I was reminded this weekend while running errands at the big box stores that Christmas will be coming in the distant future. Then I got to thinking about the ornaments my sister and I made in school that still reappear on the tree every year. These ornaments, along with countless other crafts stored in tubs in the backs of closets, are the school projects that got saved.
So why don’t we keep doing craft projects in college classrooms?
Below are some answers to this question and reasons why those answers should not keep you from having craft day:
Answer #1: It’s monetarily and logistically impractical.
Crafts need stuff and supplies aren’t something professors have on hand. (Let’s pause for a moment here and consider the teachers out there who spend their own money buying supplies for these kinds of projects when they reach beyond limited budgets.) Some departments will have funds for classes and it never hurts to ask. Consider bringing in a guest speaker to teach the craft, which can result in department funding of the speaker. Many craftspeople will have access to supplies to bring with them and reimbursement for those items could be included in the speaker’s fee. Alternately, making up kits per student or putting a dollar amount on supply cost per student and asking the students to cover it as required material is another option. This gets a little touchy because some students have very limited access to funds for books and supplies. But again, maybe your department will be willing to cover costs for a few students over the entire class. Or you can exchange some work (filing, photocopying, etc.) for the cost of the supplies. Another resource is to contact local history museums to see if they have programming outreach that travels to schools. Maybe they will work with you to adapt a project for your classroom or will have staff to come as guest speakers.
As far as planning, consider this yet another day of lesson plans. You have to choose a project that is doable within the time you want to spend. The easiest thing here is to practice. Do it yourself, just as you would go over a lecture beforehand, to make sure goals will be accomplished. Is everybody gluing stuff that will have to dry for several hours? See if you can leave it in the classroom on a side table. Or come up with a way to safely transport them to an out-of-the way space.
Answer #2: It’s a waste of precious classroom time.
Anything can be a waste of class time from a bad lecture to a discussion that runs off the rails and down a cliff. Again, consider a craft project as a lesson or assignment that requires planning. You have to think about a project that is relevant to the material you’re covering and that will have some kind of valuable learning objective. I’m not talking about making cotton ball snowmen. I’m thinking more along the lines of learning the basics of making something by hand, which is particularly excellent for the first half of the survey. For instance, teach the students how to mend a tear and you’ve taught them a valuable life skill and about the education of young women in early America. Find a local carver who is willing to let students borrow his/her tools and have them carve on scrap wood (talk about low-cost). They’ve learned the great amount of skill that carving requires and about the impact of tradespeople migrating to the American colonies. Teaching the second half of the survey? Set up a factory system where each student must do the same single task over and over again until the entire class has made several of the same goods collectively. They’ve learned about the impact of the industrial revolution on factory workers and the valuation of labor. Or do some science experiments involving pesticides and you’ve got a project about environmental history.
Another great thing about craft projects is the ability to be interdisciplinary. Projects that involve building require some mathematical thinking. Dyeing, painting, or otherwise applying color bring chemistry into your history classroom. Focusing on hand versus machine made goods provides a space to talk about technology.
Answer #3: The students will think it is stupid.
What grown up wouldn’t like to play for a little while? You’ll likely get some eye rolls and some naysayers, but that happens every semester with all kinds of assignments. If you’ve planned your project well and connected it back to class content, I guarantee the vast majority of students will mark a craft project as their favorite part of the entire class on feedback forms. The key to a good craft project is making it clear what the students will learn from the activity. I would not encourage grading the actual projects, this isn’t art class after all. But grading that the student participated, and connecting the craft with a reflective class discussion, a writing assignment, or an exam question makes it clear to the students that you find value in the project beyond having a good time in class.
Learning by doing is a powerful thing. We ask our students to do this when practicing their writing and editing. Crafting allows tactile learners, the type of learner most often neglected in history classes, to really engage with the experience. Best of all, the students will have had fun learning about history. Imagine that!