Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Engaging Our School Community Through Think and Make Workshops

Today's blogger is Leslie Preddy, Library Media Specialist (aka School Librarian) at Perry Meridian Middle School in Indianapolis. Perry Meridian Middle School is 1:1 utilizing Chromebooks and has a library makerspace. You can find Leslie on Twitter, Symbaloo, and Pinterest. 

I often embrace new opportunities and say yes, especially if it means new possibilities for my students and community. Just such a moment arose with the awarding of a Library Services and Technology Act grant through the Indiana State Library. Public and school libraries are eligible for these grant funds, and I received a grant to expand our school’s library programming and makerspace to develop and pilot Community Think & Make Family Workshops. 

During the evening workshop, families participate together, joining a community expert who shares his experiences and models skills. The guided community workshops provide students and families an opportunity to develop interests and skills; bonding through common learning experiences. Families apply what is learned into doing with the assistance of local mentors. Mentors could be clubs, older students, hobbyists, or committee members. For example, the Family and Consumer Science students were group leaders during our Cooking Think and Make. Through the workshops our students gained confidence, became inspired, independent, and developed new interests.

Perry Township Schools embrace the importance of community within the school. The school and school library are critical to a young person's school success, sense of well-being, and their commitment and engagement within the community. Families need opportunities to positively engage with the school through authentic learning experiences together. Integral to learning is sharing experiences, problems, solutions, and helping others. Due to the importance of our school places on meeting the ever-changing needs of our school community, we began hosting a series of successful STEAM workshops. We find this fun to coordinate, easy to replicate, and will take just a few steps to understand how to incorporate our successful Community Think and Make Family Workshops into your school engagement plan.

So what did we do? Nearly every month of the school year we hosted a two hour evening workshop for families on a specific STEAM topic. The year included workshops on flight, photography, cooking, picture book publishing, coding, gaming and game design, and comics. Workshops have been so well-received, we are already discussing plans for next years’ topics.

What do you need to get started? A committee chair and a committee of staff volunteers. Some of the initial planning for the year is most effective with a meeting, but once it gets off the ground, email and other virtual means of communication work great for the tweaks and fine-tuning while respecting people’s time. The chair will take the brunt of the responsibility for the planning, program development, registration, budget, and coordinating with the community experts and mentors. Committee members are a vital sounding board, copy editors, locate viable topic experts within the community, and give of their time to attend and help during the workshops.

The Basics

  • Students attend with at least one significant adult, or the whole family, for a tangible learning experience together.
  • This is an opportunity to expand interests and for families to engage in unfamiliar technology, equipment, and tools, or to use familiar technology, equipment, and tools in a new way.
  • Leading up to the evening, work with the community expert and committee to develop the evening's agenda, custom to fit the specific skills and expertise of the guest, the topic, and the interests of the community. 


  • Create a registration flyer to promote the event. If registration is open too late for our community, we couldn’t gather the momentum needed, but it was also difficult for our families to plan too far out so too much promotion time negatively impacted registration as well. We learned to promote and advertise two weeks out. Convert the flyer into a jpg and promote through the school’s social media channels, school newsletters, website, email notifications, and other modes of communication.
  • Allow for online registration, but we also let our families call, email, or personal note as not all our families have easy access to Internet at home. If we get an off-line registration, I enter it into the Responses Google Sheet to keep registration accurate. Keep the registration simple, like this template we duplicate, update, and publish for each workshop.
  • Prepare a Google Slides template. This helps guide all those who might be collaboratively planning the evening to dig in and add their own personal touches. We like using this as it helps all of us with the thinking for the evening. It is also a tool to coordinate pacing. In this way, all our committee and community volunteers can follow where we are during the evening and what’s to come next. For example, this is our workshop plan for our photography think & make. Sample Google Slides tempate
  • Work as a team to develop a take home resource guide. Your school librarian will be an asset as a local expert in OER (Open Educational Resources) curation. School librarians call a collection of resources a Pathfinder. It is a tool for the learner to find his own path to learning more about a topic after the workshop experience.
  • Have the next workshop flyer ready to pass out at the conclusion of the workshop. This allows attending families, excited by the evening’s experience, to register early for the next workshop.
  • Send an email for the upcoming workshop to committee members and registered families a day or two before the event. To protect privacy, send the email to yourself and BCC everyone else into the reminder. Example: 
General Outline for the evening:
We frontload the evening with the community expert introducing his experiences, how he became interested in the field, what he does, and how he does it. The rest of the evening is broken into chunks of learning to keep the evening at a fast and interesting pace. There will be about three 15-25 minute blocks. Each block includes learning a guiding or simple principle related to the topic followed by making and doing with that knowledge.

