What Fairy Gardens Taught Me About Makerspaces, Teaching, and Learning

Entertaining a 5 year old and 3 year old during the summer is a big job.  I love being a parent, and it has made me grow so much as an educator.  Summertime brings many days of opportunities for adventures.  We get out of the house every single day and go somewhere whether it’s the botanical gardens, the local UGA campus, the local zoo,a movie, or the pool.  In between all of the fighting that happens between a brother and sister, there is a lot of curiosity about the world, and I love watching this unfold during the summer.

Recently, Athens held its big summer music festival, Athfest.  A part of this festival is an artist market, and my kids loved seeing what was in each tent.  Their attention was most drawn to a booth of fairy gardens.  These artists had created living pieces of art inside picture frames and jars.  They had made every single item in the gardens.  Building on my kids’ curiosity of this art, I decided we would make fairy gardens one day.  The only instructions we had were the memories of what we had seen at Athfest.  I intentionally did not look up examples on the computer because this was not a copying activity.  I wanted this to be full of investigation, dreaming, tinkering, and creating.  In fact, I really love not planning out every single detail of what we do because I can just see where the curiosity takes us.

We started by looking around our house for fairy homes.  We looked at several pickle and jelly jars as well as empty flower pots.  Alora and Anderson each chose their favorite.

Then, we had an outing to the local hobby and craft store to find trinkets for the fairies.  I didn’t have a specific budget in mind, but I like a good bargain, so I didn’t plan to spend very much.  We got a basket and each child got to put things into the basket as possibilities.  There’s not really a “fairy garden” section in the store so you have to really wander around with a fairy eye and think about what a fairy might like in his or her house.  We spent a good amount of time in the dollhouse section of the store.  Finally we made our way to the clearance section which was a hodge podge of all kinds of stuff.  We really had to dig here.  After the basket had a good amount of stuff, I got out my phone calculator and started looking through the basket.  We sorted piles of “definitely want”, “kind of want”, and “don’t want”.  As Alora and Anderson were making those decisions, we talked about price and also how many items were in each pack.  They knew they would be sharing so they were more interested in packs that had multiple items in them that could be split up.  After agreeing on an amount, we visited the register, chatted with the cashier about fairy gardens, and paid our bill.

Back home, we took to the outdoors with a basket.  We did a nature walk and collected free items for our gardens.  On our walk, we talked about what to touch and what not to touch.  We collected sticks, rocks, pine cones, moss, and leaves.  Finally, we prepped our fairy gardens.  Again, we didn’t specifically look up what we should put, but we talked a bit about the layers in the Earth and decided to make some layers in our gardens.  We filled the bottom with rocks.  We didn’t have any sand, but we noticed that there were some rocks along the sides of the house that had been broken down a lot by the water gushing out of the gutters.  We talked about the rock cycle and erosion while we shoveled up some of this sand and bits of rocks to make another layer.  Finally, we put a layer of dirt.

Back inside, we added some water to pack everything together a bit and then topped our containers off with some moss.  We spread out all of the items from our nature walk as well as all of our trinkets from the store.  They both started placing items into the gardens and making decisions about what the fairies would like the most.

When their construction was complete, we topped off each garden with a metal candle shade from our junk closet and placed all of the remaining items in a ziploc bag so that they could trade out things in the gardens when they wanted to.  The gardens went to each child’s room.  At bedtime, I went in Alora’s room and she was busy once again.  On her own, she had gotten a roll of tape and a ziploc bag.  The ziploc was on top of the metal shade and was securely taped on.  When I asked about it, she told me that if a fairy went inside she didn’t want it to get out.  Nevermind the gaping hole on the front of her flowerpot.  I loved how she was already extending what we had started.

It really wasn’t until that moment that I started reflecting on the whole experience: where we had been, where we could go, and what implications it had for my own teaching.

A Few Topics We Explored:

  • perspective through the eyes of a fairy
  • financial literacy through budgeting and decision making
  • speaking and listening
  • layers of the Earth
  • habitats
  • erosion and rock cycle
  • plant identification
  • problem solving
  • reusing
  • safety
  • art
  • creativity

A Few Potential Extensions:

  • reading fairy stories to learn more about fairy behaviors and needs
  • building upon Alora’s idea of a fairy trap.  We could use littlebits to make an alarm to alert us when a fairy is inside.
  • adding electronics and circuitry to our garden.  To give the appearance of a fairy or even to add some light for an existing fairy, we could use littlebits or leds with coin cell batteries.  This could lead to a whole exploration of circuits and electricity.
  • spending more time learning about terrariums and the types of plants that could live inside a jar.
  • storytelling based on our fairies and fairy gardens.

