Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Stay Out of the Way and Let the Music Play

My blogging has dropped off the map, but I had a profound occurrence at school this week and just had to write about it.

We have a makerspace in the LMC of the intermediate (grades 5-6) building that I work in. At six different times during the day in slots known as "workshops", students can come down and interact with the different items we have in the space. This includes well-known items like littleBits and Sphero, as well as hot wheels race track design, Kerbal Space Program, and kano kits. One of my favorite technologies in our space is the MakeyMakey. If you don't know about it, this video is required viewing:
Every day, our library media specialist sets out a Chromebook and puts on the MakeyMakey.com/Piano site, then hooks up the MakeyMakey. During the workshop times, students can then use aluminum foil, copper tape, or any other products that conduct electricity (such as humans) to create inputs for the piano.

However, on Monday, the piano was switched to a website with a much fuller piano. I didn't look at it closely so I don't know how well it integrated with the MakeyMakey, but I wasn't too concerned about it as most students ignore the MakeyMakey and do other things in the space. Being one of my favorite things, it bums me out and I want more students to be creative with it (like create a realistic input for Minecraft where they literally swing a pickaxe and connect with a block to destroy a block in the game).

So on Monday, the 9:10am group came in to participate in the space. The groups are kept to around six students since many times we don't have the ability to work with them and they have to be able to operate on their own. The students come in, sign in to the LMC and choose something to do. 

And that is when this wonderful music started to play.

It sounded like the lobby of a fancy hotel took up residence in our library. Beautiful elegant melodies rang out among the quiet busyness of the space. As I looked out the glass windows of my office, I noticed that they weren't coming from the MakeyMakey interaction, but rather a girl simply using the keys of the Chromebook to play the piano.

At that point, I had a choice. As much as I believe in student agency, I often feel compelled to direct the learning, even in the makerspace. Especially since the entire reason the Chromebook is there is to facilitate the use of the MakeyMakey, I try and get students to create with it. This is the route I could have gone. Perhaps even months ago it is the route I would have gone.

But as I listened to the soothing tones, I had to tell myself to stay out of the way. After all, what is the point of the makerspace? To use specific technologies or to provide a place and the tools for kids to be creative? The makerspace isn't about using the MakeyMakey. The best decision I could have made in this moment was the decision I made - and that was to just stay out of the way and let the music play.

As workshop came to a close (they have thirty minutes), I approached the girl. After all, she had been playing for the entire half hour! I asked her how often she played piano. Her response? Only a couple of times in her general music class. 

I was floored.

Maybe this positive experience will motivate her to give an instrument a try. Maybe it will lead her to look forward to coming to the makerspace more often. Or maybe it was just a pleasant thirty minute experience that will be slowly forgotten by her.

As for me, I'll never forget it. It taught me such an important lesson. If I could have gone up to her and said "Hey, that music sounds cool, but you should really be using the MakeyMakey, let me show you" I believe that would have killed it right there. There isn't anything inherently wrong with trying to get students to try new things. But in this moment, I believe it would have been the worst thing I could have done.

We can't always stay out of the way as educators. I understand that. But if we set up conditions for something to happen, even if it isn't the thing we exactly wanted, we should let the "music play" and see where the students take it. In my experience, they will almost always go beyond our expectations.

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