Parts and Crafts is located in a relatively unassuming storefront on the increasingly small “still-affordable” stretch of Somerville Avenue, 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.
Eventually, after you look confused for a sufficient period of time, someone gets up from what they’re doing to say “hi”, ask what brings you to our space, answer your questions, show you around. Don’t mistake our hesitation for coldness or unfriendliness — we’re just a combination of shy and busy. But we’re friendly people, and excited to have visitors, excited to share our little piece of the universe with anyone who wants to see it.
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 there 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.
In this 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 and STEM are both terms we use to describe it, neither quite right but both generally in the ballpark. 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 create and build things together. Our daytime programs operate as a “school alternative” — a term which acknowledges the utility of school (not all of the inventors of traditional school are nefarious, and not all families and kids who make use of them are foolish dupes) and suggests that there need to be things that fulfll the 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. And to the idea that this space should be a fun place to be, should make room for play and silliness and fun and whimsy, that acknowledges that learning happens whenever someone is doing something, especially when they’re doing it with someone else, and that play and work aren’t sensibly separable concepts for anyone, but especially for kids.
A kid hackerspace, a fencing school, a student co-op, a community workshop. If they aren’t schools, what are they? These institutions are defined first as “communities-of-interest” — places for people to do things together, and in doing them, learn about them. Learning happens, well, everywhere, but happens in a special and effective way when people with similar-but-distinct interests and broadly varying levels of knowledge and experience get together in the same place to get things done that they care about. It happens when people take themselves seriously as learners, and take their space seriously as a place where learning and working happen. These are spaces where people don’t want to tell you what to do — they do want to tell you about what they’re doing, and what they’re excited about, and expect that you’ll be willing to share your enthusiasms with them as well.
Not all spaces support all kinds of activities equally well, of course — if what you want to talk about and experiment with anarchist politics, you’ll find the Occupy encampment a better space for accomplishing your goals than the fencing club. This limitation exists not because the fencing club members don’t want you to experiment with direct-action oriented activist politics, but because different resources, different layouts, different people, and different structures afford different kinds of learning opportunities. A space can only be so general-purpose before it isn’t good for much — it wouldn’t be a good fencing club if at any given time half of the strips were being used by people holding meetings about housing justice or machining custom parts for their robots.
Parts and Crafts is a whole lot more general-purpose of a space than a fencing-club or a machine-shop. At any given time 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.
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?