Resource- Crowdsourcing Invention Literacy at #SXSWedu

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It’s time for the final reflection post from SXSWedu! Here is a link to the first post on sharing mistakes and failing forward, and the second post on the importance of exploring materials. 

Invention Literacy Core Convo

Invention Literacy

If you have never been to a core conversation at SXSWedu, it’s a unique experience in a conference setting where educators sit Socratic seminar style and the presenters ask the audience questions. In this post, I’m including our questions and the audience responses. In the instance where I could decipher who said the quote in the recording, I put the name of the audience member. See full set of questions with embedded resources here. (Since the presentation is made in Adobe Spark, it is best viewed on a computer.)

Ques and Ideas from the Invention Literacy Core Convo

Defining Invention Literacy – How would you define it?

  • “Helping students understand how to create things or bring things into being.” Sam Patterson
  • “The ability to look at existing objects and realize they are brought into being too.”
  • “You have a set of skills that allow you to think about problems differently.”
  • “Tools- That enable students to approach something and being able to create.”
  • “Ideas can be thought of as tools. When should we think about ideas as tools vs truth? ” – Jay Silver

Why is Invention Literacy Important?

  • “What idea can I put out into the world as a stepping stone that is graspable? So that we will have a fabric of independent thinkers that form their own world view? So they can think of beautiful things or work together as humanity?” – Jay Silver
  • “Because it’s fun and it’s engaging.”
  • “To create independence. To create the ability for them (our students) to not rely on just one thing.”
  • “Great chance for learning how to fail and stick-to -it-ive ness” – Leah Mann
  • “To introduce them to uncertainty. And teach students that they can figure out how to do things. You can just think about what’s in front of you and come up with a solution.” – Sam Patterson
  • “How do we keep our students from losing their sense of wonder as they grow older?”- Me
  • “Kids are naturally inquisitive and we need to harness that. Allowing them to make and create, gives them the forum to answer their own questions and not rely on other people. ” – 1st grade teacher
  • “Kids can ask their own questions and find their own answers.” – 1st grade teacher (Develop agency in our students at a YOUNG AGE!)
  • “It’s empowering!”

What is the most important thing on your mind right now about education?

At one point, Jay asked everyone in the room to voice “The most important thing on your mind right now about education?” Then he scanned the room and gave every audience member a chance to voice their thoughts.

  • Critical Thinking*
  • Agency*
  • Empathy*
  • Fostering Creativity*
  • Self Directed Learning*
  • Problem-Solving
  • Following own Interests
  • Joy
  • Relationships
  • Challenging
  • Ownership
  • Empowerment
  • Learning Through Failure
  • Student Voice
  • Equity

*Top Five Most Mentioned

You can’t hear this in the sound recording, but you can watch this vocal chorus about 12:00 in on the video below:

How/ When Should We Introduce this Concept of Invention Literacy?

  • “In some schools, the staff want it to be after school, but how is this equitable for all students?” – Steven Muniz
  • “It should be offered during different times during the school day and embedded in the curriculum because the “one size fits all” method doesn’t work for our students”- Leah Mann
  • “It has to be intentional, but teachers feel like they have to have ‘something come out.’ Instead, teachers have to re-think what they do and that might make some of our teachers uncomfortable. Even so, it should be seen as interwoven into our curriculum. (Other things do not have to go.)”
  • “It is critical that we see it as a key component of the curriculum, but if we only do it after school or as a special, then our kids see it as a nice thing, but not an essential thing. We have to make time for it and our kids need to see it as intentional and part of the critical work that we do. It’s not at the expense of the other things we do, this ties into everything and it’s the connecting piece.”
  • “We put a lot of energy into creating fake problems. Why not use real problems?”

“How Do We Build Fluency for Invention Literacy?”

Invention Literacy Core Convo (8)

  • “Just because you’re learning to write, doesn’t mean you are going to be a writer. You don’t have to be an inventor, but do we need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct our world?” – Jay Silver
  • “Is literacy actually finding out about what we don’t know?” – Jeff Branson
  • “Is there an invention literature? Can we read it? Can we discuss it? Can we view it? Enjoy it? Can we modify it? Will a culture grow up around inventiveness and the human made world and the definition of what is possible? In that culture, is it cool/ playable to invent?” – Jay Silver (listen to this on the recording about 30 min in.)

What/ Where is Invention Land? What is a feature of Invention Land?

Jay’s question here references Papert’s address to Congress where he ask Congress, “If you have 90% of people coming out of French classes, not really speaking French, do you say, ‘Maybe those people don’t have a mind for French? It’s not our fault.’ But then if you take those kids and you grow them up in France, they’ll all be able to speak French. So in a math class if only 10% of them feel like they are a math person, or is there a place? Like math land? Where we can grow them up to be mathematicians?”

