Teaching Writing

Social justice through STEAM: Making pop-up books to connect students, content, and community


The story of what happened when an ELA and Science teacher collaborate on making with their students.

Originally published on July 15, 2015

The door to my 8th grade classroom opens, and in walks a group of the district’s administrators and central office staff, including the superintendent and three principals from our district’s high school.  My students don’t seem to notice, seated silently in rows, deep in their own thoughts, their attention is fixed on the computer screen sitting in front of them.

The group whispers among themselves and start back towards the door. I make eye contact with the superintendent, who whispers to me, “I’m sorry, we don’t want to disrupt.  Are you testing?”

“Even better,” I say, “we are writing reflections!”

There was a pause as they stopped to consider this, perhaps trying to make sense of the scene before them.  25 14-year-olds, oblivious to the visitors in the room, absorbed with the document open on the screen before them, typing like they could not get the words out fast enough.

I continued,  “Students are writing reflections on what they have learned through the process of creating pop-up books.  You should definitely stay and see what this group of rising 9th graders can do.” I directed them to a counter, lined with carefully crafted books, each telling a story that mattered to students, and invited them to experience the students’ work. They browsed through the books, in awe of the craftsmanship and maturity of the content that spoke to subjects including addiction, bullying, urban crime, sex trafficking, and genocide, all subjects that students chose inquire into.  I also added that the students made videos of their books for publication on social media, arranged to have them put on display in the teen section of the public library, and planned on hosting a maker-faire in Discovery Place where they showed others how to create them.

Facebook post by Cabarrus County Library featuring pop-up books.

Screenshot of Facebook post with pop-up paper workshop.

Rightly so, they were impressed with what they had seen.  But what they hadn’t seen, what was most important about what these students learned and composed, was the innovative space created in our public school over the last four weeks: the chaotic, organic, and connected experiences that students were writing so intently about.  This was the story that needed to be heard.

Speaking quietly to this interested audience over the sound of clicking keys, I began to tell them the story of a classroom that looked very different over the last four weeks….

Over the last two years, I have been working with the science teacher on my interdisciplinary team, Tiffany Green, to incorporate experiences for students to make.  Open-ended experiences that encouraged students to produce, rather than consume, where students took the reigns to decide what to make, how to make it, and what content was important enough in their lives to make something about.  Though our curricular “content” was interwoven throughout each make, Tiffany and I also both knew that empowering students to make, regardless of where, or if, the content fit, worked at the heart of what each of our subjects was about.

As a Language Arts teacher, I saw make fitting in perfectly with how we use literacy to reconstruct our world.  It was an act of composition, with words and images. An authentic experience in negotiation and revision. And for Tiffany, make represented the process of doing real science, the sort where you explore and tinker with the world to figure it out.  We both wanted our students to be makers.  We wanted them to develop these skills and habits of mind fundamental to working and learning in our respective fields, yes, but more importantly we wanted them to have a school experience that developed their sense of agency and empowered them to engage with their worlds.  With the support of the other like-minded UNC Charlotte Writing Project Teacher Consultants and their students, that’s exactly what we did.

The idea we had with making pop-up books represented an approach we hadn’t before tried, around a medium that neither of us knew much about.  But pop-up books interested us, and felt like a nice fit into what we wanted students to explore through make. They’re a genre typically found in children’s hands, but the construction of them is more than childsplay.  It’s math, it’s science, it’s writing, it’s art.  It’s paper engineering a story and a great medium to convey a message just to be read, but experienced.

The Make, part 1—The Set-up

The project grew out of novels students were reading in my 8th grade ELA class. The novels, 20 AYA titles that in some way fell under the broad theme of injustice, were read by students in small book club groups, or literature circles.  Towards the conclusion of their novels students brainstormed themes and subject matter related to the text that they felt was important to their lives and/or community, and used this area of interest as a starting place for both research and creative writing. Writing that students would riff off for the storyline that would guide the books they would soon be engineering.

Building a pop-up book required students to be able to do more than write a compelling narrative; they would also need some familiarity with the mechanisms commonly employed while creating them.   Robby Stanley, the Make Ambassador from Discovery Place, and self-taught (over the two weeks prior to this project) paper engineer, collaborated with Mrs. Green to transform her classroom for a few days into a paper engineering workshop.  With plenty of scrap paper, scissors, and markers on hand, the two teachers guided students as they worked through iterations of each of the four mechanisms commonly used in pop-up books: pull tabs/sliders, flaps, layers, fold-outs, and wheels.

