The Treehouse and the Popcorn Sale

The following is adapted from a lightning talk we gave at Jay Silver’s Radical Design for Learning class at the MIT Media Lab in 2011.  Some of the talk is dated, but the ideas are good and so I thought I’d leave it mostly untouched (beyond removing some names) as a historical snapshot of a cute little growing Parts and Crafts rather than update it.

Parts and Crafts is, among other things, a summercamp where kids and adults work together on cool stuff.  We’re inspired by a lot of constructionist and unschooling/freeschooling ideas.  It was originally conceived as a kind of experimental lab for teaching and learning about teaching and learning.

We’re growing right now, so that’s what I want to talk about — growth and scale. When we talk with people from larger organizations, we are frequently put off by their emphasis on quickly running “pilot programs” which can be “replicated” and, ideally I suppose, implemented on some larger mass scale.

To the contrary, we tend to be focused on slowly making, in a kind of boring, day-to-day way, our own little set of projects better and more inclusive– keeping the workshop clean and organized, staying in touch with kids and parents about what they’d love to do, or to see happen, inviting more people into our community and figuring out how to make them comfortable. Mostly, it involves having lots of conversations.

We’re going to talk about two people who we’ve worked with — one of them is 11 and one of them is 25.

The first is a kid we’ve worked with for about three years now. His big project, for the past two years, has been making a popcorn popper. In the months leading up to last summer, we received the following email from him:

Hi! Remember me from last year? Well, this year, we are going to perfect the popcorn popper so it doesn’t melt. We will need all kinds of copper wire, scrap metal (nothing that could melt), lead-free solder (we are going to try to make it not melt), popcorn (the kind that comes in a jar, not a bag), salted butter and table salt (only if we have the sale), something to melt the butter, 2 bags of different sizes and a 19-21vDC plug with 5-10 amps. Oh, and will we be able to have a sale like last year? How many kids will be there? Also, will there will be wifi?

Every kid who came to camp that week was invited to work on the popcorn popper — from working on different heating elements, repairing the wiring to painting signs for the inevitable popcorn sale that we now have every year. It’s been one of our most successful group collaborative projects (and not a bad fund-raiser — he is very insistent that all of the money made in the popcorn sale goes to Parts and Crafts!).

It’s a great project. But you’d be making a mistake if you just decided that everyone in your program should build a popcorn popper. You can’t trust that it’ll take off with every group in the same way — what you can do is be aware and attentive about what people in the group have to offer.

This is Zach, a friend of a friend who came to work at February camp a few months ago. We met Zach the day before camp started, and he said “This week, I think I’m going to build a deployable treehouse.” We said, “Great! We’ve got some wood over here. Here’s where we keep the tools. What else do you need?”

The treehouse, like the popcorn popper, was a slightly magical project that emerged from Zach’s own enthusiasm. He spent three days building it with kids, reclaiming wood from some old risers, building a rope ladder, testing it in the space, and finally hanging it from a tree at Tufts. It was arguably the best part of arguably our best week, and happened largely on the spur of the moment.

They’re both examples of awesome projects that start with a conversation. They only make sense at a small scale, where people know each and trust each other.  

When you scale up, you tend to abstract away the most interesting parts of the project.  The treehouse and the popcorn popper don’t fit easily into a curriculum, in part because you can’t depend on these specific people being around.

But you can depend on someone being excited about something, and leave yourself enough space to be able to notice it, and be thoughtful about it when it comes along.