Incorporating the MakerSpace into Semester Exams

The Backstory:

0cf30389-d653-4296-bed9-17ec9e89305b.jpegOur Middle School Division Head has been encouraging us to rethink our assessments to ensure that they reflect our classroom activities and that they provide students different ways to illustrate their growth and understanding. Since I have been incorporating more MakerSpace projects into my curriculum (and have seen my students rise to the occasion with the writing assignments), I decided to take the plunge and rethink my semester exam.  At Oakridge, our middle school begins with grade 5, so my students took semester exams for the first time this year.  Each exam is 90 minutes long.  I decided to use a shortened version of last year’s exam for the first 45ish minutes and then give students a MakerSpace project and writing assignment to tackle during the second half.  To prepare my students for this experience, we tackled a “practice” assignment that mirrored parts of the semester exam assignment.  I have included both assignments below.  

The Assignments:

The Practice Assignment (completed in class the week before exams)

Part 1: Use the Wikki Stix* to create one of the following items:

  • A holiday decoration
  • A piece of jewelry
  • A new type of insect
  • A new baby toy

*If you’ve never heard of Wikki Stix, here is a link to what I purchased on Amazon.

Part 2: Integrate at least three of the four new supplies into your original design in a meaningful way.

Supplies: a button, a lid, a paper clip, and a wooden shape

Write about your experience:

  • What were the original ideas you brainstormed?  
  • What did you decide to make and why?  
  • How did you experiment with the wiki sticks to make this item?  
  • What changes did you make along the way during part one?  
  • How did the characteristics of the wiki sticks both help and hinder your plans and your building?
  • How did the new items in part two change your thinking?
  • How did you integrate them into your design?
  • Which items were the easiest and hardest to integrate?
  • How did you react initially to having new items to integrate?
  • Would you have rather known about the additional items from the very beginning?  Why or why not?

The Fall Semester Exam Assignment

Part 1:  Use the 20 pipe cleaners provided to create one of the following items:

  • A new piece of playground equipment
  • A new amusement park ride
  • A new interactive exhibit at a science museum
  • A new float for a holiday parade

Type a paragraph describing your creative process.  Include the following information:

  • What different ideas you brainstormed and how and why you chose the idea you used
  • How you experimented with the pipe cleaners
  • How the qualities of the pipe cleaners both helped and hindered your efforts
  • What changes you made to your design
  • What inspired your design
  • End by describing your finished product

Now, ask Mrs. Reddig for part 2 of the MakerSpace Writing Challenge.

Part 2: Your first visitor*

Your new visitor has been sent to test out your design.  He/she must interact in a meaningful way with your design.  Make the necessary changes to your original design to accommodate your visitor’s size and interests.

*The visitors were bendable holiday figures I bought off Oriental Trading.  They are seasonal, so they don’t have them for sale right now, but here are similar bendy people!

Type another paragraph (in the same Google doc) describing how the addition of your visitor changed your initial creation.  Include the following information:

  • What was your first reaction to meeting your visitor?
  • What changes did you make to your original design to accommodate your visitor?  Why did you make these changes?
  • Did the changes improve your design overall?  Why or why not?
  • Would you have gone a completely new direction originally if you had known about the visitor from the very beginning?  Why or why not?
  • How did you react to the challenge to fit your visitor into your design?  Were you frustrated and stressed or excited and interested? Explain your reaction.

Student Examples:

Practice Assignment:


When the items were first starting to be listed, I thought about doing a holiday light. But when I heard the insect option, I decided to do that because I could be very creative with it, and I thought it would be fun to make an insect. I twisted wiki sticks together then made one twist into a circle for the body, and rolled the other into a ball for the head. I cut two sticks into thirds for legs and a tiny twist was for the tail. Two ends of wiki sticks that stuck out of the head were used for antennae. On both the head and the body, I went back and added a stick to the twist. It was very helpful that the wiki sticks were in most places, but in the legs, the fact that the sticks were bendy made them a bit unstable. The new items were a little challenging to use, but I decided not to change the design, and instead think creatively to integrate the things into the current design. I used the bottle cap to make the body 3D, the button with four holes to give the bug a four eyed appearance, and the paperclip for a new tail, using the old tail to lengthen the antennae. The bottle cap and the paper clip were the easiest to use, but the button was harder. I initially wondered how I was going to use the items and what three I would use, but when I thought a bit, I figured it out. I’m glad I didn’t know about the items in advance. It was a fun surprise.

