Tag Archives: 1st grade

When teachers learn … design notes from iterating a project


As I prepare to teach a pinball-inspired kinetic sculpture program for the third time, I think back and realize just how far this project has come and how much I have learned by teaching it. The first iteration of the project consisted of a cardboard base, hot glue and tape for the connections, and a variety of activities where students learned about forces, motion, geometry, and measurement. The goal was for the boards to be able to stand at several different inclines so that the students could experiment with gravity and friction. To accomplish this, PVC pipe legs we provided were interchangeable and they attached to the base with nuts and bolts that penetrated both the PVC and a bracket made of cardboard. The legs fit into a base that was supposed to hold them square. What I learned during the first iteration of this project was that the amount of force applied to the sculpture by the students was greater than the structure I designed could handle. Also, the amount of content I was covering was more than a ten-week residency would allow. Our work in the schools is referred to as residencies. Each residency is one curricular unit that takes place once a week for ten weeks. Despite some setbacks, the students were extremely eager to test variables, they understood forces and motion and had an introduction to math concepts that were several years beyond their grade level. They rose to the challenge and took great pride in their projects.

Fast forward two years. The pinball project was reintroduced to new students after a complete makeover. The cardboard was replaced by pegboard and plywood, the PVC was replaced by a variety of slanted plywood bases, and the tape was replaced by machine screws, nuts, and corner brackets. The focus of the project was on construction, forces, motion, and measurement to ensure that all of the students would really grasp the concepts. There was still experimentation along the way. Several balls were used to experiment and determine the appropriate size and weight for the sculptures the students created.  Additional pieces of wood were also used to prevent the ball from flying off of the board. The project was successful and the students’ work was showcased at the Superelectric Pinball Parlor at 78th Street Studios as part of the monthly art walk.

This year, the goal is to take the project to the next level. There were four key design challenges that were identified last year that I plan to address. The first challenge I identified was that the bases ended up not all being the correct size for the board. In my drawing plans of this year’s project iteration, I’ve included considerations for the slant needed to determine the length of the bases. The second design challenge is finding an appropriate dowel for the peg board.

PAA Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner fabricates bases for the pinball project using the band saw at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

PAA Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner fabricates bases for the pinball project using the band saw at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

Previously, the smallest dowel we could find was too thick to fit into the pegboard. This year we will attach paint stirrers to 4″ nails or golf tees (both of which fit into the pegboard) so that the students will be able to create a variety of interchangeable paths for the ball to travel on through their sculpture. In the past, students had one fixed path in their sculptures. The third design challenge to be addressed is the edges of the board. In the plan I have designed, the edges have been altered and a 1/8″ plexi-sheet has been added to

Materials for the current iteration of the pinball project.

Materials for the current iteration of the pinball project.

the top that can be lifted off. This will prevent the ball from leaving the board once it is activated by the plunger. The fourth design challenge is mastering the plunger apparatus. This year we ordered 7″ long springs from a pinball machine part supplier. It has been difficult to find springs that are longer than a few inches and are easy enough for students to fully compress. Also, with a thicker edge (1/2″ plywood) and an extra block of wood in the center to guide the rod, we should have a more consistent pushing force. Instead of using pre-threaded rod from a store, we are using smooth rods. We are threading the top and bottom of each smooth rod using a die in the think[box] lab at Case Western Reserve University. Our threading should further enhance the spring driven force and reduce friction. The threading is needed to attach the plunger’s handle and prevent the spring from flying off.

I’m looking forward to sharing this project with a new group of students and yielding even greater results. Stay tuned for more updates on the implementation of this project.

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Warp and Weft

“Reading Wetu” is a project created with the first grade class of Ms. Erin Shakour at Orchard STEM School located on Cleveland’s westside during the fall 2014 semester. The reading Wetu occupies an 8′ x 8′ x 8′ area in the corner of her classroom, and houses her small library of children’s books.  The structure is built entirely from 3/4″ thick plywood and yarn, and fabricated with a CNC router at think[box], a public access maker-space located on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.  In the weeks preceding my residency, Ms. Shakour led her class through a curriculum about a kind of shelter made by Wanpanoag Native Americans, known as a wetu.  Before my arrival, the students constructed small wetus made from drinking straws, string and tape. Her curriculum emphasized the reasons why people and animals build shelters, in order to survive during inclement weather.


