Previously Published on Makered.org
April 3, 2017 by Sam Erwin
Grass Valley Elementary School in Oakland, CA seems almost sleepy in its Bay Area scenic setting. Nestled in the Oakland Hills, surrounded by redwoods and framed in quiet, smooth residential cul de sacs, your biggest impression when driving up to the school is the tranquility of the surrounding area. Upon further inspection, however, you’ll discover that the students and educators inside are all energetically, boldly participating and thriving in the school’s maker education program.
Though it is one of many Title 1 public schools in the Oakland Unified School District, Grass Valley is considerably unique. The bulk of its student population isn’t drawn from those nearby hills and cul de sacs. Instead, almost all students must commute 5+ miles a day to attend school there. The district offers a special bus system to the students—which travels far further than most school buses each day—to ensure students have a ride, but mostly it’s dedicated parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who make the trek with students in tow everyday. The school also serves an above average amount of high-need students, with more than a third of the students enrolled in special education.
Like many schools who decide to transition from traditional learning frameworks to fostering student-driven, hands-on learning with a STEAM focus, Grass Valley leadership tackled challenges and often slow-moving wheels as they moved to segue from adopting the idea and intention of making, to actual implementation and integration. In 2016, four teachers (two general education and two special education) and the school’s principal participated in piloting program components and regular in-depth discussions in order to determine what concretely needed to happen in order to make school-wide maker education successful for their students. Towards these research and piloting goals, one teacher, Ms. Paula Mitchell, stepped out of the classroom and into a new role as a Teacher on Special Assignment.
To take on a transformation this layered, at a school as unique as Grass Valley, is an exceptionally large task—even for educators who (aptly!) refer to their workplace as “The Little School That Could.” They quickly came to the realization that to shift to a STEAM-based curriculum that was both hands-on and project-based, they would need support from individuals and organizations. So, in the midst of launching their pilot program, they applied to partner with Maker Ed through the Maker VISTA program.
While there is no doubt that Grass Valley was already in the middle of shifting the school’s culture, the arrival of two Maker VISTA members on campus—Crystal Le and Maria Renteria—allowed the staff to hit the turbo button on the transformation. Crystal and Maria arrived with strong, shared commitment to service, education reform, and learning-on-the-spot. They also brought previous experience with STEM-based projects, museum education and curation, and boundless energy and spirit.
The first task that VISTA members Crystal and Maria tackled was the creation of Grass Valley’s first makerspace. The school staff had already decided on a room to transform: an extra classroom that was being used for storage, referred to plainly as Room 9. Before the arrival of the VISTA members, they didn’t have the capacity to oversee the redesign of the space. The Maker VISTAs got to work building furniture, arranging layout, and sorting, organizing, and collecting materials. After a month and a half, Room 9 was totally renovated, rejuvenated, and reinvented as “The Wonder Workshop.”
“With the help of the Maker Vista program, the dream of a fully functioning makerspace came to fruition,” explained Paula. “Because we had Maker VISTA members dedicated to developing and helping us implement best practices for makerspaces, our materials and resources are well organized and we have systems for keeping track of materials and ordering supplies. We utilize the space for staff professional development, workshops, and trainings. Teachers are able to use the space as additional project workspace and storage for in-process projects.”
The work didn’t end with setting up the space. The Maker VISTA superstars, along with Paula, launched a full, grand opening event via a Family Maker Night, providing the opportunity for students to access and explore the makerspace for the first time alongside their families. Crystal and Maria worked with local businesses to secure in-kind materials and raffle prizes, and recruited STEAM-industry professionals to run demo stations during the event. They created flyers, planned the making activities, and trained the volunteers who would help run the different maker stations.
These leaps and bounds didn’t slow Grass Valley or the Maker VISTA team down. In the following months, Paula, Crystal and Maria busily brainstormed project ideas, initiatives, and more maker nights. In a school-wide undertaking, students across grade levels built wooden garden boxes, learning about sustainability, nutrition, and ecosystems as they constructed with lumber and guidance sourced from a local woodworkers union by Crystal and Maria. This winter, the team organized a Black History Month Family Night and Heritage Potluck, in an evening of connecting community and culture to making. They planned numerous activities, and commissioned a panel to share diverse STEAM career paths, stories, struggles and successes with students and families. The event also spotlighted the school’s first ever Maker Ambassadors, students from three grade levels who dedicated themselves to a month of project work based on the inventions of historical African American Innovators.
Whether redefining spaces, planning events, creating partnerships in the community, or connecting heritage to making, the Maker VISTA members at Grass Valley have made impressive and significant impact within just one year. While the school’s ambitious making journey certainly didn’t start with the Maker VISTA program, the partnership has accelerated progress, boosted capacity, and increased valuation for making in this unique, driven, determined Little School That Could.