Invention Literacy Core Convo (2)

  • “You’d have to have the mindsets and tools be just as important as the tools for reading, math, etc.”
  • “If we grow these habits of mind when they are young, kids can carry them on to middle school and high school.”
  • “There would need to be a need for it. You learn French in France because you need it to survive. Right now, they need English just to pass a course. There needs to be an authentic need for invention for it to catch on.”
  • “Invention land means there is a time built in, and there is support from admin and leadership where teachers can be inventors too and they get a chance to explore, play, and learn. Because they need to be comfortable with setting up the environment where students can flourish.” -Leah Mann
  • “There is a culture that needs to be passed on. I run workshops the same for teachers as I do for students. They need to experience the fun.” – Jay Silver
  • “In Inventionland students will all say ‘Yes and’ instead of the word ‘but’ so it will allow for the continuation of an idea rather than the stopping of an idea.”
  • “Teachers need to be allowed to play and learn and do these things in Invention Land so they will be inspired to allow students to do these things as well. Teachers have to be learners first.”
  • “The stuff our kids make, does not have to be stuff that they sell. Every kid does not have to grow up to be an inventor, but they can still learn the literacy of invention.” – Me
  • “You need the environment where it is safe to fail even at the upper admin level.”
  • “You have a conversation with materials, and the people around you.” – Jay Silver
  • “There is no magic path to invention. Just like there isn’t a magic path to writing.” – Me

If you’d like, you can actually listen to the whole core convo below: (However, since some participants did not use the microphone, you will not be able to hear them responding and will have a few minutes silence dispersed throughout the recording.)

Slides and Resources from our talk are available here.

The World Needs More Inventors

Another great session that discusses the importance of invention literacy and creative constraints was The World Needs More Inventors, Starting with Kids (Unfortunately I missed the session in person, but thanks to SXSWedu and Soundcloud, I was able to listen to it later. And you can too below!)

Let Kids Learn the Way They Want to Learn – No Judgment

One of the most astounding a-ha moments I had listening to this session was when Emily Pilloton asked, What is the balance between constraints and freedom? Are you giving them a kit, or are you saying go invent something?” (This conversation starts about 35 min in on the recording.)

Danielle Applestone responded: “It depends on if there is judgement involved. Are we judging kids who want to do kits? Or people who need a little more guide rails? Are we measuring results? I oppose judgment. It’s fine for people to say, I’d like to work on this thing, can you help me? Do we give people constraints or total freedom? Sometimes people need constraints because the world is infinite and I can’t picture all the possibilities. So some constraints are good to get started, but if someone is rolling? Just let them roll. The more you can stand back and say, ‘They’ll come to me if they need something.’ That’s more important than following LEGO instructions (but that is also a satisfying exploration in its own way.)”

Liam Nilson: “It’s like the infinite library paradox. If there is an infinite amount of different books to read, how would you decide what to read? Unless you are super invention literate to start with, it’s hard to look at your whole makerspace supply shelf and know where to start. Especially if there is some hidden judgment there….. Sometimes constraints can be interesting too. If you are doing something with a group, and say you want them to make houses of cardboard and you can’t use tape or glue. Then kids will work together to find interesting solutions to get around those constraints. Conversely, if they are going to get an F if they help their friend, then you won’t see them exchange those kinds of ideas.”

Emily Pilloton: “I appreciate when things feel so constrained, you have to wriggle your way out….I give my students this specific set of guidelines, so that inevitably they find ways to try and break those rules…I want to set up conditions where they (my students) are negotiating what rules are breakable and what rules aren’t…. Constraints can actually open the door to immense freedom.” (You should listen to this full anecdote about 40 min in.)

Personally, I appreciate this open and honest conversation about a grey area of making. And I think one of the most important points in this conversation is that we as positive educators should not be passing judgement on others. If a student wants to follow LEGO instructions, let them. If they want to explore materials and never make a final product, let them. To refer back to my last reflection, as Patrick Benfield says, “All making is valid.” That’s why it is important we continue to have these conversations with other educators.

Here are some of my other favorite quotes from this session!

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Messy Makerspace- Cleaning up the Project “In Progress” Shelf

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Early in February, I decided it was time to tackle the messiest area of our makerspace. Nope, it’s not our maker supply storage, thanks to Leslie Terronez, we cleaned that up last year. It’s not our littleBits cabinet (although, yes, it needs frequent re-organization.) It’s a little old area, I’ve been tinkering with since 2015…..

