Resource-Interactive #blackoutpoetry with Makey Makey and Scratch (1).png

Last April, my students hacked poetry month with Makey Makey and Scratch. You can read about our experiences in Makey Makey Hacked Poetry Month, part two with more examples, and then try it yourself with this resource page. I loved this journey of hacking literature with Makey Makey, and when I interviewed David Saunders for our Challenge Based Learning book this summer and he mentioned making black out poetry interactive with Makey Makey and Scratch… immediate response was YES! An English teacher favorite “Blackout Poetry” hacked with Maker ed? That’s my kind of making and literacy connection! What follows is the way I co-taught this class with RHS teacher Katherine Myers. I wanted to post the whole lesson here since this was actually the first time our juniors were introduced to Makey Makey and all of our process for this awesome maker activity might not be evident.

Introducing Makey Makey

Once students sat down in our maker classroom area of the library, I thought it would be fun to play the video that led to my own personal Makey Makey obsession. When I watched this banamaphone video in 2013 I knew I had to have a Makey Makey. After sharing this example, I hooked my own poem up on this large post-it and played my example poem by touching the graphite blacked out areas.

Finding Poetry

Mrs. Myers and I didn’t want to go too far into how a Makey Makey works before having students “find” their own poetry. So after the initial example, we had them start looking for words that intrigued them. We had sections of discarded book pages on each table and we asked students to rip a page from a book and then deface it by circling or underling 10 or more words that interested them. (We have to make things interesting to get high school kids on board sometimes! )

But, Mrs…. isn’t this plagiarism? 

I loved this question. I told the students while it is okay to borrow and steal words and very short phrases from other authors, if they took more than 3 consecutive words then they’d be plagiarizing. The point is not only cut some words and the poem to still sound like the original poet’s work. The point is to discover intriguing words and re-use them for your own purposes. (Hmm…. sounds a little bit like hacking….)

After identifying words, we had the students re-look over the words that interested them and start to look for groupings of words and phrases that might make for lyrical poetry. I explained that they could use the words out of order since they are going to make it interactive, so they just needed to label the order they’d want to read their poetry. At this point, they were ready to start blacking out most of the original poem.

SXSW quotes (2)

Explanation of How Makey Makey Works

After about 20 minutes of poetry making, I stopped students and had them open their boxes to explore the contents of the Makey Makey Construction kit. We talked about why test leads are called alligator clips (chomp chomp) and then I had them look at the front and back of the Makey Makey as I explained what a microcontroller is and why they are important.

Why should you care about microcontrollers? Because they control everything in your world. From a computer mouse to handheld calculators, to the display on your microwave. A lot of these electronic devices we are drowning in all have a very simple AND SMALL computer inside of it. And that microcontroller does ONE thing REALLY well.  (I borrowed some of this wording from Shawn Hymel’s micro:bit tutorial!) So what if you could invent something that does one thing really well?

I showed the students were the microcontroller is located on the Makey Makey and then had them guess what the function is of a Makey Makey. (Most remembered the banana piano, some figured out it controls computer keys…..)

Testing and Drawing

Instead of telling them how to make it the blackout poetry work with Makey Makey, I wanted students to explore how to complete circuits on their own time. So we had a few examples handy of other student versions of black out poetry, but I told students I really wanted them to discover the information on their own. I even asked them, “Why do you think I want you to figure it out yourselves?” To which they responded, “So we’ll learn it! Duh, Mrs. Graves”

To explore how Makey Makey works, I had students plug in the USB, but not even sign into the computer or go to any particular webpage. I wanted them to see how to complete circuits just by using their hands, and then extending the key presses with wires and graphite drawings (I had 6B art pencils available at all tables.) Mrs. Myers and I noticed that this act of discovery and scientific learning in the English classroom kicked most of our students into hyper-engagement mode. The classroom atmosphere shifted and our students began testing, troubleshooting, and figuring things out.  We gave them 20-30 minutes to test out blacking out words and making Makey Makey connections. One of my favorite aspects to learning circuits by drawing them was that the students could mess up and then erase their markings to fix mistakes. Such a safe way to fail forward!

Watch this student troubleshooting below:

Super Quick Scratch Intro

After most students had working circuits, I gave the kids a super quick Scratch intro and showed them where the “Event” palette, “Sounds” palette, and Sounds tab were located in Scratch. Again, I told them, here’s a little info, but really you need to figure out how to do it on your own. At this point the kids were invested and started moving around the library to find quiet spots to record their voices reading the different stanzas of their black out poetry.

It was a GREAT couple of days of process over product, and I’m so thankful Mrs. Myers loaned me her students. Now we are on to thinking about to incorporate Scratch into another ELA lesson while the learning is fresh!

Please enjoy some of our student’s work below. If you comment on Twitter, we’ll be sure to let them know you enjoyed it:

(This particular student above asked, “Why can’t every day of English class be like this?”

