LRNG: Making Worlds with Student Hactivists

July 27, 2015
By Educator Innovator

Each wave of innovation in the education world often pushes educators and practitioners to familiarize themselves with the latest hot-button terms and ideas. Hack? Check. Hacker? Got it. How about hacktivism and hacktivists? Many projects and programs have used the notion of hacking as a means to think about Connected Learning principles through making, tinkering, and remixing, but hacktivism takes these principles a step further. With their LRNG Innovation Challenge grant winning project, “Making Our Worlds,” a team of educators in Charlotte, NC has increased engagement, energy, and achievement by giving students the space to create projects that not only give them experience with new technologies, but also strengthen their positions as global citizens.

One of the top concerns of the modern classroom is finding ways to balance core assessment standards with creative work that is personalized for each student. By having them “hack” the current system, students are telling stories most important to them and taking a proactive approach to learning through making. Students aren’t just relegating their maker mindsets to a “recess” or extracurricular space for play. Explains team leader and educator Cindy Urbanski, “The biggest benefit has been increased student engagement, not only during a make, but in the other work of the classroom as well. Students are highly motivated and engaged with what they are learning, but making builds such an amazing community of learning that students remain more engaged in more traditional classroom practices as well.”

The four middle schools participating in the project have diverse populations; three are based in economically underserved areas of the Charlotte Mecklenburg school district and one in the Kannapolis City Schools district. Many of the students come from backgrounds of poverty, and the hands-on exploration of making engages them in ways that the team believes “traditional” schooling has at times failed them. The project allowed these students and teachers the access and opportunities to work with new technologies, and make the most of the nearly cost-free tools already at their disposal.

During the school year, students built physical and digital representations of their communities through written stories, stop-motion video, models, and more. Connectivity and sharing amongst all participants remained at the center of the project. Works-in-progress and finished products were shared outside of the classroom through a Google+ community. Using projects like pop-up books, paper circuitry, original rap songs, quilting, and badges, students addressed a wide range of topics including global warming, civil rights, suicide, and neighborhood issues.

Student participant Alyssa collaborated on a book project about bullying and emphasized its potential to raise awareness and help others. “If you take the time to read this book, you learn that it could be based off a true story. This story that we are trying to make is to reach out to other people, to choose what they say or do before they’ve done it. It’s a good thing for the world to know that bullying hasn’t stopped and there’s people out there that need help.”

The team partnered with field experts in the area, like the Makerspace Charlotte and the digital composing studios at the local children’s library, ImaginOn, which allowed students to continue classroom work after school and on weekends. At a recent Maker Faire at ImaginOn, the work was brought to the public through student-led make stations and presentations. Participants were able to showcase their projects and newfound skill sets outside of the classroom, along with collaborating on the spot with Maker Faire attendees.

With the first round of the project now complete, the team, anchored at the UNC Charlotte Writing Project, has started the important process of documenting the work and readying the project for the upcoming school year. While creating opportunities for students to create identities as makers is chief among the project goals, the team is also aware of the benchmarks that must be met in traditional course of study. In this phase of the project, they will work to document how these student projects spotlight skills that often go above and beyond the standards.

The team is busy gathering information together to share through multiple platforms within the National Writing Project community. In addition to a research paper they hope to publish in an English pedagogy journal, a detailed resource for educators is being created for Digital Is. The team also recently shared work at the 2015 Urban Site Network Conference, and is participating in CLMOOC this summer.

“It is amazing to see standards being addressed in a way that gives students a reason to do school (social activism) and use their hands to compose and create. Students are more willing to take risks and revise/ reiterate work,” said Urbanski. Students are excited to learn about themselves, and shape and share their voices with their peers and their community. If there’s a great takeaway for the project, it’s the importance of students having a stake in how they learn and participate in their community. This awareness creates a ripple effect in productivity and engagement, instilling a spirit of making and playing that they will hopefully carry with them and use to inspire others.

By Maranatha Bivens