This August, Maker Mentors Goda and Sari accompanied Maker Jawn’s manager K-Fai to a YOUmedia Retreat right outside of Philadelphia. YOUmedia is a network of approximately 30 Learning Labs based in museums, libraries, and community organizations, that were originally all funded by the same IMLS/MacArthur Learning Labs Planning Grant. The Learning Labs all share a commitment to the principles of Connected Learning and provide programming that is interest-driven, peer and mentor supported, and academically or career-oriented. The goal of the retreat was to connect people working at Learning Labs nationally in order to share resources, philosophy, and practical programming, as well as learn from and support each other’s work. Part of the retreat was also focused on developing an online Community of Practice that would enable the network to stay connected beyond this convening.
Meeting people doing similar work to Maker Jawn was incredibly stimulating and there were many opportunities for formal and informal discussions around topics of importance to all of us. Read on for some of our reflections.
Maker Jawn’s focus on interest-driven learning is one of my favorite things about the program. I love that kids get to design and develop their own projects and I love watching them turn their ideas into sketches or plans and then into real objects that exist in the world. As a mentor I strive to provide encouragement and lend some context to the work that program participants are doing. For example I currently am working with a student who one day decided to build a cardboard city. With the help of some other program participants he created a model that included a street, various buildings, and a park with a playground. He then went on to make a model of our library branch and another one of the Parthenon. With each project his adeptness with the tools and materials increased and the projects got progressively more complex. My role in all of them was minimal – I showed him some pictures of architectural models online and provided quick informal instruction on how to cut cardboard and construct 3D shapes.
But I have noticed that not all program participants feel comfortable with that much openness and freedom and that, at least as a starting point, they may benefit from some more explicit instructions or assignments. At the retreat I discovered that many of the other YOUmedia Learning Labs used written step-by-step guides as tools for both instructors and program participants looking to develop new skills. Some of the guides lead you through creating simple starter projects while others provide basic knowledge you might need to use a specific tool or computer program.
The value of having more formalized guides like this is that they might give a better sense of each student’s learning progress and ensure that there aren’t gaps in their knowledge. Yet I’m left wondering how to incorporate such tools into an informal, self-designed-project-based environment. How do we collect and organize these tools both internally as Maker Jawn and nationally as the YOUmedia Network? And how do we bring more structured instruction into a learning space that already has developed a strong culture of freedom and self-determination? How do we, as mentors, provide more formal instruction when there are multiple and varied projects being worked on simultaneously by different participants,and when we can only spend a couple minutes with each kid before having to float over to someone else? How do we use written guides with kids who don’t possess high level literacy skills? Can the guides actually serve to build literacy along with the tech skills?
We’re going to experiment with answering some of these questions and try to write more posts about the process. I think as a start, it would be great for Maker Jawn to have a shared online folder containing step-by-step guides and instruction plans we develop, as well as ones developed by folks working at other Learning Labs (which they have been sharing over the Community of Practice site). That way each mentor can go to a set place to see if there is already a resource about some skill they’re trying to teach and then adapt that resource for their own purposes instead of having to “reinvent the wheel” each time.
For me, this retreat was a reminder of how essential it is to have dialogue with like minded individuals and organizations with similar goals. The YOUMedia Network is made up of learning labs that are all in different stages in their organization’s life. There are well established sites, as well as sites who are just getting off the ground. Some learning labs are experimenting with new collaborations or recent structural shifts.
It was immensely helpful to see the struggles and success of sites that were both older and younger than MakerJawn, and hear about how similar educational practices were being used in completely different environments from our own. It was like a convening of guinea pigs, or the ghosts of MakerJawn past, present, and future, all gathered in one convenient location and ready to chat. The key was dialogue between organizations who had similar missions, but who were geographically diverse, and embedded in institutions with very different structures.
Since Maker Jawn is embedded in several different community libraries, our mentors get to have this type of dialogue internally. Each branch is like its own little ecosystem, with different dynamics and social webs. We find that trying the same projects at different branches can yield very different results, and an essential part of our practice is meeting weekly and discussing what environmental factors and variables made it so that something worked fantastically at one location and totally flopped at another.
The YOUMedia retreat was very much like our internal weekly meetings, except on a much larger scale. For me, it solidified the importance of the culture of communication that we’ve built into Maker Jawn. Without this type of discourse you get disconnected and burnt out educators who feel like they are toiling away in isolation. Dialogue, engagement, and connection are as essential for the individual educator and organization, as they are for our students, and we can’t let it fall by the wayside.
As I transition out of Maker Jawn and Philadelphia from being a node in the YOUmedia network to taking a new position with the National Writing Project, I’m finding these retreats to be more and more valuable. In fact, every time I go to a large conference (ALA, ASTC, DML) the first people I gravitate towards are inevitably from one of the Learning Labs. There’s a sort of trust that has evolved between members, which enables us all to quickly drop any sort of facade that we know exactly what we’re doing. Because none of us really do. These convenings allow for us to be in a safe environment to brainstorm, ask questions, and reflect on our practice.
As we move the network forward, I’m looking forward to helping Learning Labs to share and reflect beyond these retreats and stolen minutes during larger conferences. As part of that, anything we share with each other should be a living documents – PDFs are where ideas go to die. Things like job descriptions, technology recommendations, and workshops should have a pulse and have the ability to be commented on and further refined. Documents should be the jumping-off point for conversation, not the end of a conversation. We, as a community, need to be asking more questions, as opposed to providing more answers (for ourselves and for those who are outside the Learning Lab). As I move to the hub of the network, I’m hoping to help refine the culture of sharing and conversation with Learning Labs. This is just the beginning!