Avonworth Elementary School children learning to work together

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What once was old is new again as teachers at Avonworth Elementary School are collaborating with staff from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh to teach students in grades K-5 an informal learning method.

Since October, teaching artist Derek Werderitch from the Children's Museum has been making weekly visits to supervise Mobile Makeshop experiences in the classroom to coincide with the district curriculum.

"The partnership with Children's Museum of Pittsburgh is just in the beginning stages, and we are excited with the unlimited possibilities that may develop over the coming months," said Scott Miller, assistant elementary school principal.

He said Makeshop's open-ended approach to learning has been embraced by students and teachers.

"We are hoping to apply for grant opportunities to have a dedicated space in our new primary center based on a successful experience this year," Mr. Miller said.

Last week, Mr. Werderitch spent the day with Jeff Dzubinski's kindergarten class.

"I like watching someone else teach my class because I can see how they respond," said Mr. Dzubinski, a kindergarten teacher for nine years. He said all 22 of the children were engrossed in a Makeshop activity in which they learned how to sort objects, based on what they can see, hear and smell.

"Makeshop enhances a lot of what we do in kindergarten, and I'm finding it to be a more exciting way to teach and a better way to reach my students," Mr. Dzubinski said. "It gives me an idea of who works together and who has leadership qualities. It also helps me gauge where their communication skills are."

He said after watching Mr. Werderitch he learned that they can communicate and get along better than he thought.

Mr. Werderitch said Makeshop is more than just making things.

"It's also an effective way for children to learn how to work together," he said. " 'Making' is more of a buzzword," he said.

Mr. Werderitch said Makeshop removes the children from technology and gets them back to forming relationships because technology has removed them from the hands-on experience.

"When kids are glued to computers and iPads, they don't know how to play so much anymore," he said. "With Makeshop, there's a lot of collaboration going on, so instead of do-it-yourself, it's really do-it-together."

Peter Bonnet, 6, said that the Makeshop lesson taught him a lot about organizational skills.

"You can organize things by the way they feel or smell, and this helps you find what you're looking for later," he said.

Cara Kuban, 5, learned that some things can hang, while other things make good hangers.

"Wood things can bend and still be wood," she said. "Cardboard and paper are made out of trees."

Mr. Werderitch said the goal is to get teachers to incorporate Makeshop into their lessons so that it's a natural part of learning.

And, another part is accepting the possibility of student failure.

"People are recognizing that learning how to fail and deal with it is useful learning," he said, adding that producing something they can take home instills a sense of pride in students. "It's hard to shield kids from judgment, but it's realistic. As long as they're focused and struggling, they're learning."

Makeshop, which is housed in the Children's Museum as a space for children and families to engage in a hands-on learning experience, was created in 2004 through a collaborative effort between the Children's Museum, Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center and the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments.

According Ms. Lisa Brahms, director of learning and research at the Children's Museum, Makeshop could revolutionize the way children are being taught.

"The current system of education has been stuck in the same model for hundreds of years," she said. "The 'maker' movement inspires the world of education to show that kids can have fun while making, and they're also learning."

At the Children's Museum, a variety of tools and materials are available that are fundamental to making.

"This is which where traditional, do-it-yourself crafting bumps up against new technology, like digital media," she said. " 'Making' is about taking the conventional understanding of art and science and turning it on its head; mixing it up with other ideas and disciplines."

Makeshop is an informal learning environment, and Ms. Brahms said she believes schools can benefit from it because the workshop-style environment injects persistence and excitement into traditional learning.

A grant has enabled Makeshop to be tested at Avonworth Elementary, the Millvale Library and three other sites.

Makeshop was established in 2011 through support from The Grable Foundation, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, two anonymous foundations, the Metropolitan Life Foundation, and The Sprout Fund. The Mobile Makeshop Program is supported by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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