“What is this?” Ava asked, pulling a fuzzy bit of string out of the tray that greeted the writers at her table.
“I’m not sure,” I replied, teasing her a bit. “What could it be?” She considered this carefully, tilting her head a bit and pushing her glasses up with one finger. A tiny smile played across her lips. “I’ll bet we get to invent things with all of this stuff,” she guessed, scampering back to her seat where her friends were waiting for me to explain.
A variety of plastic tubs were placed at the center of every group’s table. Each was filled to the brim with odd materials scavenged from my desk drawers, cupboards, and classroom recycling bins. The contents of each tub were very different, and I had no idea how students would use them. Ava’s group was already diving into their menagerie and using my prompts to consider each item: What is it? What could it be? Tinker with it.
Tinker Trays made from repurposed materials at the WNY Young Writers’ Studio
“These are tinker trays,” I told the class once everyone arrived. I slid one of the bins toward me and began rifling through it. Inside, I found a pile of paper clips, several cardboard toilet paper tubes, twenty twist ties, three straws, a sheet of bubble wrap, several bits of Styrofoam, two clean aluminum soup cans, and a recycled cereal box. I held them up for everyone to see.
“When we make or build things, we typically begin by connecting individual loose parts together. In the beginning, we aren’t sure how each part works or how it might fit with others. So, we play around a bit,” I modeled this for them, attaching two bits of Styrofoam together with a clip before pulling them apart and reconnecting them with a toothpick. “See? Tinkering is experimentation. Rather than following a set of directions to make the same thing that everyone else is making, we consider different possibilities. This helps us notice things we wouldn’t otherwise. It helps us invent new things too. All of our products will be different.”
“That sounds like fun, but what does any of that have to do with writing?” Mia asked, skeptically. More than anything else, she was eager write “right.” I chose my next words carefully.
“Remember our last writing conference, when you told me that you had so many ideas swirling around in your head that it was making you feel overwhelmed?” She nodded slowly, waiting for me continue. “Those little idea fragments are like these loose parts,” I told her, pointing toward the trays. “We can tinker with them, just like we’re going to tinker with these materials today: Bit by bit, in order to discover things we didn’t expect and produce very different things.”
Her eyes widened slightly as a ripple of understanding washed over her face, but the corners of her mouth fell quickly as she confronted her next bit of discomfort. “You’re going to teach us how to tinker with our writing ideas, right? I don’t know how.”
“Absolutely. In the beginning, our ideas are usually small, disorganized, and disconnected, just like the materials in these trays. This can feel frustrating, but once we learn how to tinker with them, we start to realize that messes like these are often filled with possibility,” I smiled, pushing one toward her before turning back to the group. “Everyone! Take some time to investigate the trays at your table. Talk with one another about the things you find inside.”
“Ours is full of things from outside,” Peter shouted, hoisting a sprig of holly into the air. “There are leaves and rocks and pinecones and even a couple of feathers.”
“Where’d you find this?” Maya asked, dangling a prickly branch between two fingers.
“That’s a bit of the rose bush that’s growing just outside the front door of our building,” I replied. “I snipped it this morning. Watch those thorns, Maya. They’re sharp.”
“My tray has some LEGOs,” Avery mentioned. “We have some binder clips too.”
“Yes,” I grinned, watching writers rummage through the materials at their tables with unbridled enthusiasm. “Each tray is full of different things that I found by cleaning out my cupboards and my basement and my garage. I found some great things on my walks around my neighborhood and at the lake last summer, too. You can find writing ideas in similar places, you know.”
“That’s really cool,” Ava marveled, her eyes fixed on the tray next to her table. “What are we doing with all of this stuff, though?”
I shifted my eyes toward her group, raising my voice just a notch for all to hear. “I’d like you to build me one part of your story using the materials in these trays. I don’t want you to build just any part of your story, though. Try to build the part that you’re struggling to develop the most. As you build, try to think through that part slowly. See it. Feel it. Most importantly, play around with it.”
Peter used blocks, cardboard tubes, and a handful of springs and clips to create a prototype of his story’s setting. Mia used her yarn and a washer to make a pendulum. As she began swinging it around her space, I watched her observe how it worked before dropping to the floor to jot a few thoughts into her writer’s notebook.
“I’m making a note to add this to my story,” she confided when I asked what she was writing. “It’ll have some kind of magic power. Maybe it can help people. I’m not sure yet.”
Anja created a costume to wear, transforming herself into her main character. As I passed her, I asked for a performance. She picked up her story and began reading a bit of her protagonist’s dialogue aloud. “That doesn’t sound right,” she quickly realized. “I need to revise that a little.”
Nolan and Brian tore long sheets of paper from the roll that hung near their desks before diving into a bin filled with scraps of paper and random sticker sheets that were laying uselessly in the bottom drawer of my desk the week before. I couldn’t imagine what to do with them, as most of them featured fish, trucks, sports equipment, dragons, and pieces of a firehouse scene. Rather than tossing them, I added them to a tray instead.
“We want to make a map of the events in our stories because we don’t know what will happen yet,” Nolan explained, fixing a sticker to his paper scroll. “We are going to draw a bit too.”
Jonathan was using tiny scraps of paper to label the different parts of his creation. “This is helping me think of more precise words to describe my setting,” he told me as I peered over his shoulder. “I’m using a thesaurus to help me. Then, I’m writing about each part one little bit at a time using better words.” This was a lesson I intended to teach later in the unit, but I was happy to see him following his intuition.
On good days, writers sink into their work quickly, and the room begins to hum with the sort of productive energy that is the hallmark of all workshops and makerspaces. Some students work out of their seats, building on the floor or sketching plans across the whiteboard at the front of our room. Others tuck themselves into quieter corners, sitting on carpet squares or laying across bean bag chairs, researching things they are eager to learn more about or scribbling happily into their notebooks. A few may stare pensively out the side window, deep in thought about their next steps. Small groups gather at the back of the room, sharing their creations, testing out their features, and getting quick feedback on their work.
Not every day is a good day though.
I never spoke about “making writing” when I began noticing the connection between these two endeavors early in my career. I didn’t reap the greatest rewards of this discovery until I left the comfortable bubble of my own classroom, either. As a professional learning service provider, I’ve spent a decade working beside teachers in very different kinds of schools as they’ve supported very different kinds of writers. Together, we’ve watched reluctant writers find their very first words inside of the things that they built. We’ve realized that the multi-sensory nature of making helps many dedicated writers conceptualize the parts of their drafts that they are struggling to compose as well. Each of these experiences confirmed the observations I made long ago in my own classroom: Making was engaging, it inspired abundant ideas, and it elevated the quality of drafts in progress, particularly when writers used maker moves for specific purposes.
Making doesn’t inspire miracles, though. In fact, the invitation to make inspires some students to evade the writing experience altogether.
This is the stone in my shoe, and I’m learning that it’s okay to walk with a bit of a limp. It inspires me to learn more and do better work. I’ll share some of what I’m discovering here this week.
How about you? Are you exploring the connections between making and writing? What do your good days look like? Which dilemmas are you hoping to resolve? I hope you’ll share your experiences in the comments section here or in the #makewriting stream on Twitter. I want to connect with you.