Wetu structure

As with all of PAA’s arts-integration residencies, it was important that my project tapped into and enhanced the work Ms. Shakour was already doing.  It had been a long time since I was in the presence of first graders and about 25 years since I’ve been one myself, so I relied on my memory as a point of reference.  As a boy, I loved to build blanket forts and play in them with my sister.  I think that children generally enjoy inhabiting spaces that are scaled to their size, as opposed to larger more adult-sized spaces. These smaller spaces can trigger imaginative play, a quality that if fostered can develop the faculties of creative thinking and problem solving as children grow into adulthood.  I thought it would be fun and interesting to work as a team to build a large structure emulating the building practices of Wampanoag Native Americans.

Building this structure in the context of Ms. Shakour’s classroom provided a particular set of conditions that needed to be addressed in order for the project to be successful.  The structure needed to be big enough to accommodate multiple children and bookshelves, and at the same time maintain a feeling of a small enclosed space.  It needed to be accessible from all sides, so that during the building process all 22 students could participate.  It was important that the structure resembled a Wetu so that it connected to Ms. Shakour’s curriculum.  It was also important that the design considered safety, and was open enough that Ms. Shakour could look into it from across the room and monitor her students.  After a number of drawings and 3D models, I decided on a circular structure made of curved wooden supports with a series of holes and notches that allow yarn to be threaded through and around the frame.


Concept sketches


3D Model

The first session of the residency class did not go as planned.  Initially I wanted the students to weave the horizontal (weft) and vertical (warp) strings of the structure.  I learned that first graders have a large propensity to tangle yarn, and little patience to untangle it.  I also learned that the edges on the holes and notches did not allow the yarn to move as freely as I anticipated.  At the end of the first day I decided to reorganize my plan.


Day 1 – Building

After a brainstorming session with a few trusted peers, I decided that the best approach was to have the students weave the warp with fabric strips through the yarn weft.  The second session was a huge success.  We divided the students into smaller groups and gave individualized attention.  Weaving the warp proved to be an activity perfectly suited to the first graders’ abilities.  It was easy enough for them to quickly grasp the concept of over-and-under, and difficult enough to challenge their hand-eye coordination and to keep them engaged for an extended period.  The work progressed steadily and the students could see their hard work paying off. At the end of the day, with the weaving completed, we moved the structure into the corner of the room and rearranged Ms. Shakour’s bookshelves inside of it.  As a group, we sat down and revisited why people build structures and applauded our group’s efforts to get a large task completed.  We also talked about the purpose of the new Reading Wetu as a place to read and quietly play with friends.


Day 2 – Learning how to warp


Day 2 – Collaboration in progress

This project was so much fun to make, and would not have been a success with out the help of Ainsley Buckner, Stephenie Lee, Ben Horvat, Ben Guengrich, Kate Sopko, Jared Akerstrom, Ms. Erin Shakour and her wonderful first grade class.


Completed “Reading Wetu”



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Drawing From Observation

When students hear that I am an artist, they often ask me if I can draw a specific thing: a car, a favorite cartoon character, etc. One of the lessons I often wish to impress on my students is that even professional artists use visual references to draw from observation, and that drawing something accurately entails looking at that reference and reproducing the shapes that you see in it.

For my current 1st grade residency at Mound STEM School, we are making chimerae, or “mixed up animals.” To help students get past the fear of the blank page, we began by collaging together pre-printed photos of different animals’ body parts. Students loved choosing the different body parts for their silly mixed up animals!

The next time we met, we figured out different ways of using shapes to help us draw the animals we had designed on a new piece of paper. For instance, an eye might look like a large or a small circle, while an ear might look like a skinny triangle. We used a light artist’s touch to draw our animals in pencil, then traced over them in Sharpie. Finally, we added texture using crayons and texture plates (plastic sheets embossed with a variety of different patterns).

After this, students collaged all over their animals with colorful squares of tissue paper. When we cut out and glue the finished animals into their environments, the bright colors of the tissue paper will draw the viewer’s eye directly to the animal, giving it emphasis in the finished piece.

I’m so pleased with the hard work the students have put into this project, and can’t wait to see it come together in our final sessions!

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