5:45 - School committee & mentors arrive
6:00-6:15 Community Expert arrives, practices with presentation tools, displays personal artifact
Committee arranges library tables, Smartboards, the theme’s library materials display, attendee learning packets with Pathfinder, prize drawing materials, bottles of water
6:15-6:30: Review/train committee, mentor volunteers
6:30-6:35: Greet attendees entering, prize drawing registration
6:35-6:40: Librarian: welcome & introduce guests
6:40-7:10: (20-30 minutes) Community Expert:Introduction and topic overview
7:10-7:20: Mentors: Activities Introduction
7:20-7:40: Think & Make rotation #1
7:40-8:00: Think & Make rotation #2
8:00-8:20: Think & Make rotation #3
8:20-8:30: Librarian: Thanks to participants, handout Pathfinder, overview of library materials display and checkout available at end of workshop
Community Expert (if in attendance) & Mentors: Q&A
Librarian: Next Think & Make announced, Prize Drawing (optional)
After the event, be sure to send a thank you and reminders to all who registered to attend, the committee, the community expert, and local mentors.

Tips to success

  • Use Google Drive to share and collaborate. Prepare a Google Folder for all to be able to share documents, contribute, and engage in the planning.
  • For attendance, think in wedding terms. Plan for everyone to show, just in case, but realistically expect your attendance to be 70% of those who registered.
  • Plan your first event with a community member you know well so that she is comfortable being the person with whom you might make mistakes as you learn how to host a successful workshop for your community. For that reason, we selected for our first topic Flight. We knew a former school librarian who is now a pilot and Youth Education Coordinator for the local Experimental Aircraft Association.
  • Utilize kick-start opportunities. If looking for activities for the evening, adapt pre-exisiting resources and lessons to your workshop needs. We purchased the 4-H National Youth Science Day Drone Discovery kits for our Flight workshop. This kit was incredibly helpful as we were just figuring out how to develop our program and it was a relief to have a starting point and be able to adapt the kit to our program needs. We had so much fun, we will consider upcoming 4-H National Youth Science Day themes for future workshops. (4-H newsletter sign-up)
  • Not much money? Think of topics that can be done with little or no money. For example, Cooking will be expensive due to the perishables needed. Conversely, by using the school technology, Coding could be no cost. Or coding could be very little cost added if you incorporate a coding unplugged into the think & make rotation.
  • Have flexible expectations for your community expert. Let the community expert engage in the manner he is comfortable. This could be an informative presentation, modeling a complex task, or leading the think and make sessions. Some of ours wanted to come in, do their thirty minutes and leave. Others wanted to do their field expert opening presentation and to stay throughout and engage, but not be responsible for leading any of the activities. Still others wanted to be engaged the whole time and were an active, integral part of the whole evening. It helps to work out what level of engagement he is comfortable with when meeting face-to-face.
  • Be date flexible. We tried at first to set it to a specific day of each month, but quickly learned from our mistake. The community expert is donating time and efforts, so work the event around his schedule and the school’s seasonal activities schedule.
  • The preliminary invitation and scheduling with the community expert can be done virtually, but meet with your community expert in person once they are confirmed. Meeting face-to-face will make them feel more appreciated and comfortable, and it provides an opportunity to get a better feel for her role for the evening. Share with her the general outline for the evening, the promotional flyer to approve, and copies of sample slide shows and handouts from a previous event as a guide to discussion and planning.

It was not possible to include every nuance in this blog, but hopefully enough to get your school inspired and start your own Community Think and Make Family workshops. I hope you enjoy the experiences, the learning, the community, the family engagement, as much as we do.

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