Photo Courtesy of NEXMAP

Writing as Making

I live at the epicenter of the artisanal crafts movement: Oakland, CA.

My friends make their own chicken coops, meyer lemon marmalade, cocktail bitters, meat smokers, puppets. Full disclosure: I myself have taken part in said movement, most recently by brewing my own beer — the results of which have been hit or miss, and therefore not worth it in my mind since beer you buy will be consistently good and you won’t have to wait six to eight weeks to drink it.

This era of DIY self-sufficiency, fueled by programmable processors and the dream of an Internet of Things, seems to have found its way into schools via the Maker Movement. Prodded by no less a figure than the President, districts are falling over themselves to create STEM opportunities and Makerspaces for their young people.

This is a good thing.

I’m all for hands-on, problem-based learning that follows engineering design principles. If it were up to me, I’d push more of a civics agenda — inventing and creating collaboratively to solve problems in the community — in the work. But that’s a small quibble given the sea change this kind of production-centered, authentic-learning experience represents as compared with the test-driven paradigm we’ve been burdened with for the past two decades.

That said, I don’t think the conversation about making has included much — and definitely not enough, by my standards — discussion about writing. I recognize that in the STEM disciplines and when it comes to making, writing is viewed as important. But mainly as a way to document a process or reflect on what’s been learned. It’s part of an effort to make meaning of an experience.

What I know, though, is that writing is making. There’s what’s being produced on the screen — the words you’re reading right now, for instance. But there are also the crafts associated with the written word — zine creation, comics, book arts. As a former teacher of young kids, I have fond memories of creating cardboard covers for my students’ published books, and helping them sew the bindings.

But if you’re willing to think more expansively about what constitutes writing today, if you subscribe to the notion as I do that writing is synonymous with composing, and that composing in this digitally charged world means expression through a wide array of tools, then the possibilities of what can be “made” and thought of as writing are many and varied: multimedia, transmedia, social media. Code, games, fanfic. Infographics, websites, apps.

And in all instances, these forms of “writing” involve a social element — the communication of an idea, formed within some kind of social context, to someone else.

I once had the chance to hear Dale Dougherty, the founder of Make Magazine, speak to a group of educators at a Maker Faire. To my surprise, he said the most critical element of the Make Movement was not the tools or even the products but rather the social element — the community that surrounds the making and the makers. He pointed to quilting circles as one example of the communal richness inherent in making.

Writing is making. And not just because you’ve scratched some symbols onto a paper and created a product. But because it’s social and because it has a long tradition as a craft and because, now powered by the digital, we see its trail of artifacts in nearly every facet of our daily life.

So this year, as you’re getting your kids to write and they’re resisting, or even if they’re embracing, consider expanding your notion of writing. Think of designing it as an opportunity for your kids to be makers and creators.

See what happens.

Then write about it.