself.
Things didn’t work out for me until I began collaborating with Javier. I needed a trusted colleague who would share my vision and enthusiasm. I needed to know I wasn’t alone. What began as the two of us eventually grew into a tribe of teacher-makers who were doing things like planning STEM Camps to replace summer school or piloting new 21st Century initiatives.
I also made the mistake of assuming that I had to be an expert on everything inside of a makerspace. So, we didn’t code because my coding was still fairly shaky. I didn’t know how to do circuitry, so we never tried that. But eventually I learned something valuable. I could invite my students to join me in learning how to tackle a new skill. And here’s the beauty: they got to see me face creative frustration. They saw a growth mindset in action.
Often, when I give keynotes and workshops on design thinking, I am also asked about makerspaces. Although I was able to design makerspaces in my own classroom and help coach teachers in my former district, I still recognized that there were some gaps I was missing.
For this reason, I spent the last two months interviewing experts throughout the maker movement with the goal of creating a self-paced course for anyone who wants to design a makerspace. This is the kind of course I wish I had been able to take over a decade ago when I was floundering. The result is a framework you can use to design your own makerspace in a week.
This course is grounded in proven principles and strategies that work. It’s broken down into simple, step-by-step lessons that allow you to walk through each of the seven days of designing a makerspace. Each lesson will leave you with resources, optional extensions, and an easy-to-follow action item as you move closer to the finished product. You’ll also have access to experts on makerspaces who can answer your questions and give you feedback.
No reverse engineering.
No more hours or searching the internet for something that makes sense.
John is a former middle school teacher and current college professor with the goal of transforming classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder.