Students, Projects, and the problem of what to do next

There was a problem that kept recurring in class. This problem plagued me for years. Solving it was crucial to getting the class to work. Let me explain.

As kids completed projects in the fab lab, I was puzzled by their actions after completing any project. It was easy to get kids to start a project. The problem was at the end of their first project. Almost all of them would freeze. No next steps, no ideas for new projects, no curiosity inspired or reflection over what they just did. They were finished and unable or unwilling to move from that point.  It confounded me deeply. As I slowly figured out what was going on, it helped me develop a powerful tool to help kids understand the creative process.  

What have most school projects looked like until now?

By the time a student makes it to middle school they have all kinds of projects under their belts. Art, science, history projects were all lead by the teacher. All the materials were provided. Kids were shown every step and whenever there was a difficulty, someone would explain away any confusion. Still, any kid who fell behind was sought out and given yet more time and instruction. Any talk of creativity was to entice more work out of the kids. At the end of the project, it’s over. Study for the test, the next unit starts soon. 

The projects were the product. It was all about the project, the rubric only mentioned the work on the paper, and there was never a ‘next step’.

In Innovative Arts, the students themselves are the reason we are doing the projects. They are gaining experience, trying something new, and seeing if it worked out as planned. They set out to follow their curiosity and the project was a first step, not a destination. This is an utterly new idea and nothing has prepared them for the switch. 

Here is how students see projects dozens of time as they go through elementary and middle school:

For years, students would finish their first project and never consider a second. They would help others make more, produce them for their friends, but that one project would be the end of their learning. Kids would finish projects at different times, 

 I needed to help reframe how students saw their projects. Nothing I tried ever worked. It wasn’t until I developed the ideas in this chapter that this huge hurdle was cleared. I’ll never forget the day I found the words “This class isn’t about whatever your project is. YOU are the project!” For years we had been focusing on the wrong things. At the end of their first project, they would almost always stop and become immovable. This was why. 

For Innovative Arts to work, kids need to know why they are doing something and what to do next. Below is the generic “Creator Cycle.”  It echos the Engineering and Design Thinking cycle used in other classes.

The Steps Of The Creator Cycle 

We have quite a few conversations about going around this cycle. Here are all the points that come out over as students move through Innovative Arts Class.

Curiosity and being bold

This might be the most important step. My students who were the least curious struggled the most. At the same time, middle schoolers can clam up and hide their curiosity to attract less attention. That was me. Other kids will stop themselves from trying something different out of fear of embarrassment. I felt that as a kid too.  

In other classes, kids are doing the same project as their peers, being given the same materials, and generally having the same result. High-quality maker education cannot hold that pattern. Kids will need to build their self-confidence and try something that no one else is trying. I am glad that 5th and 6th grade students are open to conversations about this. In the end, it is as easy as talking to students about this. 

Over the years, one thing that I learned about chatting with middle school kids has stood out – if you have a physical reminder of that conversation in the room and you reference it often, kids will remember and internalize that lesson. We would have the same conversations again and again in years past but it didn’t seem to stick with the bulk of the class. If you are pointing at a section of a cycle or a sign on the wall, the whole class generally remembers after two talks. 

We also talk about things that kill curiosity. I share my struggles with social anxiety. Middle school was rough for me, I would be sweating hard just walking past a girl in the hallway. I was able to sharpen my pencil with my thumbnail so that I wouldn’t have to stand up and walk to the back of the class. Kids laugh at me every time I tell these stories. I’m glad to share because I know a lot of kids are dealing with similar issues.

I had to learn two things to get over my social anxiety. First, no one is paying that close of attention as you imagine they are. They are all in their own heads, just like you are, thinking only about themselves. Secondly, I point out that once high school ends, those people are gone from your life unless you choose to keep seeing them. It was freeing for me to realize that the people I was worried about wouldn’t be in my life much longer, so who cares about what they think. Again, talking out these important issues with kids can help certain students immensely.

There are a few takeaways that I like to emphasize. Curiosity is easy to snuff out. Without it, life is boring. Be brave enough to be curious about something every day!


I like to tell a story to show students how important brainstorming can be. Imagine we start with three random items, say a paperclip, small cardboard box, and rubber band, for example. When I ask a thousand middle school kids what their first idea is, how many ideas would those one thousand students send back? The answer is not 1000. It is not 500. What I say is that most of those kids would have one of the same ten or twenty ideas. In other words, ten ideas would keep popping up again and again for most students. 

The lesson is that your first idea is not necessarily the best idea. The idea that popped into your head may be the same obvious idea that a lot of other people may also have. It is important to realize that your first idea might just be the easiest idea. Brainstorming something more interesting takes more effort.. 

There are powerful brainstorming tools to help generate new ideas. I stay away from these at first.  Simple is better for inexperienced creators. The advanced brainstorming tools will have to wait until a later book.

When a kid is just starting to try brainstorming, it helps to have sentence fragments or prompts that they can skim. More details on this later in Part 3 . 

The Creator Bridge

When a student starts a project that they have customized, a lot can go wrong. These projects are not like other school projects that have been carefully designed and simplified to prevent failure. When a kid has customized it, these projects can fail. They might need a restart. The Creator Bridge is a way to prepare students for whatever comes while they work on their project. 

Excited to start

The bridge is symbolized by a rope bridge between two cliffs. “Excited to start” is on the solid ground before the bridge. Everyone imagines that their project is going to be fun, fast, easy, and impressive. 

This will be work

This phase starts when kids stop watching others and actually start creating the project. It looked easy when someone else is doing it. They have skills to figure out and this wil be some work.


Doubt is pictured in the lowest point on the rope bridge. Kids need to know it is normal to doubt. Quitting a project is like falling off the bridge. I’ve fallen off the bridge several times. Most of the time, you just have to keep working and gaining skills. You stop doubting once you see yourself making progress. 

Figuring it out

If you keep working and get past doubt, you are near the end of the bridge. Kids spend most of their project time here.

Done. It’s OK but I learned a lot!

Projects are rarely as fun, fast, easy, and impressive as we imagine. When you finish, you might not be impressed with your work. I like to ask my students “What would you do differently if you had to restart?” They always have ideas. We need to help kids recognize that that knowledge is valuable.

The point of thel bridge is to normalize the feelings that come with a project and so that kids will always be able to pinpoint where they are in the process. It shows that doubt is OK. Mistakes happen. It is usually harder than you expect. Any one of those thoughts can stop a kid dead in their tracks without preparing them for it.


Kids make their way around the Creator Cycle as fast as they possibly can. They want to go so fast that they forget to document or reflect on the project that they just finished. Even if a student isn’t impatient for the next project, a project might disappear after it is finished. 

Reasons why a student project might disappear:

  • Many projects are gifts that are finished at the last minute
  • Kids are excited to show their parents and take it home
  • Some projects do not turn out as planned and kids are avoiding embarrassment
  • Projects are useful at home and kids want to start using them

 The ‘Share’ step helps them slow down and see their progress. 

Create a portfolio

Show other students possible projects


Many modes:

Experience with video/audio

 Their documentation is important for their growth as a creator. 

 It was difficult to design the sharing procedure because this step includes reflection and documentation. It can push students out of their comfort zones. 

A new vision for education

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