Some Takeaways

  • Some of the best learning experiences can happen when you don’t have every detail planned out. We had a goal, which was to build a fairy garden, but we didn’t lock ourselves into a series of steps.  While I love to plan, I think we often miss out on some incredible learning opportunities with students when we aren’t observing, pausing, listening, and reflecting.
  • Our library makerspaces are a place where these types of experiences can launch, but the space alone does not create the learning.  I add a few layers to our makerspace each year.  More stuff brings more possibilities.  However, I learned last year that you can’t just turn kids loose in the makerspace and expect that they are going to come out with an amazing project.  There’s a big inquiry piece that is amplified through conversations with an educator like the librarian.  Kids can come into the makerspace to dream, tinker, and create, but it is up to us to be observing, listening, reflecting, and inquiring to take the student learning to the next level.
  • When students are engaged through something that is of their own interests, multiple required standards can be woven in.  They may not happen on the timeline that comes from the district or state, but they can be woven in.  My struggle, just like many educators, is how to replicate this type of individual experience with a class of 25-30 students.  It can be done.  I believe it can, but it is very tricky.
  • I thought back to my experiences with Kelly Hocking, a kindergarten teacher at our school.  She can take just about any topic that most of the class is interested in and create a magical year long project that weaves in multiple standards, experiences, and projects.  The fairy garden could easily be that kind of project, but I’m not telling everyone to go out and make fairy gardens.  I think we need to listen to our students’ voices, find their interests, and somehow find connecting threads that allow us to create projects and experiences that honor those while still upholding the standards we are required to teach.

I know there is more here, but my brain is in summer mode and I’m still trying to entertain a 3 and 5 year old as I write.  I’m going to continue thinking on this.  If you have your own thoughts, ideas, extensions, takeaways, etc, please leave them in the comments.

Skyping with Rube Goldberg’s Granddaughter: Improving the Student Voice Experience

rubeworks skype (2)Our 2nd grade is in the midst of another amazing project. They are studying simple machines, force, and motion as a part of their science curriculum.  We kicked off this unit by tinkering with a Rube Goldberg iPad app called Rubeworks.  Students worked in pairs to problem solve the many parts each Rube Goldberg puzzle. We allowed an hour for this experience and students persevered through the entire hour and supported one another.  Students continued to use this app in class.

Next, students had the opportunity to Skype with David Fox, the creator of the RubeWorks app.  He told a lot about how the app was made as well as listened to what the students loved and what they were frustrated with while using the app.

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In class, students read the book Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee. They used lots of tools to construct their own “roller coasters” and test them out.  This is all leading up to students designing and creating their own Rube Goldberg invention.

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This year, I purchased a book called The Art of Rube Goldberg. This book contains numerous pieces of Goldberg’s artwork, which was mostly selected by his granddaughter, Jennifer George.  Students have enjoyed studying these illustrations in class.  All of the puzzles in the Rubeworks game are based on pieces of artwork, so studying these images also supports students figuring out the game puzzles.

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Using Skype in the Classroom, we scheduled a Skype with Jennifer George.  Ahead of the Skype, students spent time in class preparing questions to ask Jennifer George.  The second grade teachers and I have really been fine-tuning a process for our skype sessions, and it is proving to create some very rich experiences for our students.  Students wrote questions about Rube Goldberg based on their knowledge of him from the illustrations in the book, their experience with the app, their observations of Rube Goldberg inventions, and their own drawings of inventions.

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During our Skype, Jennifer George told us just a bit about Rube Goldberg and herself, but she left lots of room for questions.  It’s times like these, that I’m so glad that the 2nd grade teachers have developed their Skype process.  Students had prepared questions on index cards.  The teachers quickly passed them out and we made a line of students who were ready to ask a question.  Students took turns stepping to the webcam, saying their name, and asking their question.  They awaited Jennifer’s response, and then said “thank you” before sitting back down.  Our questions really carried the Skype conversation today.  Each time a student asked a question, Jennifer commented on what a great question it was.  Students asked things like:

  • Did you aspire to be like your grandfather?
  • Do you have any of Rube Goldberg’s artwork?
  • How many drawings did Rube Goldberg make?
  • Did you ever help your grandfather draw his art?

