Design Lab: Dry Run for Wet Work

I didn’t get any pictures (updated: got pictures of finished products), but today we rigged the Design Lab for wet work.  By which I mean, we covered the tabletops in plastic, and brought out tubs, and did some work with water.

We made paper.

UntitledIn cooperation with a parent who’s deeply interested in printing and block prints, we worked up a class for the Design Lab in the technology suite that makes books.   My definition of a technology suite is as follows:

  • a group of technologies that cluster together and support one another
  • a set of technologies or skills that feed into one another and develop together
  • a group of technologies and skills that, when clustered together, create complex results
  • a group of technologies that deliver more than the sum of their parts.

Technology suites are great things to bring to a Design Lab or a MakerSpace, because they’re a way to get a group of kids that are interested in one thing in a class, to learn about a bunch of related technologies.  I’ve developed two of these classes now, and this is the first of them.

Here’s the technology suite we’re teaching kids to use:

  • block printing
  • paper-making
  • letter-pressing & moveable type
  • book binding

In the first class, my new parental-colleague and I introduced students to the methods necessary to produce rubber stamps. They learned about carving, and reverse lettering, and creating backwards-facing images that must then be carved. They learned about negative and positive space, about raying techniques (how to align your knife-cuts), and about creating drawings which are then reversed onto the block-blank, and then carved so that they leave a positive image.

In today’s class, we taught kids to use a blender, and a set of pinking shears and similar tools, to chop up cotton rag into the necessary fineness for paper; and to add shredded paper from destroyed bills and junk mail. It was this massive flow of useless junk into the blender, that then got poured, a couple of cups of mushy liquid at a time, into a pour mould.  Then the pour-mold would be lifted out of the water, the resulting sheets of paper patted dry, and assembled into the press with some couch sheets (pronounced “Kooch sheets”) between each sheet of paper.  We produced about twelve such sheets of paper, one per child and a few extras, in an hour and a half. Maybe it was fourteen sheets of paper.  It doesn’t really matter; some of the sheets were an incredible orange color; others were blue; some were green, and some were pink with fleck of gold; and still others were white, although even these had flecks of color in them.  They were these sheets of stiff, heavy rag paper…

And these will become the end papers for our book-binding project… the project that involves taking their stamps, all their stamps, to produce several dozen sheets each for a printed book (or maybe a blank book with some textual or decorative elements, depending on the skills and interest of our students).  And then binding those printed sheets into signatures, and then assembling the signatures into books.

Think about that for a moment.

We’re going to show a bunch of first and second and third graders who’ve rarely built anything more complicated than a holiday card how to cut blocks for printing, how to make the paper to print them on, and how to assemble their sheets of paper into books.  We’ve even managed to finagle the loan of an actual printing press for a couple of weeks of the class.  Practically the only thing we’re not doing is showing them how to make the ink that they’ll be using to print their images into the paper — and frankly, we don’t have the rolling machinery to make really flat paper; it’s all going to be the slightly nubbly stuff that you find as hand-made paper in nicely-bound leather journals that are crap to write in.  So there’s that challenge ahead of us.

Even so, I’m pretty proud of the development of this class.  We’re providing kids with access to a technology suite. And the individual learning opportunities — of making stamps, of making paper, of binding books — can easily be disaggregated from this one class into sub-classes or one-off workshops for individual grades.  We’re pulling together both the technology and the infrastructure to be able to do these kinds of projects, and that’s pretty powerful in the long run.

Are we building robots and teaching kids to fuss around with electronics?  No.  But the Maker movement is more than that, isn’t it?  It’s really about teaching kids to love making things, and to learn to create beauty in the world.  One little boy, a kindergartner (think about that — a kindergartner who’s going to make a full-scale book) asked, “why are we making paper when there’s so much of it all around us?”  And a little girl, second or third grade I think, answered him: “Because it’s fun, and it means that we have paper to print our stamps on.”  It made my day.

More than that, though:  I’m pleased that we’re teaching a suite of technologies.  We’re teaching kids to use a broad round of tools in the Design Lab — and to think of water and plastic wrap as important parts of the tool kit.  We’re teaching kids that pressure and weight (on top of the finished paper) is an important part of production processes, and that drying is equally important.  We’re teaching kids that real tools are more than scissors and tape — that they’re blenders and knives and pinking shears and buckets of water and super-fine mesh screens and wooden frames and sponges and cloths to mop up water. This is a lot different than their ordinary workaday experience; and I think it’s going to give them a different kind of understanding of how the world works, in the long run, and the things that they can do to make meaning in their lives.  Ned Halliwell wrote that the seeds of adult happiness lie in the play, practice, and development of childhood happiness. I saw a lot of happy children today.  Planting some seeds.

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