There was a spirit of play that pervaded the classroom as students tinkered with the craft of paper engineering.  Each day, Robby demonstrated the approach to making a different mechanism, but that didn’t necessarily mean that a student was bound to master it that day.  Some would use their time to continue to refine a mechanism introduced the previous day, gaining assistance from Robby, Tiffany, or a classmate if they needed it. Other students used this time to explore, perhaps decorating the mechanism they created and figuring out what moving paper could enable in their art, or reading through the pop-up book mentor texts we had on hand. Others used this time to invent, to modify an mechanism for a new purpose or play with combining mechanisms to make them work together.

And when a mechanism didn’t function as it was supposed to, which in most cases it did not the first time through, students were encouraged to figure out why.  Robby encouraged this on the first day, telling students that they were engineers, and the job of engineers could be summed up in two words: “solving problems.” Students folded and cut, refolded and recut.  Early iterations were piled on a table in the back, and students frequently went back to this table to pull out scraps to try out something they weren’t sure of, or repurpose what another had discarded.

Learning about Learning

Through this low-stakes, playful paper engineering workshop, students learned the basics of the craft, and just as importantly, they learned about learning.  They began to re-see the importance of just diving in, even if the first try doesn’t work out.  The developed a playful attitude towards discovery and learned what it means to tinker, to play with materials without knowing what they will become. and to persevere and solve problems.  In itself, Robby and Tiffany’s paper engineering workshop was an experience that mattered, but what made it more than a successful experience, what made it powerful was what came next: the opportunity for students to put all of these skills and awakened habits of mind to use to compose and speak into their world through building a pop-up book.

Make Part 2—Composing Workshop

On the days while students tinkered with paper in Science class with Robby and Tiffany, in my class they were finishing and sharing their creative writing pieces, negotiating collaborative groups and the stories that their books would feature, and beginning to storyboard the individual pages. And at this point, I stepped out of the way and gave over the control, and for the first time, making this book felt less like a project and more like a make.

While all students were creating a similar form, how they crafted that pop-up book–from the story it told, the pop-up mechanisms it employed, the ways illustrations supported and interacted with both, was up to them.  What was also up to them, and perhaps the greatest challenge, was how they figured out how to make this all happen as a group. It was a process of constant negotiation and iteration. It wasn’t neat or easy, and fraught with unexpected challenges and frustration. In other words, it was a space that was rich with learning.

While it wasn’t uncommon for students to add a page they started to the scrap table because it didn’t work out the way they had envisioned, as the week went on, it also became more common for students to go back to this scrap table and build prototypes models of the before working on the actual page of the book.  And it seemed that the more students iterated, the more they also innovated.

They also began branching out from the models Robby had shown them.  Students combined mechanisms, for example, integrating a slide into a wheel.  They searched YouTube and discovered more complex ways to engineer paper.  And they even played around with introducing new materials into their book, like string, duct tape, and electronic circuits made from led lights, copper tape, and coin-cell batteries.

The cycle continued and grew, and with it students’ excitement and investment. The week I had set aside for students to make was nowhere near enough, nor was the extension I gave.  By the time we came to the new deadline we agreed upon, students books resembled something far different, and greater, than what they initially conceived.

It was the most rigorous experience with composition that has ever taken place in my classroom.

Writing and Making our World

This group of administrators seemed content as they left my room on what was a much longer stay then I’m sure they envisioned. They seemed excited about the work that was happening, One commented on the way out that it was great to see students who took writing so seriously.  I understand why she said this.  The level of involvement of my students in their writing was uncommon. I hope, though, that something that she and the rest of my visitors took away was the importance of our informal makerspace for student writers.

Writing is, of course, making, and making, minus the printed words, is no different than writing. Some of this I saw to be true as students made their books, but confirmed it when they put words on the page about the process afterwards. My students didn’t have to take time to collect and formulate their thoughts into words, the heart and most challenging part of writing, because they had already done so while making.  They could write deeply, because they had deep experiences to write from. And, what facilitated the process further, something that I have believed for some time to be true, is that since students were so accustomed to the just dive in there and figure-it-out-as-you-go, risk-taking, tinkerers’ spirit of Make, there was no hesitation on their part to do this with their writing.

My students wrote like makers, and while this scene provided a powerful image for a group of administrators to see, I hope that it’s not the only one they are leaving with. I hope that they are also leaving with an image of just why make matters so much in school. Too often in teaching we are pressured to focus heavily on teaching content rather than teaching students; on students consuming, rather than producing; and having standards and assessment data drive instruction, rather than students’ own interests and purposes. Make represents an approach and underlying belief system that is much different, one that empowers the student and would not be possible if the teacher was not empowered and trusted as well. I want these district administrators, as well as the principles in my school who have also supported us, to pat themselves on the back for entrusting Tiffany and I to do this work. Like our students, we are left the experience excited and empowered, with a sense of being closer to the community and feeling the agency that comes from being able to make our world.