Semester Exam:

c9fe0142-0c09-476c-a2ee-aeb9a230d739.jpegPart 1: Have you ever used pipe cleaners? Well I did, I used them on my exam. I brainstormed ideas like a trampoline but I decided on a little swing that has four teams green, black, purple, and yellow. I experimented by bending the pipe cleaners until I got it the desired shape. The pipe cleaners were helpful because they can bend any way I needed them to go, they didn’t hinder me at all. In the end I changed the base so it would be more sturdy. My design was inspired by the playgrounds in photos and I combined multiple parts of equipment to get the cylinder cyclone. The cylinder cyclone has a white swing, a blue base, and four teams green, black, purple, and yellow. Let’s make my creation come true.

    Part 2: My initial reaction was like oh no but then I made it work. Everything worked out for me because I didn’t have to make any changes to my creation. If I knew about the visitor before hand I would have made the swing a little bit bigger so he would fit a little better. When I had to incorporate him into my creation I was not worried at all.  I knew exactly what to do. Now that my creation has come true let’s try to make yours!

The Debrief:

ED3B8A67-29A0-4FCE-A621-D0569B20EC50I’m really glad I decided to make time for the practice assignment the week before exams because it calmed some of my anxious students and it gave everyone a chance to get used to handling the “twist.”  My students also loved the novelty of using the Wikki Stix.  I was able to provide feedback about the writing section and emphasize the need to include all of the required information.  This feedback clarified my expectations and served as the “review” for this part of the exam.

As expected, my students finished the traditional part of my exam at different times, so I enlisted the help of our MakerSpace teacher so that students could work on the second part in her space without distracting the other students.  When they arrived to the MakerSpace, they received the instruction sheet and 20 pipe cleaners.  They really liked the choices, andbb3f3502-8abc-437f-af02-fbad34c43847.jpeg bendy holiday visitors were a hit.  I decided that I would give each student a variety of pipe cleaner colors and that they could not exchange them for other colors.  I also decided ahead of time that I would not rush the creative process and if some students didn’t get to the writing portion of the assignment, I would not take points off.  My emphasis on MakerSpace projects has shifted my perspective on grading, but that is a separate blog post!  Essentially, the MakerSpace part of the exam was very loosely graded and I only took off points if a student finished one of the writing sections and did not include all of the required information. My Division Head stopped by at the end of the exam to see their creations and one student told him this was the most fun she F264D853-73EA-4260-841A-B5D8F1BDB381had ever had during an exam!  I had paper lunch bags for my students to take their creations (and holiday visitors) home in and I encouraged my students to share their work with their parents.

I’ll definitely include a MakerSpace section on future exams.  I don’t think my 5th graders would have benefitted from a longer traditional exam and the MakerSpace project was a great use of our “extra” time.  It also supported my desire to push my students to be creative and to reflect on their work in writing.


Tap Into Your Creativity


The Backstory:

Early in the year, I wanted to create a quick activity that exposed students to the common supplies we would be using in the MakerSpace and that challenged them to create something with very little guidance and in a short amount of time.  Knowing that this challenge had the potential to frustrate some students, I did not make it a required option and I included homemade playdough to add to the allure!  I had purchased some big foam dice with room to write on the sides from Dollar Tree over the summer, so I also incorporated them into the activity as a way to make “choosing” your supplies fun and also random.

On the sides of the dice, I wrote the following supplies: pipe cleaner, index card, paper clip, popsicle stick, straw, and clothes pin.  Then, students rolled the dice four times to determine their supplies.  They also received a small amount of playdough (a bit larger than a golf ball.)  Their challenge was to take their supplies and make something creative!

The Writing Assignment:

Creative is defined as involving the imagination to create new ideas; moving beyond traditional ideas, rules, patterns to create meaningful new ideas.  Use the item you created in the MakerSpace to explain how you are creative.  What were you thinking when you created this item?  How did the items work together?  How did your vision change and take shape?  What changes did you make?  How would you describe your creation?

Student Example:


In the Makerspace, I did the creativity challenge. I got two popsicle sticks, one notecard, one pipe cleaner, and a piece of play-dough. I was pondering the possible things I could make when it hit me, I could create a moose. I realize that I could use the popsicle sticks and part of the pipe cleaner for antlers, and the note card for the eyes, nose, and mouth. I also used the rest of the pipe cleaner for the black part of the eyes. At first, I didn’t know what I would use for the mouth, nose, and eyes, but after thinking about it, I figured it out. I was originally going to use some of the leftover notecard as a base, but decided against it because it made it harder to move ( the base was not affixed ) and wasn’t essential to the piece. I would describe my creation as a unique, creatively made work of art.

