At Dyer, we are building a maker space. The fifth graders completed a PBL to design it, and last week we had our fourth graders come complete a challenge in the space. Scanning through the PBS Design Squad Educator’s Guide, one challenge jumped out: The Speedy Shelter. Fourth grade students have read or are reading Donn Fendler‘s tale of being lost on Mt. Katahdin either in it’s original form, or in the new graphic novel version by Fendler, Lynne Plourde, and Ben Bishop. As such, they have already been thinking about what they would do should they find themselves lost in the wilderness. Here was a chance for them to practice the skills we want them to learn in the Fab Lab in a way that connected to their study of literature.

Students create a strong joint to provide support to their shelter.

Principal Elizabeth Fowler pulled out the page from the Design Squad Educator’s Guide on the Design Process and did a weekly shared reading with it as part of the project. Weekly Shared Reading is a new-to-me teaching technique and I have been really impressed. On the first day, students preview the text and share what they noticed. On the next day, the teacher reads the text aloud and the students make note of their questions. Day three we read the text again and asked students to visualize what they saw in their mind’s eyes. On the fourth day, after re-reading the text, students dug deeper to try to determine the purpose of the text. And finally, on the fifth day, we read the text a final time and the students synthesized the big picture of what they had learned. This process models and breaks apart what good readers do. For more information on this technique, read Text Savvy by Sarah Daunis and Maria Cassiani Iams. Heinemann has even provided a free sample chapter.


Alongside the weekly shared reading, we went through the design process as described in the activity guide. Students brainstormed, shared ideas, designed, and then built. Within the building process they were able to test and redesign. Sometimes the testing was forced, such as when the shelter didn’t stand up or have enough space to fit a student. Other groups were building a successful structure, but still took the time to reflect on how the could improve it.

After the shelters were completed, we had a bit more time to reflect on the process. In an ideal world there may have been time for another chance at building. Students noted the importance of teamwork and of taking time to discuss and design. What really struck me from this activity was the importance of breaking down the design process for students. As the Design Squad document states:

The design process is a great way to tackle almost any task. In fact, you use it each time you create something that didn’t exist before (e.g., planning an outing, cooking a meal, or choosing an outfit).

In my life as a writer, I get to go to talk to students and one thing that I’ve noticed is that kids seem to think that books spring fully formed from the author’s mind. Obviously this is not the case. Similarly, any invention that we use was designed and created through this process: Steve Jobs didn’t just sit down one day and Voila! It’s an iPad! By clarifying and exploring the process, we empower students to design and create.

(Oringially published on my Make Literacy Blog.)

Lost on a Playground in Maine

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