“What’s a break it box?” Kevin asked, calling my attention to an overflowing black bin on the bottom shelf of our mobile makerspace. This five tier structure on wheels serves as a catch-all for recyclables, loose parts, and whatever craft supplies we currently have on hand.
“It’s a box full of stuff you can rip apart and repurpose,” I told him. “People donate the things inside. I think there’s an old toaster and a broken iron in there right now.”
“And I can break those things?” He asked me, incredulously.
“You certainly can,” I encouraged him. “Tear them apart. Loosen up the bits inside. Then, mix and remix them. Don’t think about what they are. Consider what they could be. You can tear those things apart to make new things too. Maybe you can make a toaster that also gets the wrinkles out of my clothes.”
Kevin laughed. “So I get to hack this stuff apart?”
“Sure. Invent something awesome. You should document your process or write up your procedures, too. Making inspires some great informational writing.”
“Well, I’ll have to do a lot of research then,” Kevin said. “Can I use do-it-yourself books and sites to figure out what I want to make?”
“Of course you can,” I nodded. “You can use those resources as mentor texts or models, too. Maybe you’ll write something similar. We’re all working on research-based projects right now. I’d like you to check in with Mikaela when you’re ready to begin. Her process for gathering and organizing facts and information is really helpful.”
“Does it look like that?” Kevin asked, pointing across the room where Samantha was making a poem. A line of brightly colored sticky notes lay on the table before her.
“Sort of,” I nodded. “Samantha researched colonialism for a historical fiction novel she was writing. Now she’s turning that narrative piece into a poem by lifting the nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs out of her story. She’s placed each of them on separate slips of paper so she can experiment with them a bit.”
“That’s so cool,” Kevin breathed. “I hate writing poetry, but having all of the words broken up makes them easier to work with.”
“Exactly. You can break a text open the same way you break apart the stuff you find in the break it box,” I suggested. “Samantha broke her story into looser parts that are easier to work with. Now, she’s mixing and remixing them in order to create something new.”
Kevin studied her for a while before asking, “Can you do that with other kinds of writing?”
“Yes. In fact, that’s the other thing I wanted to suggest to you,” I replied. “The break it box is great inspiration. You might invent something to write about by hacking the stuff you find inside. You can hack writing too, though. For instance, you can break any draft apart and mess around with it the same way you might break open devices and experiment with the parts inside.”
He looked up at me, confused. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“What if you took a story and cut it into smaller bits of text?” I asked, ushering him across the room, where I grabbed a cookie tray and a folder full of sample drafts. I picked up a pair of scissors and started cutting one to pieces, piling random sentences and paragraphs onto the tray. Then, I lifted a different text from my sample folder and repeated the process. “Mess around with those loose parts. Build something new.”
“Nice,” Kevin grinned.
“You won’t find a perfect fit between those words and phrases,” I warned him. “You’ll have to make a lot of decisions. Think about what you’ll need to add. Think about what you’ll need to cut further, too. Mix and remix them until you invent something different. You can use this same strategy with your own writing.”
“I think I have an idea,” He nodded slowly, heading back to his work space.
Conversations like these remind me of the distinction between proficiency and agility.
I’m learning that agile writers practice creative theft with integrity. They know how to mix, remix, and repurpose the work of others in order to generate works that are uniquely their own. They draft and tinker with text bit by bit rather than draft by draft. They make their learning visible, not merely the products of it, and like makers, they test their ideas quickly and iterate from failure. This is what it means to use maker moves in a writing workshop. Clearly, students like Samantha, Kevin, and Aurora have been taught these moves explicitly inside of a space that was designed for this sort of work. That space is the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, a writing community that I founded in 2008.
Over the next several months, I’ll be sharing much of what we do inside of that space right here, inside of this one. I hope you’ll drop by and help me create a bit of a conversation about the potential connections between making and writing. I’ve been exploring them for a while, and I’d love to learn more from you.