Sam Seidel defined a version of genius that is playing out in Cleveland at Design Lab High School as 9th grade students were confronted with 100 shipping pallets on their first day of school and were told that the entire first quarter would be devoted to taking these artifacts of our rustbelt urban environment and making useful things out of them. He called it Hip Hop Genius and defined it as follows:
Creative resourcefulness in the face of limited resources. Or as it is often said in the hip-hop community: flipping something outta nothing.
This year at Design Lab HS we have decided to take a deliberate step towards learning by making and doing instead of sitting and getting. While this idea is not new to me and my work, implementing real-world problem based learning with a team of 9th grade teachers who are each as entirely new to the school as I am, and with the new challenges of working in a large urban metropolitan district, is something that filled me with both an overwhelming excitement and a tremendous feeling of trepidation. I knew we had to find a problem for our students to work on, and I knew that we had to start the year with an early “win” to get some momentum going with the kids, the staff, the parents, and our community partners. What I hadn’t really considered until about a month before school started was that I was planning to do a making project and I didn’t have any material to work with.
Eric Juli, the principal at Design Lab High School, has been working towards this kind of design oriented learning throughout his tenure at the school, and he has thought very carefully about how to set up both the physical space and contextual framework that will allow progress toward a vision of what might be possible in an urban, tool rich, problem riddled, student-centered, and creative school. He’s built a solid network of local and national education peers, and using them as both an inspiration and a guide, he’s launched us towards some very innovative thinking amidst all of the pitfalls that you can imagine await such an endeavor in a typical large urban district. Thankfully the Cleveland Municipal School District is anything but typical, and is among the few urban districts that has a strong vision, capable leadership, and an innovative approach to leveraging new ideas, new technologies, and a tremendous connection to the people, communities, and organizations that help make our city something truly special and our students worth working for.
Through a few awesome local connections involving a reclaimed furniture maven, the founder of a local community woodworking makerspace, and their connection to the good folks at Forest City Enterprises, Eric and I wound up with an opportunity to have 100 wooden shipping pallets gifted to us if we could transfer them from the shipping dock at the Terminal Tower in downtown Cleveland to our school about 30 blocks away. We jumped at the opportunity and quickly rented a Uhaul to get these much needed materials with very little idea with what to do with them other than move them and plant them slap dab in the middle of the cafeteria floor. A few days after that we were able to receive our shipment of tools for the makerspace we were hoping to create. All we needed then was to embrace our fear, dive in, and start asking around for problems.
Right off the bat, by asking our staff and talking to our growing network of interested friends, we were able to find two problems to work on that could be solved using the limited resources we had around us. The big project involves Ingenuity Cleveland and the Ingenuity Festival. They asked if our students could help design some seating made from the pallets that could be used by the roughly 40,000 people in attendance this October 2nd-4th. I’ll get to that in subsequent posts, but we’re working on it now and it’s going to be a great step for our students and teachers. The other problem was much more local for us, and it came from Mr. Senor, our school’s Physical Education teacher.
Mr. Senor was about to start the quarter with a unit on fitness and the benefits of a good cardiovascular workout, and he told us that he’d love to have some equipment for the kids to work with. He suggested that it might be good for the kids to build aerobic steps out of a few of the pallets. With a guarantee that the students would get to use their creations in class while learning how to solve the very real problem of health and fitness in our urban neighborhoods, we asked the 9th graders and their teachers to work together in using our stack of pallets to make Mr. Senor’s vision a reality.
This is the best day of school I’ve ever had. – Sa-Quan
The students were given the challenge and spent two days understanding the problem, considering the materials, and formulating a design that would be both safe and functional when used in class. One of the most interesting things about this project was that the students were their own audience, and they didn’t want their creations to cause them any safety concerns or break and splinter in the middle of their workouts in gym class. The students worked in teams to finalize a design and we all headed into the makerspace for the first time.
What happened next is exactly what Sam Seidel is talking about regarding Hip Hop Genius. Our students, both new to the use of power tools, pry bars and cordless drills in a school setting and without the inhibition and fear that characterizes most adults in such a setting, took to the project with a zeal for learning something new and accomplishing a task that was previously unmatched in our encounters with them thus far in the school year. Leaders emerged. Tools were attempted, mastered, and put to use. Learning was everywhere. The 9th grade students and their teachers spent roughly three days turning what had once been a weathered shipping pallet into something aesthetically interesting, useful, and a vehicle for very strong growth in academics, confidence, and cooperative problem solving. By working with their hands, our students engaged their minds. And through engaging their minds, they were able to begin a redefinition of both themselves and what kind of thinking school is going to require of them for the next four years.
This is all too fresh to clearly communicate in any kind of concise and reflective summation. Any educator who has been involved in, and who has had the opportunity to witness, this level of engagement knows that the lessons to be learned for the next project are everywhere. There were just as many failures during the process of building our aerobic steps as there were successes, but the finished project speaks for itself, at least in design terms. We found a problem, we used what we had around us, and we solved it.