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Each question was met with an extended story that uncovered pieces of Jennifer George and Rube Goldberg’s life.  We even got to see a sculpture that Rube Goldberg had created.

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I love Skype experiences where students get to interact with the presenter.  It empowers students to be able to ask the questions that they are curious about and have their curiosities answered.  I’m so thankful for teachers that give students the space to prepare for interviewing a Skype guest.  These interview skills will only continue to improve and will be a skill that students will carry with them throughout their lives.

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The teachers and I all commented on how different this Skype was compared to last year’s Skype with Jennifer George.  The time to prepare, the time to think about questions that matter and connect, and the trust to allow students to lead the conversation made this a memorable experience for us all.

Writing Folktales with Puppet Pals

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A few weeks ago, I introduced the iPad app, Puppet Pals, to 3rd grade through a tinkering lesson connected with an author study.  After that lesson, the teachers and I started planning an extension of their folktale unit using this app.  Each class chose a folktale to read multiple version of such as Cinderella, Goldilocks, Three Little Pigs, etc.  Then, students wrote their own story using some of the elements that they had noticed in their study of folktales.  In art, students designed characters and settings for the stories that they wrote in writing time.


Puppet Pals HD is a free app, but if you upgrade the app for $4.99, you have access to so many more features.  My favorite feature is the ability to take photographs of anything and turn it into a character or a setting for your story.  Students used their artwork from art to create the characters and settings in the app.  From there, students took their script and recorded their folktales.  Some students had multiple characters and settings, so it was nice that they could pause the recording to switch out settings or characters.


Once the recordings were done, we exported them to the camera roll and uploaded them to Youtube.  The app does allow you to name each story, but it doesn’t transfer the name into the camera roll.  I wish we had done the Youtube upload as part of recording because I couldn’t tell which story belonged to which student.  For now, all of the stories are just called “Puppet Pals” in Youtube. We’ll go back later and add the student titles and names.

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Our 1st #3dprinting Project of 2014-15: Native American Hopes and Dreams stamps

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Fourth grade has launched into an incredible project for the 1st quarter of the year.  I’m so excited to be a small part of the project in the library.  In social studies, they are studying Native Americans.  Their standards include:

SS4H1 The student will describe how early Native American cultures developed in
North America.
a. Locate where Native Americans settled with emphasis on the Arctic (Inuit),
Northwest (Kwakiutl), Plateau (Nez Perce), Southwest (Hopi), Plains (Pawnee),
and Southeast (Seminole).
b. Describe how Native Americans used their environment to obtain food, clothing,
and shelter.

During this study, they are exploring the folklore of Native Americans through several folktales.  The brought them to the idea of a grade level dream catcher.  The beginning of the school year is a time full of hope.  It’s a time where students, teachers, and families set goals for what they hope to accomplish throughout the year, and many spend time writing about hopes and dreams.  The teachers in collaboration with the art teacher decided to design a project to capture the hopes of dreams of students in the form of meaningful symbols on a dream catcher.

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Working together, students will creative a massive dream catcher.  In art, they are designing symbols that represent their hopes for the year.  They are designing shapes that can be drawn in one continuous line.

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With me, students are using an iPad app called Cubify Draw which is designed by 3D Systems.  The app is very simple to use.  With your finger or a stylus, you draw one continuous line to create pretty much anything you can dream up.  You can adjust the thickness of the line and then touch “make 3d”.  The shape automatically turns 3D and you can adjust the height and thickness.  Once your design is ready, you can email the file to a central location to prep for 3D printing.

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For the lesson in the library, I gave a very brief intro to the app and shared some tips that I discovered through my own tinkering.  Big open swirls seem to print better than lines that are close together.  The shortest height and thickest line tends to print best.