The Debrief:

My focus for the writing assignment was to challenge my students to think about the emersoncreative.jpgdefinition of creativity and how it applies to their work.  I feel strongly that creativity is not something we are born with but something that we discover and that can be sparked, nurtured and encouraged, especially in the MakerSpace.  I intentionally crafted the writing prompt based on the assumption that everyone was creative!  I also included questions designed to make them think about the process of creating and how our creations often change during this process.

avanicreative.jpgMany of my students chose this option!  One students told me, “I like the creativity challenge because it was fun and felt like it wasn’t school work.”  Another student said his favorite part of the project was rolling the dice to decide his supplies and two students noted that the play dough was their favorite part!  One student said the most challenging part was not having an adhesive material and wished I had provided glue.  I intentionally did not provide tape or glue because I wanted them to explore the “connectivity” features of pipe cleaners and paper clips and I thought that the play dough also could be used a connector.  Next time, I could make one dice all connectors (for example: pipe cleaners, string, paper clip, mailing label, rubber band) avacreativeand the other one with other supplies. I could let them roll the connector dice once (or twice) and the other dice 3 or 4 times.    This tweak would make sure everyone had a connector and set us up for discussing the pros and cons of different connectors.  I’ll definitely keep the play dough but maybe give them a larger piece.

Brainstorming with Magazine Article Titles

529E6D78-FABB-43E7-AAC1-286EB3C3F1EDThe Backstory:

When I started teaching the 5th-grade Fundamental Writing class five years ago, I noticed that 5th graders often struggle with the brainstorming step in writing.  Even when I created graphic organizers or encourage my students to spend time brainstorming using another strategy, they often experienced writer’s block at this step and it really created a negative start to the entire writing process.  I knew if they struggled with brainstorming while writing, they also would struggle when faced with a MakerSpace challenge, especially when asked to use materials they had not encountered before!  I decided to focus on improving how my students approached brainstorming with a warm-up activity for my Fundamental Writing class.  I decided not to attach this activity to a specific writing assignment but instead to make it fun and unpredictable so students would come to class wondering what the warm-up would be for that day.  The goal of the activity was to create a safe space for my students to be creative (and silly) and to highlight different strategies to use when brainstorming so they could use these strategies for both writing and making.

The Assignment:EB9228EC-7D2D-48CD-BE0F-A75EC47E7B69

For the first semester of this year, my students arrived to my class and saw a title of a magazine article on my board.  As they came in and got settled, they silently brainstormed ideas for what this article might be about.   The goal was to think outside the box and to train our brains to use personal experiences, the ideas of others, and connections to the words in the title as sparks to improve our creativity.   Once class started, we went around the room and everyone shared their ideas.  I also challenged them to briefly explain the connection between their ideas and the title so we could practice making our thinking visible.  If someone else gave your idea, you had to find a way to put a new spin on the idea or think of a new idea to share.  As they shared, I pointed out the strategies they were using and praised their thinking, so we started class on a positive note and everyone got a turn to speak.  After everyone had shared their idea, I showed them the actual article.  The students were trying to guess the actual topic, but I was quick to praise their creativity.

The Debrief:
D0334696-7DEB-472C-9D77-340C67DA7F95I saw a noticeable improvement in the first few weeks of our brainstorming.  Early on, some students didn’t participate, possibly because they couldn’t come up with an original idea or they were shy.  I never pushed, but I did try to provide some strategy suggestions.  For example, I would encourage them to use personal experience, books and movies, and different meanings of the words in the titles as inspiration.  I also made a point of talking about creativity as a skill that can be nurtured and developed rather than something that we are born with (or without!)  The most frustrating part for some students was the rule that you could only share one idea!  That rule kept the brainstorming from overtaking the entire class.  By the end of the semester, almost every student added an idea to our daily brainstorming.  On a practical note, I am constantly looking for magazine articles with a creative title that can be interpreted in multiple ways, and I store them in a binder.  The students like knowing that there is an actual article attached to the title we are using!  

I’ve branched out this semester to include photos from magazines as another type of brainstorming.  I project a photo on the board and then ask the students, “What’s the story?”  I am quick to point out when students use details from the photo to support their educated guess.  Some students embrace this activity as a chance to showcase their creativity and weave a complex story (with little connection to the photo) and I praise their creativity as well (while also keeping the stories brief!)  I’ve also brought in a recycled item (a tissue box, a toilet paper roll, a water bottle top, etc.) and asked them to brainstorm new uses for these items.  This activity highlights the link between our brainstorming activities and our MakerSpace projects.

