Making Things, Making Community

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by Will Macfarlane

Parts and Crafts is located in a relatively unassuming storefront on the increasingly small “still-affordable” stretch of Somerville Avenue in Somerville, Mass. on the ground floor of a brick and mortar apartment building built to house industrial workers in the 1940s. As you approach, the most visible sign of our presence is a dull-red awning with vinyl lettering reading “DIY make craft play learn”, though if you look closely you can still see evidence of the previous tenant’s grocery/convenience store — vague outlines of “cigarettes lotto spices phone cards.”

We’ve been in our space for about a year-and-a-half, and people have just now stopped coming in hoping to buy something. It’s a confusing experience, to be sure: you walk through the door of what you remember to be a grocery store, but instead of shelves and display racks of snacks near the front door, you see a bunch of people hanging out on couches, some chatting, some reading, some with pens or pencils in hand, a few playing chess and a few more loudly discussing the chess game. You hear the sound of power tools from the woodshop in the back, a bunch of kids arguing about the results of a board game. It dawns on you that you’re probably not going to get to buy your cigarettes and lotto tickets.

No one immediately comes up to greet you at the door because we assume that you belong here. Belonging is assumed: you either belong here because you’re part of the community, or you belong here because you want to be. No one immediately jumps to show you around because we assume that you probably have your own reasons and agenda for wanting to be here. Autonomy and independence and self-direction are assumed — we figure that you can take care of yourself and don’t need a whole lot of hand-holding, and that you’re probably capable of asking for the help that you need. And then somebody gets up to greet you, introduces themselves, and enthusiastically shows you around the space.

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In these few seconds of standing awkwardly by our doorstep, you’ve experienced the key values of an educational community — openness, independence, industriousness, and warmth. I’ve seen these values, and this little awkward visitor-dance, at every truly-effective learning space I’ve been a part of in my life, from my high school fencing club, to my undergraduate student co-op and student machine shop, from Occupy Boston, to the various hackerspaces, community workshops and coworking spaces I’ve had the chance to wander through and work in as a grown-up. All of these are learning communities. None of them are “schools” in the sense that we’ve come to most commonly use the term, though all of them exhibit school-like qualities and could probably, with appropriate adjectives, be thought of as schools in a broad sense.

Our learning community is focused on building, tinkering, making stuff, and taking stuff apart— DIY, STE(A)M, and self-directed-learning are all terms we use to describe it. None of them capture it entirely, but they all describe an aspect. More broadly, it’s a hackerspace for kids — a place for people to share cool projects, use real tools, where children can learn and make and experiment and build things together. Our daytime programs operate as a “school alternative” — a term which acknowledges the utility of school and suggests that there needs to be things that fulfill the many (and varied) purposes of school without being school. It is a space that’s dedicated to the idea of learning : the idea that young people deserve a space that they can do the work they want to do, just as grown-ups do. It is a space dedicated to the idea that this learning should make room for play and silliness and fun and whimsy; should acknowledge that learning happens whenever someone is doing something, especially when they’re doing it with someone else; and should appreciate that play and work aren’t sensibly separable concepts for anyone, but especially not for kids.

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At any given time at Parts and Crafts, we probably have someone writing software, building a circuit, reading a book, teaching a history class, working in the wood shop, playing a board game, and organizing a trip to the park to play wall-ball, or capture the flag. You are more than welcome (encouraged, even!) to come in and work on whatever you want, learn whatever you want, spend your time however you want (to the extent that it doesn’t disrupt other people.) “Making-things” is a general-purpose mandate that applies equally well to circuits, houses, socks, poetry, and board games. But the space comes equipped with certain affordances — a little wood shop, an electronics workbench, a mountain of yarn and knitting needles, a pile of computers set up for software development — and is united by a shared sense of purpose, of seriousness (even, or especially when we’re being silly), and an infectiously nerdy enthusiasm for making things, learning things, doing things, and being awesome together.

There’s a lot of stuff we aren’t interested in doing — we don’t want to mandate what people do with themselves at any given moment, we don’t want to rank domains of knowledge and learning and act like we know which ones are more and less important, more and less useful, more and less worth knowing for humans today, and we don’t want to constantly rank and judge students against each other. These are incredibly important guiding principles, but they don’t tell us a lot about what we actually want to do — our shared interests and cultural identity provide us a whole set of answers to that question.

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Giving kids an opportunity to hang out with friendly grown-ups who are passionate about their craft is a fantastic way to break down the “teacher-student” paradigm, and to provide kids with positive examples of what “self-directed learning” might look like in practice . And, for someone interested in creating community and fostering autonomous learning, there is pretty much nothing better than a roomful of nerdy grown-ups and excited young-people eager to share their projects with each other.

Tinkerers, hackers, artists, makers — whatever terms you use, you’re describing a group of people who get things done by playing, experimenting, hanging out, chatting, and learning at their own pace. This is also what we strive for in alternative learning environments. Makers do things, try things, and experiment for the sake of finding out what happens. Isn’t this what liberated education (or, really, just ” high-quality education”) is all about?

As a student at MIT, Will found that the school was most effective when it got out of the way and allowed informal learning communities and partnerships to form. Since leaving school and before settling in to building Parts and Crafts, he’s lived in and started housing cooperatives, been a librarian for a free school, organized protests, designed structures and sculptures and websites, taught math and science to homeschoolers, unschoolers, students in afterschool programs and artists Brooklyn, and helped found and run a summer camp. He can be reached at will@partsandcrafts.org.

To learn more about Community Resource Centers, like Parts and Crafts, near you, visit the Alternatives To School section on Community Resources.