Another great ex of #blackoutpoetry w #makeymakey and #scratch ! #makered

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I loved how the student above was making this in our soundbooth while some of his friends were making music to accompany it. This made him perform it more like hip hop lyrics.

Butterfly Effect

Teachers are loving this idea that I shamelessly stole from David Saunders! I’ve got educators in Canada tweeting their iterations of this project and Michael Medvinsky is collaborating with others to make their own Poet-tree interactive display in his school library!

So how will you make your poetry interactive?

Want more Makey Makey Activities?

20 Makey Makey Projects for the Evil Genius (that I co-wrote with Aaron Graves) will be out next month!



Project- Light Up Poetry with Chibitronics “Love to Code” Arduino Board


Programming Goodies!

About two months ago, I was honored to get to receive a prototype of a “Love to Code” Arduino board that Jie Qi and Chibitronics are currently working on. (If you don’t know how much I love paper circuits and Chibitronics, then read this post before going any further.)

The first thing I had to try was to hack my own disco paper circuit from our Big Book of Makerspace Projects and get my disco dancing on it’s own!

Computational Tinkering

I LOVE how easy it is to map out a circuit and then clip this “Love to Code” board to the circuitry. I decided to try out an RGB LED and do a little computational tinkering to see how different sets of code would effect the blink.

It was so simple to dream up an idea and map it out with copper tape, that I began to get way too complicated in my design ideas. I had a few failures, so I started chatting with other makers about design ideas and brainstorming more ways to use this new technology. Suddenly I had it, I’d seen lots of black out poetry, but what about using lights to “light up” poetry?  I spoke with Josh Burker about tweaking this fun poetry idea and he made a super cool project with lights and poetry.

See Josh’s light up poem here.

Light Up Poetry

I’ve been dreaming up multiple ideas for what I wanted my own light up poetry to look like, and I kept coming back to one of my favorite poems by e.e. cummings: “l(a” I absolutely adore this poem and how the words themselves look like a leaf falling, so I knew I had to make this poem as if the words were animated and portrayed the loneliness of a leaf as it falls to the ground. I wanted each stanza to light up separately and give the viewer some time to think and experience the words as the falling leaf. Initially, I wanted to have the circuit on the clipboard, then have a sheet with the poem and put a semi-transparent gold paper with leaf drawings on top. I made my circuit, practiced drawing leaves, and tested out the light.  Plus, I decided to incorporate my battery holder from sewing circuit club.


When I started testing out my ideas, I found that the words would barely show through when I layered multiple papers. But I still really still only wanted leaves on the top layer and the words to not be visible until the light shined on them. I kept trying different types of paper and printing the poem darker…. it wasn’t working, but I didn’t want to give up on my idea.

I ended up making the poem into an image, flipping it and printing it so that the words were printed in reverse (or mirror image) on the back side of the paper. I mapped out a new circuit and hot-glued together a cardboard frame so the light would be able to diffuse a bit before lighting up each word on the top paper.


My reversal trick worked, but I still wanted to harness the light from those little LEDs. So I made some foil leaves to aid in reflection, poked holes for the LEDs to shine through, and covered the bottom of the foil with scotch tape to insulate my copper tape traces and prevent short circuits. (And I ended up adding more LEDs to the template above)



The pieces fit together and now the light gives off a magical glow of a hidden leaf under the drawing.
I hacked a simple fade code on my phone to light up each stanza and then light the first and last stanza together so readers would see the word “loneliness.” I’m pretty happy with the result! See below:

I have more ideas about lighting up poetry that I want to try soon, and I hope this tinkering will convince students (or teachers!) to play around with literacy in this way.

Coding and Paper Circuits

One of the things I really love about Arduino (versus something like Raspberry Pi) is the hands on aspect. But all the wires and breadboarding can be confusing when you are totally new to this type of making. I remember when I was hooking up my first Arduino project and I thought I had to match all the wires to the correct numbers on the breadboard so that it would look exactly like the diagram. I had no concept of what I was doing electronic-wise. I knew I had to hook wires from the Arduino to the bread board to the components, but I don’t think I really understood how any of it worked.
And I think that’s why I now prefer sewing circuits. Once I started sewing my circuits and programming and controlling components with e-textile boards like Lilypad, Flora, and Gemma, I actually started to understand how the wiring and coding was controlling the project. 
All of the coding and wiring made so much more sense when I had hands on experience with the components. That’s why I often suggest teaching students paper circuits before sewing circuits, and before programming with Arduino. I think these skills build on one another and students will need a solid foundation to understand how circuits work so they can pull those components off of breadboards and put them into projects.
I’m stoked about Jie’s new board because I think it will make it even easier for you or your students to understand how the microcontroller is working and I think laying out copper tape traces will make your learning visible.