Maker Mentors: Cross-Grade Level Partnerships in the MakerLab

“Collaboration is increasingly mentioned as an important educational outcome and most models of 21st century education include collaboration as a key skill”. 

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning indicates that “The ability to work effectively with others has become a critically important skill for career and life success”.  The careers and lives of which the Partnership speaks are filled with people of varying ages – generations even. However, elementary school students are often confined to flexing their collaboration muscles in a classroom setting in which the age variance is within one year!  So, how do we give students access to collaborative spaces that are more comparable to those in which they will experience later in life, which require them to navigate the nuanced challenges that exist when working with individuals of different ages? At Hillcrest, our answer to that question, at least in part, is Maker Mentors.

Maker Mentors is a fancy title for our school’s intentional effort to create spaces in which students work across grade levels to make in ways that are mutually beneficial.  When a 5th grade student worked with her 2nd grade counterpart to knit a Granny Square, it was, at first glance, little more than an endearing interaction.  However, when the rest of the students from the two grades met on the floor to decide what to do with all of the squares, it looked more like a high level brainstorming session.  The fact that they decided to attach all of the squares to make a blanket for their homeless neighbors suddenly propelled a fun activity into an inspiring philanthropic project!  What happens when, after the snow has been shoveled and plowed onto the grass, the same 2nd graders finally get to play outside again on the court only to keep losing the kickball in the snow?  They bring the concern to their 5th grade friends who help them to design and make kickball retrieval devices that allow students to keep their feet out of the wet snow.  Does real-life problem solving get any more real?  Thanks, 5th grade mentors!

The 2nd grade students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the cross grade level relationships.  Intermediate teachers appreciate the degree to which their students have increased their patience levels as they work with primary-aged students.  In fact, 2nd graders were given directions to build straw rockets that were designed to FAIL when their 5th grade friends tried to launch them. The older students worked through those experiences to rule out unsuccessful designs in an effort to build a rocket that would fly victoriously through the sky.  Of course our mature and sophisticated 10 and 11 year olds also cherish the partnership with their 6 and 7 year old mentees for more practical reasons like the smaller fingers they have to offer when it comes to maker projects like building tabletop catapults out of bamboo skewers, rubber bands, and liquid medication cups. 

We know that teachers find it heartwarming to see students working together.  Similarly, as a principal, I am tremendously encouraged and hopeful about the future of teaching and learning as I watch teachers from different grade levels brainstorm innovative instructional ideas together.  When a 5th grade science teacher and a 2nd grade classroom teacher pore over CCSS resources to determine how ELA standards for both grades can be addressed effectively in the MakerLab you realize that your teachers have embraced and are modeling the very P21 skills you have asked them to nurture in their students.  Then, the MakerSpace becomes your HappyPlace.

Special thanks to teachers, Peggy Koenig and Mary Beth Capka, for contributing to this article.


About the Author
Author: Douglas
Douglas Elmendorf is the principal at Hillcrest Elementary School in Baltimore County, Maryland. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the College of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Elmendorf received his doctorate in instructional technology in 2012 from Towson University. He has been married to the love of his life since July 2002, and has four wonderful children, including a set of twins.

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