Cardboard Creators: Reusing to Learn

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Switching from high school science to middle and high school gifted students has reawakened that sometimes uncomfortable sense of discovery of new teaching, where so much seems imperfect ... I’m working with the mantra of imperfection.

That’s a good mantra for my students as well. Some students have never swung a hammer, threaded a needle, or made a model that was not outlined on card stock. Common day experiences have been digitized in our world, and access to extra materials is extremely limited for others. My solution: create a makerspace in my classroom and offer design challenges students can do with little more than string, glue, and cardboard. Cardboard, my makerspace material of choice, is available in every home in America.

From mac and cheese boxes to a shoebox, cardboard is a material that puts students on a level playing field. It’s free. Students can cut thin stuff with scissors or score corrugated material with a pair of safety scissors, and tape is cheap enough that I can send a partial roll home with a student who needs it. Kids in families who cannot afford clay or craft kits or have little money for additional classroom supplies can still imagine something using materials that belong to them. That equals the playing field among students who ‘have not’ with students who ‘have’ adequate resources.

Sure, many educators say, but this is learning time. How can cardboard be transformed into learning strategies benefiting students across disciplines? Here are four sample cardboard projects to get started.

1. Three-dimensional thinking by building artifacts. While it may seem unusual to us as educators, take the time to ask students how many have been in a barn, gone to a zoo, camped in a tent, or taken care of an animal. So many readings describe experiences for which students have no background knowledge. For example, Finding Winnie, the winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal, is filled with unfamiliar venues. It took the illustrator, Sophie Blackall, over a year of research to visit all the places referenced in the book. My youngest middle school students are trying to build a single item model for just one scene in the book, ranging from an ocean liner to a tree to an antique car.

2. Imagining a Character. Middle school students love the idea of cosplay. Designing cardboard armor to imagine a warrior or superhero in a story is a simple way to use materials to portray their vision. The prompt can be as simple as, “Design a character to defend the castle.” It’s powerful to have the ability to create even an imperfect vision, instead of a project executed primarily by an overly helpful parent. Student processes are best remembered when the mistake or chance for failure becomes the driver for the learning.

3. Design thinking prototypes. The goal of design thinking is to solve a problem using a process of listening and developing empathy. Students struggle with this because they often design for themselves, rather than for a specific audience. After reading spooky stories that tie into both the Halloween season and the idea of justice, my students still struggled with the idea of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. How America is dealing with the idea of ‘liberty and justice for all’ is an example of a difficult idea. We used design thinking as the introduction to a conversation on empathy. Before the extended conversations at the end of the unit, I wanted to know if students could listen carefully. For one assignment, I asked them to set up a display prototype that combined scary elements from the stories and a building to contain a prisoner. While the artist of the classroom created a skeleton playing a trumpet by using scissors, this student didn’t follow directions, and his client (the teacher) was unsatisfied with the result. In contrast, the winner of the challenge created two ghosts out of cardboard shoulder pads and a turret out of thin cardboard, creating a powerful classroom lesson about utility versus perfection as well as listening.

4. Modeling. How does osmosis take place? What caused the creation of the universe? These are powerful questions, deep questions, and ones for which a teacher might not have the answer; however, they are just the type of questions my gifted students might ask. I pair students with an outside mentor via Skype or Google Hangouts by using the power of social media to find willing experts. To help students process difficult ideas, the Next Generation Science Standards recommend models as tools. Students often don’t think about making their own models unless teachers expose them to the idea as a strategy. Cardboard models are one way to go deeper in visible thinking and to augment visual notetaking. As described in Harvard’s Project Zero, initiatives like Agency by Design requires students to look closely at what they are doing to help discover complex ideas. When the students push back, I remind them of James Watson and Francis Crick, and how the cardboard models they created led to an understanding of DNA.

Tips on Creating a Cardboard Makerspace

  • Collect one or two plastic tubs of materials for your classroom.
    • In the first tub, start saving oddly-formed shapes of cardboard packaging from the IT department, or even toilet paper rolls. Corrugated cardboard is especially hard for younger students to cut. Resist the temptation to put full boxes in the box, or students will simply use them without modification (something I learned in this challenge).
    • In the second tub, place tape, string, and remnants of duct tape. I simply placed a box at my local church and asked for donations of half-used tape, white glue, and crochet thread.
  • Find donated materials. Reach out to close friends on Facebook, or check with a hardware store or custodian for unwanted materials.
  • Get a grant or donation from a big box store, or organize a campaign on DonorsChoose.
  • Build rubrics so students have a framework of expectations, but be willing to revise them as needed. The first creations may not be as rich as you expect, but this provides opportunities for further learning.

Building creations and making cardboard artists will also build memories in the journey of learning. Along the way, new skills and collaboration will help us become better learners.

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