An example from early in the semester when I wrote down their ideas

The Student Perspective:

My students love this activity and recently asked if we could spend an entire day brainstorming!  One student said that her favorite part of these brainstorming sessions is that “you get to finally have fun learning.”  Another student said that “It’s fun and makes your creative juices flow.”  One student said that the most challenging part of our sessions is that “sometimes people would take my idea so I had to dig deeper.”  Other students said that this activity “helps my brain think harder than it did before” and it helps you “train your brain to think outside the box.”  Several students said the best part of this activity is getting to hear others’ ideas and one student commented that “there is no wrong answer so you can never end the possibilities.”  I love that their reflection indicates that they have embraced the heart of this activity and realize that they are growing as creative thinkers.  We have created an atmosphere of healthy and supportive competition where students want to impress each other with their creative ideas which motivates them to push past their initial ideas.

Another example of student ideas from early in the semester


Pretend You Are an Alien and…


The Backstory:

I wanted to create a MakerSpace activity that challenged my students to view common objects (especially ones we often use for maker projects and recycled items) in a new way.  Full disclosure: I adapted this idea from a Destination Imagination Instant Challenge. (DI team manager is another one of my roles.)  For more information on Destination Imagination (an awesome program that encourages the Maker mindset), go here:

For assignments that include a writing component, I try to provide an example because I want to model the length and level of detail I expect.  My writing assignments always request specific pieces of information I want my students to include, usually a mixture of description, explanation, and reflection. I also am a big believer in “test driving” my assignments to double check my expectations and to show my students that I am making and writing alongside them.  

The Assignment:

Today, you are an alien from outer space and you have landed on earth for the first time!  You have no knowledge or experience of earthly things, so you are confused when you find items that humans use daily!  Your challenge is to think like an alien and brainstorm the most creative use for the items provided.  Start by describing what the item looks like and its parts and features.  Then, provide educated guesses about its use and support your answers with explanations and examples.

Example: (Based on a clothespin) This item is made of wood and has a hinge.  It is smaller than my hand.  It also opens but won’t stay open by itself.  This odd object makes a sound when you open and close it.  I think humans use this item to communicate with one another when they need to be quiet.  It is small enough to carry around with you.  They probably have a system of sounds you can make with each sound having a different meaning.  For example, one sound might be a warning.  Two quick sounds might mean to hide.  Three quick sounds might be to look behind you.

Directions:  Choose an item, provide the number, and then write your educated guess using complete sentences.  Make sure you use my example to guide you so you don’t miss any details. Once you are finished, move onto the next item.  You do NOT need to go in order!

My items included: a pipe cleaner, an SOS pad, a fidget spinner, plastic lids, a napkin ring, part of a plastic popsicle mold, a piece of a comb, earplugs, deflated balloon, empty toilet paper roll, and random recycled items.  I put each item in a  Ziploc and numbered it.  Students were not allowed to open the bags!  I also provided this packet for students to write down their descriptions.

Student Example:

A rubber lid opener (it stumped everyone!)
Student description

The Debrief:

5D1BE4E1-44D6-45C2-A019-07343FEAC4FBAs expected, the initial reaction was positive but some students struggled to move beyond the “correct” use for the items.  Some of them slightly changed the use but stayed in the same general vicinity.  For example, they would say the comb was a hair accessory or they would say a plastic lid could be a tiny plate.  One student said the hardest part was knowing what the item was but trying to “forget” that information when brainstorming a new explanation.  On the other end of the spectrum, some students really embraced the creative potential of this assignment and wrote their description from the viewpoint of the alien, even making up their own vocabulary words!  I’ve included a few photos of example descriptions below.  One student’s advice to future students was to “take your time when choosing an object.”  Another suggested to try and “let your imagination flow.”  My students love to share their work, so I let each student choose one description to share the next day in class.  Next year, I’m going to ask my students to read their descriptions and let the rest of the class guess the item they were describing.