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Mrs. Foretich, our art teacher, passed out the paper designs students made in art and gave students another opportunity to make adjustments to their designs and practice tracing the design with their finger.  I passed out iPads and the tinkering began.  Most students made several designs until they got the design just the way they wanted it.  Mrs. Foretich and I walked around and conferenced with students about adjustments they might need to make to their designs as well as helped troubleshoot problems.  Students emailed their designs to me with their teacher name and first name in the subject line.

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We are doing this lesson with the entire 4th grade, so that makes for roughly 60 designs.  Each design has to be imported into Makerware, reduced in size, and exported as a file for our Makerbot Replicator.  These files are being placed onto SD cards.  To speed up the file prep progress I used multiple computers and multiple SD cards.

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Then, the printing began.  Print after print is now running in the library.  It took about a day and half to print the first class batch.  Now I have 2 more to go.  Each student print is being placed in a ziploc bag with the student and teacher name on the bag for easy distribution.

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The next step will be for students to create a vessel out of clay in art.  They will use their 3d stamp to press designs into their vessel.  All of the vessels will hang from  the grade level dream catcher, including vessels designed by all of the teachers involved in the project.  This will serve as a symbol for the year to represent our connectedness and our common goal of working together to achieve many hopes and dreams this school year.  Our vessels and dream catcher will hold these safe throughout the year.

Thank you Mrs. Foretich and the 4th grade team for an incredible project for our students that allows them to dream, tinker, create, and share.


Letting Kindergarten Imagination Soar with Blokify and Makerbot

blokify (4)Mrs. Kelly Hocking’s Kindergarten class just started a collaborative project with the art teacher and the media center.  Her class has been very inquisitive about structures and sculptures and what it’s like to be inside of those structures.  For example, they’ve looked closely at the Statue of Liberty and they are fascinated with the idea of going inside and looking out from the crown.  In art, Mrs. Foretich is introducing maquette sculpture which is a small scale model of a rough draft or unfinished work.  It allows them to test how different shapes are put together without making a full sculpture.

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These 2 ideas started coming together in a project.  Mrs. Hocking started exploring Minecraft at home and thinking about how worlds and structures were created in the virtual world.  Then she started wondering how this might flow into the discussions her class was already having about imagining and going inside of structures.  This is when we started talking about Blokify as a tool for putting together blocks to create a larger structure.

Mrs. Kelly, the art teacher, and I all met to brainstorm.  Students will eventually build a larger sculpture out of shapes in art.  Their art standard is:

GPS: Demonstrates that shapes can be put together to make new shapes or forms.

Their essential question is:

How do artists build Sculptures?

We decided that we would start our journey with Blokify.  Blokify is a free iPad app that allows students to put a variety of blocks together to build pretty much anything and then 3D print that shape.  The files can be emailed for download into your own software for 3D printing conversion.

We decided that Blokify would be the kickoff to this larger project.  In the library, Mrs. Foretich, our art teacher, showed students some examples of maquettes and talked about how artists might make a rough draft of a larger sculpture to test some things out before making a larger sculpture.  Then, we showed students some images from Blokify’s facebook page to give students the idea that you don’t just have to make a box in Blokify.

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After that, students went straight to iPads and jumped in.  We didn’t spend a lot of time “teaching” them how to use the app.  Instead, we let them explore.  We also didn’t tell them what to build because we wanted them to have permission to imagine and dream as they built.  Mrs. Foretch and I walked around to tables and showed students some tips as they worked.  For example, if you hold your finger on a block it will disappear.  If you pinch the screen, you can zoom in and out.

Two of my enrichment cluster students came to support students as they worked, too.  Monica, 5th grader, and Grant, 3rd grader, were naturals at nudging Kindergarten students along without doing the work for them.  We were almost able to have a helper at every table because of them.  I was so glad that their teachers allowed them to come and share their expertise with Kindergarten.

Some students started really being strategic about where their blocks went in their structures while others liked tapping all over the screen and seeing how it turned out.  We did question a bit if we didn’t give student enough guidance, but we ultimately decided that they really needed this time to explore.  If our prints don’t quite turn out like they hoped, then it will be a learning experience about how they might rethink their own approach to designing.

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As always, there were some wonderful moments that happened.  One moment was when  a student who we’ve all been trying to find the right learning method was thoroughly engaged.  He was so proud of the work he did, and he showed us a way to connect with him as a learner.  I  hope that this new discovery will lead to other projects and learning experiences for him in his classroom.

