I come from a family of DIYers. It’s a culture. It’s a mentality. An ingrained skill that has been passed down from my grandfather to my mother, and finally to me. And it’s fun, authentic, and a true learning opportunity. Rather than pay a “specialist’ to come in and do a job for you, DIYers do the research themselves. They seek what is of interest to them, watch videos on their own, and teach themselves to learn a new skill or trade. I’ve taught myself to do oil changes, to change the brake pads on my car, to lay flooring, to upkeep a pool, to use a new #edtech tool, to adopt a new teaching practice. The list goes on.
With sites like Pinterest and Etsy, everyone can get in on the action, and find something that interests them or highlights an accomplishment. It’s this idea- that anyone is capable of learning and creating, that we see making its way into education in the form of MAKERspaces and Genius Hour. And for good reason. It stimulates creativity. It sparks innovation. It empowers individuals and communities. Everything that is needed in the classroom. To prepare students for life beyond school, we need to create opportunities in which they can develop their own skills and create meaning from their learning.
About four-five years ago, when I taught ELA to high school students, I implemented Genius Hour into my classes and behold- the DIY Project was born. And as a DIYer who knows all too often, failure happens. Truth be told, I had good intentions. I wanted to let students surprise me with their ingenuity. I wanted to increase engagement. I wanted a classroom that wasn’t about building answers, but about building thinkers and problem solvers. A classroom built on failure. A place where student thinking became visible and central to our core beliefs.
But I failed. Man did I fail. I adopted Google’s 20% Time and expected that I could just “hit the ground running” so to speak. I wanted it to be BIG. So I told students at the beginning of the year about the project to pique interest. And after a month of school, I dropped it on them and told them that this project would be due in May. 7 Months! And that they would have weekly blog check-ins, have to create a website to teach someone about their topic, have to present at the end of the year in front of all of their classmates in the auditorium in a “TED-Style” talk, spend every Friday working on the project, and that they would be judged on how well they did. That was it. No other rules. Pick something and go. So I designated Friday as our DIY day of the week and said this would be great.
And it all came crashing down in a hurry. Students struggled to just get going. They couldn’t figure out what they would do it on. Students didn’t have the “skills” to pull this off yet and I didn’t help them adopt the necessary skills. When DIY day came, some worked and some didn’t. Topics were chosen that were about anything “since those were my words entirely” but really had no substance to them. Blogs came and went, and piles grew, making it difficult for me to catch-up, on top of all of the other work I had to check. So every now and then I removed a DIY day because we just “had too much content to get through” or because I saw DIY day as the perfect day to miss should I need to be absent. I mean- they are working on their own, what’s the worst that could happen? And in the end my students and I were flustered and kind of called it quits. I still thank those students for their willingness to try something new with me. Unfortunately, student thinking wasn’t visible. So over the following summer to went to the drawing board to make it better.
I cut down the length. I removed blog posts. I gave more “in-class time”. All in all, it was better, but it STILL wasn’t quite right. So the DIYer in me kept going. Back to the drawing board I went. I surveyed my students. Asked for recommendations. and the following year tried again but this time, I think I figured it out. So what did I do?
DIY time became OUR time. If you know anything about me, you know I’m a big believer in doing what your students do and turning MY time into OUR time. We worked closely together to build the necessary skills of my students to pull off a project like this. So the model worked like this:
- There must be real-life relevance to the students.
- There must be a problem or challenge that needs to be solved but may not have an easily identifiable answer.
- There must be time for sustained student exploration.
- There must be time for collaboration, debate, and discussion.
- There must be many different possible outcomes.
- There must be failure but also reflection.
- There must be a “polished” product of some sort.
First, we began with a class discussion, usually spanning 1-2 class periods. I opened a Google Doc and shared it out with my students and it became our “Live Notes”. These entire days were spent discussing, sharing, debating, arguing, examining, and identifying. We talked about current events. We talked about issues in our school and community. We watched video clips and read articles. We talked about our likes and dislikes and WHY we disliked the things we did. Students love talking, and this gave them the platform to do it educationally, with me as a facilitator. The Google Doc was their playground and they were able to come back to it at any time.
Next, students had to pick a topic and complete a project proposal using a Google Form. This was their pitch. Questions included:
- What is your topic?
- Why did you pick this? How is it important to you?
- What would you like to learn from this experience?
- What do you envision as your final “polished” submission?
- What sort of resources and supplies will you need?
I scoured through their proposals. I interviewed them if need be. This was the perfect time to dig deeper. If something smelled “sour” I questioned it and went to the drawing board WITH them. If they couldn’t decide on a topic, WE brainstormed TOGETHER. We need to let them share in each other’s successes and failures. These are tremendous learning opportunities that build community.
Then, it was their time. This was time in which they conducted research, collaborated, created, discussed. During this time, students also had to complete the blog part of the assignment. After my initial failures, the new expectation was to blog 4 times total. Since I cut down on the length of the project (8-10 weeks ended up being the perfect length) 4 total blogs meant them posting roughly every 2 weeks. This was easier to manage, less on my plate, and gave them more time to make sure the post was beneficial and put their ongoing learning in context. During this time, I also worked on my own DIY project. This allowed me to work next to my students. If I was brainstorming ideas, we brainstormed together. We took time out to discuss our findings, our failures, and our successes. Modeling is such a powerful teaching tool. But give them time to explore, fail, and rise up again. They need to understand that it’s not about the final product but about the journey. I don’t care if they failed, as long as they can explain to me why and learn something from it, and find value in the time that spent.
After which, once they completed their blogs, we took time out to celebrate their work and highlight their accomplishments. This was about them. We did it TED-talk style in the auditorium. But anything can work here. You can even go low-tech and make it a tri-fold/poster ignite session. Whatever you do, make it a point to let them teach their fellow students and celebrate the learning and journey they undertook.
I had students who:
- Learned to crochet so they could knit hats and scarves for homeless shelters
- Raised money to gather pet supplies and put together “pet care-packages” to assist animal shelters.
- Put together care packages for troops overseas.
- Designed their own instruments and soundtracks to go with it.
- Created publicity videos about all the great things going on in our school.
- Hosted workshops for other students on creating websites and blogs.
Finally, we spent time talking and reflecting. I gave them a Google Form to fill out, and let them reflect. The goal should always be to build the necessary skills in student thinkers who can adapt to the world around them. A reflection is a key piece in building this capacity of understanding.
A few important things to consider:
- Beware of scheduling obstacles
- 3 important words: Transcend the Obvious
- Don’t focus on failure
- Say “NO” to subs
- Do your prepping beforehand
- Creativity Craves Constraint
- Become a DIYer yourself
We cannot teach our students everything. We SHOULDN’T teach our students everything. Especially when they can “google it” and learn it themselves in less time. What we need to do is give them the platform to be the creative problem-solvers they are. To build opportunities where they can become DIYers in their own right, and form habits they can take with them wherever they go.