Kindness Rocks


The Backstory:

I saw a story about kindness rocks over the summer and had to find a way to include them in my class.  For more information about kindness rocks, here is the site:  I started the year with several small MakerSpace projects designed to give my students an introduction to the MakerSpace, to gauge their comfort level with these types of projects, to help me get to know them, and to give them some choice when it comes to what they make.  Decorating kindness rocks was one of these projects.  I gathered a collection of rocks from my backyard flower beds that were mostly flat and about 2-3 inches wide.  I then painted these rocks silver, gold, purple, green, and blue.  I used an assortment of acrylic and enamel craft paint I had at my house.  I did experiment with different paints to see which ones worked the best.  My favorite was metallic paint.  I ended up doing two coats.  In hindsight, spray paint may have been easier!  My students used sharpies to decorate their rocks.  After they finished their rock and the writing assignment, I encouraged them to take the rocks home and place them someplace in the community for someone else to find.oliviarock.jpg  

The Assignment:

Describe what your rock looks like and why you chose to decorate your rock in this way.  How will your rock inspire others and bring a smile to their face?  Then, choose a place in our community you want to leave your rock.  Choose a public place where others are likely to see your rock.  Tell us about this place and why you chose it.

The Debrief:

addisonrock.jpgI intentionally kept this writing assignment brief and pretty straightforward in the information I requested.  I did include a “how” and a “why” question to see how my students did with this small bit of reflection.  Most rose to the occasion and impressed me!  Some provided detailed descriptions while others gave me a detail or two.  My students were so excited to make kindness rocks and I think this project helped us start the year on a positive note and begin to create a culture of kindness in our classroom.  One student said, “I really loved knowing that we get to help people and make their day better.”  Several students commented on how ushbarock.jpgmuch they enjoyed the freedom to decorate their rocks, and one student said she enjoyed looking at the examples but challenged herself to make her rock unique.  Next year, I’d like to find a place (either on campus or in the community) to put our kindness rocks.  I’d really like to partner with one of our lower school classes and make kindness rocks with them!

Building a Mascot Out of Legos


The Backstory:

I know many middle school boys love Legos and building in general, so I jumped at the chance to buy a set of 1,000 “Building Bricks” (off brand Legos) from Amazon during one of their lightning deals.  This challenge was another one I used early in the year to introduce my students to MakerSpace projects and learn more about them.  At our school, 5th grade is the year students enter the middle school, so they are faced with many new experiences.    The challenge was to use Legos to create a mascot that represented our Fundamental Writing class or 5th grade in general.  I intentionally did not ask them to create a mascot for our school since we already have one!  We did briefly discuss what a mascot was and how it could represent a group.

The Assignment:

Type a paragraph describing the mascot you created and explain why you chose this mascot for our class and how it represents our class.

Student Examples:


The class mascot that I created was a creature with a wolf head, bird wings, fire breath, and kraken tentacles. This creature represents all of the houses coming together as one. We do not have classes with only our house, we have classes with everybody. Although we have house competitions, we still hang out with our friends from other houses. I could not think of anything else to create, but the first that came to my mind was a creature containing the best features of all of the house animals. I am very proud of my dire wolf / thunder bird / kraken /


My mascot is a question block because we all ponder in fundamental writing and in our lives. I chose this mascot because like in the game Super Mario Bros, a question block is a block that can be filled with ideas, hints, tips, and “power-ups”. My question block is made of legos and is inspired by the block in Super Mario Bros. In fundamental writing it represents us because we always ponder to find answers and to find the topic. We ponder about life and learn everyday from the questions and answers you make. It represents us because without it we would be confused and unable to operate on our own. We never know what will come out of a question block , just like our brain! Finally, the last reason that this represents us is that our pondering can lead to good effects, just like power-ups, and with power-ups this can help us in life and our writing.

The Debrief:

cadenlego.jpgInterestingly, not many students chose to create a mascot.  I’m not sure if it is because deciding on a mascot took some extra effort or if they were attracted to other challenges.  The ones that did tackle this challenge really impressed me with their creativity.  In their feedback, the overwhelming reason that they liked this challenge is that “we got to use Legos!”  As expected, the allure of Legos was enough to attract some students.  Even though we could have completed the same challenge using other objects, I think having the Legos was worth the effort.  One student’s suggestion for how to improve this project was to give them more time to build.  Another student wanted a more open-ended challenge.  

One student created his version of the chaos in the halls and called it “The Black Hole!”  We use the house system in our middle school where each student is in one of the four houses named after mythical creatures (Kraken, Thunderbird, dire wolf, and dragon.) One student created a combination of these four creatures for her mascot.  Another student created a model of our Middle School Head, Mr. Robinson, and someone else created a question mark to reflect all of the questions he still had about middle school.