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After students left, I had a group of 5th grade helpers email me all of the files from the iPads.  I put each file into Makerware, resized it, and saved it onto an SD card for printing.  We will print our designs after spring break.

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Once designs are printed, Mrs. Hocking wants students to put their structures on a piece of paper and draw the rest of the setting around the structure.  From there, students will think about the inside of their structure as well as the surroundings and begin to tell a story about their creations.  We aren’t sure yet how that piece will be captured, but I’m excited about the possibility.

In art, Mrs. Foretich will continue to explore this standard by expanding what students are building.



Kinetic Art Sculptures Using Our Makerbot Replicator 2

kinetic sculpturesOur art teacher, art student teacher, and I have been having a blast with 3rd graders designing kinetic sculptures.  About 2 weeks ago, students came to the library during art to learn about Tinkercad and how artists use technology to create.  Before this lesson, they watched a Tinkercad tutorial.  In small groups, they designed an object for 3D printing.  Whatever they designed would become one piece of a larger kinetic sculpture in art.  You can read more about that experience here.  

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Once students finished their design, I went into each account and tried to double check that the designs were all pushed together into one piece art.  Then, I downloaded the .stl file into Makerware.  In Makerware, I resized the object to a smaller size to speed up the printing process.  I also added a raft (removeable base) and supports to each print.  I’ve found that in Tinkercad these 2 steps are needed because what you see on the computer screen might actually be misleading.  The raft and supports help the 3D print be more stable.  All files were loaded onto the SD card prior to students arriving.

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Ms. Foretich, art teacher, created a printing schedule with about 60-90 minutes between prints.  During each time frame, students came to the library and chose their filament color.  Then, I shared some information about the 3D printer since it was the 1st 3D print for most students.  Finally, we pulled up the file on the SD card and a student pressed the M.  Students sat in chairs or huddled around the printer to watch.  After watching the print for a few minutes, students went back to their regular day while the print finished.  I kept an eye on each print during and between my lessons.

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Each printing experience was different and you really never know what is going to happen when you press that red M.  Many times the print is a big success, but sometimes it’s not.  We’ve had some failures, which are very important.  We save every failed print we have and put it in a box.  It reminds us that we aren’t perfect, but it also serves as an instructional tool to talk to students about what didn’t work.  We learn from our failures and a box full of failure speaks volumes to all of the students who are starting their 3D printing process.


When a print fails, we go back into the design and look at what needs to happen.  Sometimes it’s as simple as pushing some pieces together more than they were.  However, sometimes it’s a big flaw that cause students to just start over.  It certainly slows the process down, but it is important for them to revisit their work, revise, and try again.

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It’s always fun to see which students are motivated by the concept of 3D printing.  Sometimes the students make surprising choices like giving up their recess time to spend that time watching the 3D printer create.  Hearing their “wows” and “cools” is inspiring.


Students are continuing to print their pieces this week and next.  In the meantime, they are continuing to work on their kinetic sculptures in art knowing that their 3D printed object will also be a part of their design.


3rd Grade Folktales Visual Interpretation Project

folktales (1)Back in October, our 3rd graders spent time studying the illustrations of Jerry Pinkney.  They paid close attention to how Pinkney told the story through his illustrations in preparation for a field trip to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to see the exhibit Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney.  You can read more about that here and here.

Over the past few weeks in art, students have been working with the text of a folktale to create their own visual interpretations of the text.  Mrs. Foretich, the art teacher, spent a lot of time exploring and researching the vocabulary within the stories with the students so that they would be able to paint an accurate interpretation.  Each class chose and different folktale and each student in the class was assigned a piece of text from the story.

folktales (4)Once the paintings were ready, Mrs. Foretich organized them in the order of the story and gave them to me.  Students came in small groups to record the text for each illustration on the iPad.  We used iMovie to put all of the clips together.

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This past week, third grade held a parent breakfast where families were able to come to a viewing of the final products.  They were also uploaded to Youtube for families who were unable to attend.

You can enjoy their visual interpretations below.  It was fun to watch the students take on an artists eye and think like a published illustrator thinks.  Often, illustrators receive the text to a story with no other feedback.  It is up to them to take these words and translate them into illustration.  This project gave students a better understanding of the fun and the challenges of this process.