Nicholas Provenzano is makerspace director and middle school technology coordinator at University Liggett School in Grosse Point Woods, Mich. But before he transitioned to that position, Provenzano taught high school English for 15 years. It was during his years in the classroom that he developed experience helping his fellow teachers integrate technology into their lessons, and he subsequently earned a master’s degree in educational technology. He blogs about making and tech at The Nerdy Teacher and has turned his passion for these topics into two books, 2016’s Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces (Blend) and The Maker Mentality, which he self-published via CreateSpace in June. We recently asked Provenzano to share some of his thoughts on, and experiences with, the maker movement in schools.
What terminology do you use when talking about making in schools? How do you describe it to someone who might not know what you mean?
It all depends on the context of the conversation. If we are talking about the culture of making or the thought process of a maker, I use the term “the maker mentality.” This, for me, is the idea that schools can create a culture where students can demonstrate understanding through the creation of artifacts. This aspect of making is how we can have students grow their problem-solving skills and support their creative sides, as well. As for the maker movement, that is the all-encompassing term that has to do with building makerspaces, a refocusing on the value of creative problem-solving or hacking, and the drive for teachers to find alternative forms of assessment and to allow students the time and place to explore their interests in ways unrelated to the curriculum.
When asked, “What is making?” I tell parents or other teachers it is giving students the chance to explore learning in ways that are more meaningful to them. It is not designed to replace all aspects of traditional education; it is designed to be another tool to support the great things that are happening in classrooms daily.
How is making a part of your profession every day?
I’m the director of my school’s makerspace, so every day I work with students who come in and have projects for class and they want to do something more than a PowerPoint or poster board. I also work with teachers who are interested in changing the way they assess their students and would like to utilize the makerspace in these new assessments.
What does making look like in light of new technology?
I look at this push for the creation of makerspaces like Shop Class 2.0. That’s really what a makerspace is. New technology allows for faster prototyping and for the creation of ideas that would not have been possible in the past. 3-D printers, laser cutters, and computer numeric control machines [which allow computers to control machine tools] are amazing tools that open the doors of possibility and creativity for our students.
What are the most important things that teachers, librarians, and administrators should know about making?
Making is not about technology. Making can be cardboard boxes and duct tape. If there is money for more advanced tools, that is great, but it is not a requirement for making. If you really want to check out making, visit a kindergarten class. Kindergarten teachers have been doing this for decades. The question now is, “How do we continue what they do in kindergarten in meaningful ways as students progress in our educational system?”
What makes your approach to making stand out?
My background as an instructor in high school English. I started exploring making after diving into project-based learning. I am an advocate for STEAM, not just STEM. I say that STEM will make your item work, but STEAM will make it work and look good, too. My non-science/technology background opens up doors to teachers in classrooms, because I have done it and continue to do it. Sadly, there are too many people out there pitching books, seminars, and other things who have not been in the classroom for a very long time. That doesn’t totally discount what they have to say, but I have found that teachers want to hear from teachers who are doing the work, and I’m one of those people.
I also have a very relaxed tone and informal style to my writing that is very accessible to teachers looking for a quick read that will not ridicule their methods. Too much “Everything you are doing is wrong and you are ruining the lives of children because you have done it” is going on in education. I’m always upfront about the fact that I do not have all the answers, and that the answers I do have might not work for your students—but I think it is important to share because something might stick and help.
What are some of your favorite tools and approaches to making?
Sheets of scrap paper and a pencil are my go-to tools when it comes to making. This is where I start all of my projects. It helps to get all of the ideas out and go from there. My Moleskine notebook is also part of that process. I love Raspberry Pi [an inexpensive, credit card–sized Linux computer that was originally designed to teach young people to program, but has been adopted by makers]. It is a ridiculously versatile tool that can be used to make so many different types of products. I share it with everyone looking to get started with making.
Who are some of the people who are doing great things in this arena?
Collen Graves—school librarian, author, and blogger at colleengraves.org—is amazing. She is one of my favorite people and has pushed my thinking when it comes to making and what it entails in different aspects of the school. Matt Richardson is the executive director of Raspberry Pi North America and an amazing maker. He shares fun projects he is working on and all things Raspberry Pi. He works with the company’s charitable foundation to get as many teachers trained on using Raspberry Pi so they can support computer science for students across North America.
What other insights on making would you like to share?
My first book, Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces, was my way of sharing my ups and downs in creating a space having never done it before. There was so much I did not know until after purchases were made, and my understanding of what I thought we needed was very different from what my students truly needed. I wrote the book I would have needed to start a space. I write very informally and use pop culture for all of my analogies, to make the ideas in the book more accessible to the person just getting started. It is easy to get lost in too much edu-jargon. I think that is why the book has done so well over the past couple of years. At least, that is what people have told me.
My new book, The Maker Mentality, is more about the culture that needs to be in place in schools and classrooms to create a successful environment for makerspaces to thrive. The book is broken down for teachers, administrators, and students, because all three stakeholders contribute to school culture. It’s the book I wish I could have written first, because I feel you need the culture before you can implement the space. It is just another thing I learned through my growth process with making.
Another thing I want to share is that there is no wrong way to make. People spend so much time classifying and categorizing that there is a likely chance they are going to exclude something from the “making” umbrella that is unwarranted. Knitting, pottery, watercolor painting, coding, 3-D design, underwater basket weaving, and so much more are part of the maker mentality. I try to keep a broad definition of making: “Making is the creation of something that did not exist before.” It doesn’t have to work as planned, it doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to last very long, and it can be a complete and total failure. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t made.
Note: For an annotated list of more maker-themed books, click here.