Thirty Days of Making: Pencil Case, Geometry Page

I’m in Day 29 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor. (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!).  Also, there was a technical glitch with Day 24, which is now posted.

Reason for the Project(s):

I’ve got a lot of different projects in the works. The geometry textbook is one of them, of course.  Eventually I want to do four such Japanese-album style books, one on geometry, one on music, one on astronomy, and one on arithmetic.  There may eventually be a companion trio on grammar, rhetoric and logic, although those are harder to complete.  In the meantime, I’m doing this geometry book one page at a time.

The pencil case came out of a different need:  I need more projects for my sewing class. Having them go directly from an eye pillow to a Halloween costume was deeply ambitious. Probably too ambitious.  A pencil case sets a nice interim project between the two — it relies on some of the same constructions and conventions, like turning inside-out, and sewing straight seams.  It doesn’t use a lot of fabric, and kids can make two — one for themselves and one for a friend.  They’re a great way of turning scrap fabric into “bread crumbs”, as Andrew Carle calls them: objects that can be distributed around the school that result in students of all ages getting turned on to possibilities for the future. Their future.

There’s an underlying secret motivation.  Just as with electronics, such as Andrew Carle works with, it’s hard to find the thing that gets a Maker program or a Design Program started. You have to do a lot of projects and try a lot of things before you find the thing that the customer wants (the kid), the support wants (the parents), and the administration and colleagues want.  And that thing is going to shift over time — it’s impossible to do everything.  But electronics, sewing, Making generally, and even a class in architecture or graphic design, all begin in the assumption that things are going to go wrong… and you have to find a way forward anyway.

Process and Result:

Thirty Days of making: geometry text pages
A page at step 4.

I’m getting pretty good at the process for the geometry pages.

  1. Lay out the page margins using the correct geometrical formula.
  2. Lay out the geometry problem in a place on the page that feels right.
  3. Measure and lay out the lines for text, including a “spacer row” between lines
  4. Write the text out legibly in pencil so that it flows around the geometry problems
  5. Ink in, using prismacolor pens both black and color, the  text and geometry diagrams
  6. erase the pencil lines.

It’s sort of a tedious process, but it’s also genuinely meditative.  In the course of doing the work, I find that I grow to learn the geometry problems quite well on each page.  It’s possible to lay out the problem on a page in pencil, then go over it in pen, and then read it a third time as I erase the lines carefully around the work.  These problems are imprinting themselves on my memory and in my hand by the careful repetition of the work.

I did get started on the inking of this pair of pages, but none of the photos came out. and then the battery of my camera(-phone) died, and Oh, well.  Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of making art, it’s that progress on the work itself is more important than process shots of the work.  So it’s important to set the right set of priorities in this sort of project.

Thirty Days of making: geometry text pages
the pages side by side, with most of the text pencilled in.

Then it’s on to the next page. And I suppose it becomes easier after a while. These pages are the thirteen and fourteenth pages of an eventual 49 pages.  Fourteen down, thirty-five to go.

At least the geometry problems along the way are all picked out.

Meanwhile, I spent a good deal of time today wracking my brain about what project I should make that would demonstrate to the kids that their sewing skills were improving.  One and a half hours today? Ok.  Everyone’s Halloween costume finished? (More or less?) OK.  Time to move on.  Oh, right… class ends this week. We have next week off, and then a new cycle starts.  Two new students to get going and get into the mix.  Yay, that’s good, but it also means I need a plan for today.  What do they need to learn still? Right, zippers, and button holes.

So, zippers. Time to teach kids how to attach zippers.

Everything that could go wrong, did. The sewing machines jammed.  The pattern scissors were too dull to make good patterns.  The machine needles broke.  The kids were impatient with one another.  They were impatient with sewing today.  I told parents their kids could stay until 5pm, when mostly they were done (and furious with their projects) by 4:30.

Thirty days of making: pencil case
The pink zipper was the only one no one wanted to use. I got stuck with it — or got to use it. Take your pick.

Oh well.

I used the same fabric scraps as I’d used for my lunch bag.  I got/had to use the pink zipper because that was the one that was the right size, that was left, after other kids had picked their zippers. Most kids opted for longer zippers — which I think are a pain to work with, really.  A short zipper is great.

I made a pattern out of paper. Mostly, this kind of thing doesn’t need a pattern.  You cut a scrap of fabric into a rough boxy/rectangular shape, sew up the ends, slap on a zipper and boom.  Pencil case.

But we made patterns.  It’s easier for kids to understand some things about sewing if you work from patterns toward complete designs.  It was something that my MakerLab kids never got in all their time working on light-up LED gauntlet gloves — and because they never got patterns right, we don’t have a single glove that works.  So I was determined — absolutely determined — that these kids would understand patterns, because then I’d have a crew of folks who could build the right things when I needed them, by thinking about how 2D translates up to 3D and back down to 2D.  SO learning to make and follow patterns (be they recipes or sewing patterns or cosplay gauntlet glove patterns) is really an important — need I say vital? — design thinking skill.

Oh, yeah.  As I write this entry, Did I mention that I have a chicken in the oven?  Makery in action…. you learn to do one thing well, and suddenly a lot of related or variant skills become easy, or at least manageable to do simultaneously.

Reflection on my Learning:

I think I’ve answered this part already.  Patterns are important.  One class got patterns, another didn’t.  I don’t want to repeat that mistake.  I wish there were a kid that was taking all four after-school classes I teach: MakerLab, Textile Engineering, Architecture and Graphics, and Debate Club. That kid would get patterns wildly well, and would see systems thinking the way I saw systems-thinking, and would be a genuinely capable assistant in the lab.

Today also helped me realize: I’m at this odd point in the growth of the design thinking program.  I have plenty of kids who want to do things and build things, but there’s some skill-disconnects between what they want to do and what I know how to do.  So I need to build up my toolkit of problems I know how to solve and projects I know how to manage, and I also need to build up a cadre of students who can solve the low-level problems while I can help other kids sort out more complex problems that need adult input.  That’s going to take a while..

Reflection on General Learning:

We’re very much the product of the problems we’ve learned how to solve, as well as the problems we can’t or won’t solve.   I have kids who throw their hands up every time they come to a problem they can’t solve; I have kids who change course and pursue lower-hanging fruit when the harvest they hope to realize seems out of reach.  I have kids who function on a kind of learned helplessness… “I can’t do this. Will you do this for me?”  And I can’t help them discover the intrinsic motivation to find a solution, sometimes, until I’ve helped them through extrinsic motivation, “do this or else.”

Yesterday, during MakerLab, I very pointedly asked kids to help clean up the messes made by their non-MakerLab games; while I cleaned up the MakerLab-related messes.  It was a non-verbal way of saying, “I will clean up after work, but I won’t clean up after goofing around.” I don’t know how successful a message it was, but it was given.

Today in class was similar.  We had four sewing-machine needles break on three different machines. One machine didn’t work at all.  Mightily challenging all around, actually, and a bit of a mess.  Kids got into difficulty figuring out what to do with the downtime while I figured out how to repair the sewing machines.  When you don’t know if it’s going to be fifteen minutes or an hour before you can sew again, what do you do?  Figuring out how to help them choose what to do with their downtime is important, especially when the machines are dependent on an adult figurer-out-er-in-chief.


Five of five stars.  It’s a banner day when I can complete a page in one of my major projects, and design a new project for my students that I can use again and again.    This was a good day for both of these.

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