Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Pencils to 3D-Printers: A New Kind of Language Arts Class

By on February 7, 2016


“The printers have been ordered.  Fingers crossed.  Here we go…..”

This was the email I received two weeks ago from my principal who is working with me to develop a whole new kind of Language Arts class.  The plan is to leverage 3D printing into a reading and writing class, hopefully making abstract concepts more concrete for some of our more disengaged students.

Many middle and high-schools are struggling to address the needs of their long-term English Language Learners.  These students have lived in the United States for at least 6 years, some their whole lives, but continue to be challenged by basic literacy, oral communication, and writing skills. They often go unnoticed, and many times are written off as failures.  They get shoved in drill-and-kill classes of the dullest curriculum, never gaining access to the more rigorous or more engaging lessons that many times seem to be a privilege of only the academically accomplished.

So how do we get these students, many of whom drop out of school at an alarming rate, engaged again in learning?  How do we get them to WANT to put in the sweat equity it would take to get those academic neurons firing again?

I think we have a shot at it if we look at how to teach them in a very different way.  What we’ve been doing in the past doesn’t work, so I’m looking towards technology for help.  I think 3D Printing might be our key.  It’s not the only component, but I’m thinking it might be the hook and the glue.

So an idea began to percolate, and it wouldn’t go away.  It kept me up at night.  And in the end, I’ve developed this new kind of ELA class called Make Writing, a title inspired by a book of the same name in the Hack Learning series, a book that presents writing as a tinkering process.

Of course, this kind of technology is not in my wheelhouse.  I’ve been a reading and writing teacher for 15 years now.  I’m a fellow of the National Writing Project, and I’ve taught reading and writing from 3rd grade to 12th grade.  But as my passion for cross-curricular lesson design began to grow, so too did my interest in STEM.  I wrote a book about writing across the content areas and started focusing more of my class time on Project Based Learning as a vehicle for my reading and writing curriculum.

With my interest in STEM, I realized that our segregated silos of learning did a disservice to our learners.  Those who liked reading and writing could succeed in ELA class because it was literature that was, for the most part, what teachers were asking students to write about.  But what if, I began asking myself, we used other triggers for writing?  What if we used this new technology to inspire making both items and words?

And so begins my journey to merge the teaching of reading and writing with 3D Printing.


So, here’s where we are with the development of this class:

1.I did my research in printers and how to print.  For me, this is both amazingly fun and amazingly agonizing.  I love learning something new, but I have zippo interest in hardware.  Nevertheless, I keep reminding myself, I am teaching kids who probably have zippo interest in Shakespeare, so it’s only fair that I go through the process of being a student myself.

We received five Ultimaker 2s and five 3D printing pens.

We received five Ultimaker 2s and five 3D printing pens.

2. I’m redesigning my space…again. The printers arrived!  Yesterday, a whole palette of boxes arrived that somehow I needed to make room for immediately.  So I began a purge of books from my classroom library, those dusty ones that haven’t seen action in over 5 years.  I’m also busting open moving boxes that have been full of out-of-date student exemplars from lessons I no longer even conduct.

2. My principal and our counselors have gotten a list together of the students who meet the criteria of long-term English Language Learner.  These students and their parents or guardians will get a letter in their home language asking them to attend a meeting.  There, the Make Writing class will be described to them in full so they can voluntarily opt-in to participating.  Ideally, we are asking that the kids be able to meet periodically over the summer.  This is for two reasons:

  • I pitched the fact that I always work with my Honors students over the summer and that this gives them an advantage.  Because we know who will be filling the honors classes before we leave for break, teachers can reach out and begin building relationships via email or send out summer assignments if they want.  Mainstream students, however, are placed in classes later in the summer, and thus, don’t have access to teachers until the fall. In a sense, the honors kids get more time to learn expectations and work 1:1 with a teacher when it’s the remedial students that really could use that time.
  • I don’t want the class to be about learning the technology.  I want that to take place over the summer.  I want us to start building our learning community and tackle the basics of the printers before fall.  Inevitably, we’ll have to pause some of what we’re doing to crack open the grade-level standardized stories or assessments. I want us to build a momentum of the newness before we have to “interrupt our broadcast” for more traditional assessments.
A failed Pyramid of Giza. The first of many failed prints.

A failed Pyramid of Giza. The first of many failed prints.

 3. I’m learning. I’m learning the tech in baby steps, and believe me, it’s a lesson in learning from failures.  But I’m keeping a log of lessons from each print, both successful and failed, in an attempt to model for students that the only mistakes are those you don’t learn from.  Try, try again.  It’s OK to take risks.  Well, you get the idea.


4. I’m beginning to develop the reading and writing lessons themselves.  I have my first week-long unit developed that incorporates small-group work, sequential writing, and Rube Goldberg Machines.  I’m creating a bulletin board I’m calling the Argh! Wall that will consist of reflections in the format of constructed response paragraphs based on failed prints and ending in next steps.  I’ve written a couple of my own already as models.  Here’s one:

This Pyramid of Giza was a failed print, but a successful lesson learned.  Not only did the painter’s tape warp immediately, but it was obvious from the start that this was going to affect the entire build.  As you can see from the picture, the letters got squished and the layers didn’t flatten properly.  I didn’t waste time shutting it down so that it didn’t waste filament or time.  It was yet another failed print using blue filament, and I wonder if that dye has something to do with the layers not “stacking” right.  My next steps to solve this problem (I hope):

  • Cry. Just kidding.
  • Find out how to lower the temperature of a heated bed so maybe the tape stays flat
  • Try the same print in a different color


5. I’ve hooked up with the folks at e-NABLE for bigger-themed objectives. They have been so embracing and helpful with learning the technology.  I’m planning on advocacy as a real linchpin for this class because I want the middle schoolers to work towards something greater than themselves.  I’ve joined their E3Steam network and their Google + community to learn and share as I go.

Well, that’s where we are.  My principal and I can’t high-five each other yet.  Who knows if we’ll succeed.  But we’re also willing to redefine success with these students.  If engagement and accessibility to more rigorous curriculum are our goals, we’re hoping that the learning will come.

I’ll let you know how it goes.



Share Button