…..the maker “In-progress”project shelf.

The First Attempt at a Project Shelf

The concept behind this space is having a dedicated place for where students to keep projects they are working on, so that they can work on them over extended periods of time. This idea became a necessity back in 2015 when I was hosting an extended design challenge in my middle school makerspace at Lamar Library. The MakeyMakeyChallenge was one of the longest running project adventures my students embarked upon, but I quickly found they needed a place to store their inventions. So at the time, I just took a flexible shelf (I think it was hosting bricolage for making), cleaned it off, made a simple sign and told students to keep their work here.

As you can see, it’s quite messy, but it was frequently in use! I continued this method at Lamar because it seemed to be working. However, students would never grab a “project sheet” and put their name on their work. (Go figure!) Plus, when the middle schoolers were at the heart of their KNEX giraffe “alpaca”-lypse making, other students were starting to mess with their work.

Second Attempt at an In Progress Shelf

At Ryan, I kept an empty shelf right by our tinkering tables that also functioned as an project “in progress” shelf. I had better success when I dedicated one shelf to my sewing circuit club, but I was still having issues with this area of making.

In fact, the area was so messy because students still weren’t labeling items. But often times, projects and supplies would sit… and sit…. and sit…. on the “in progress” shelf. At one point, I realized something….

Not all projects are meant to be finished!

How many times have I started and not finished a project? Probably HUNDREDS of times! So, not only were my students not leaving their names on their work, they also weren’t coming back to disassemble any unfinished projects. Plus, the students that were utilizing the space correctly noticed that other students would take pieces from their projects. The “in progress” shelf was “too accessible” since some student work was not safe from prying hands.

I apologize for not having any pictures of the extremely messy area for comparison, but it wasn’t until I cleaned the whole area up that I realized how beneficial it would be to see the area before!

Third Attempt at an “In Progress” Shelf

To combat messy shelves, lingering projects, missing names, and student interference with projects that were not their own, here is what I did. I bought containers, created signage, and created “expiration dates,” and a “re-purpose it bin.”

I went to the Dollar Tree to buy a plethora of storage containers. I wanted small containers for paper and sewing circuits, larger tubs for oversized work, and medium size containers for flexible work.

Since I’d recently moved all my makerspace storage items to a “classroom” area of the library, my previous shelving by the circulation desk was open for new business! This means we could do a better job keeping “in progress” projects safe! I also decided (again with the help of Leslie Terronez) that the BIGGEST problem in this area were that projects would turn “stale.” So I created an “expiration date” label to put on every bin.

Expiration Dates

Projects are labeled with a two week “expiration date” and can be “renewed” if a student needs more time to work. But this way, if a student starts a project, and doesn’t work on it again for two weeks, I won’t feel bad taking it apart and putting it away!

These red tubs are great for classroom projects (like our stop motion book trailers) and design challenge activities!


My student aides designed a “how-to” poster for the area, that I hung up next to my Canva made “Projects in Progress” sign. My favorite part is the declaration “We keep it safe!” They also made some “Project in Progress” slips for students to put their name and date on before tucking their bucket onto the shelf. The slips combined with a specific bucket, seem to be helping some students with remembering to put a name on their work!

Repurpose it Bin!

Lastly, we have two large bins at the bottom of this shelf labeled “Repurpose it!” Once student projects go “stale” or sit too long “in progress,” then my aides will move the items into the repurpose it bin (or back to maker storage if it isn’t a consumable item.)

Successes and New Problems

It will take awhile to teach students how to use the area properly since I’ve done this mid-year, but all in all, the area has stayed clean! Also, while we were knee deep in greenscreen and stop motion book trailers, the tubs just made sense to most students. They felt safe leaving their work, remembered to label their names, and came back the next day to finish working. Plus, the small tubs for paper circuits were considerably helpful when students were making “electric love letters” for Valentine’s day.

So, now I’m at point where I have to actually upcycle/recycle the stale student projects. It’s still difficult (for me personally), but will be easier with a clear date that shows me the student hasn’t been back in awhile.

And a new problem I’m experiencing is a student that is hoarding supplies. One of my frequent makers sees the “in progress” shelf as a great new way to hoard littleBits. He is working on a specific project, but happens to be utilizing almost every LED bit! His project is complicated, so I understand the need to save Bits so he can work from day to day, but I’m unsure how to get him to be respectful of others wanting to tinker with littleBits when he isn’t working on his project.

So how do you keep track of student maker projects in progress? Do you have a dedicated space? What works? Better yet, what doesn’t work? Share your successes and failures so the whole maker community can benefit!