Making A Solid Case for Realia (2): In Defense of the Handmade


“Only by acquiring skills that bring us into contact with the physical world can we flourish as social individuals.” Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, 2015.

Scissors, tape, glue, and brightly colored construction paper. The first thing I remember constructing with my hands was a wide-brimmed floppy paper hat for my mom, an elementary art teacher who always kept art supplies around the house. Perhaps this is why I still use them in my classes and why one of my favorite parts of our yearly Wisconsin FLESFEST conference is the “Make and Take” segment. My mother wore the hat until it fell apart, which it soon did. My handicraft may have been ephemeral but the pride of making something myself stayed with me.

The question “Did you make that yourself?” can sometimes be the greatest of compliments in our cookie-cutter world. There is a clear resurgence of interest in the handmade, as evidenced by the popularity of online marketplaces like Etsy and Milwaukee-based Aftcra. There is also a renewed appreciation in education and business for drawing and writing by hand. For example, there is an expanding body of educational psychology research on the link between scribbling, drawing and literacy and the superiority of handwritten over typed notes for processing and retaining information. In the corporate world, there is a growing awareness that high-tech options are not always the most efficient way to go: sometimes low-tech whiteboards and manual, rather than digital, versions of Kanban boards can be more conducive to creating stronger collaborations and can offer more reliable support for project management.

Another similar trend is to incorporate handdrawn slides into presentations. Former history teacher and educational technology blogger Greg Kulowiec feels they allow him to express his ideas in a more accessible manner while also pushing him to think more carefully about how he presents information. Slick, computer-generated images have lost some of their power over us and are not communicating messages as effectively. Due to over-exposure, we have become jaded and have moved away from our initial infatuation with them. Although it was many years ago, I remember vividly that my co-presenter and I were chastised at our first conference presentation because our handdrawn and handwritten transparency activities (which we considered engaging and charming) were not deemed as “professional” as ones using clipart and typed fonts.

Embracing the handmade does not equate to rejecting technology. Hybrid options, combining high and low-tech in a complementary fashion, are everywhere. Take, for example, the widespread use of whiteboard animation videos in marketing and online education. The animation company Pendulum Swing Media convincingly outlines why whiteboard animation offers cognitive advantages: drawing is “one of the oldest forms of visual communication” and “keeps the viewer wondering what will be conjured up next”; the dual modality of “aural and visual simultaneous delivery of related verbal and visual material” enhances “learning and retention”; by evoking human touch, whiteboard animation “brings a level of authenticity to an idea” and is “less intimidating and more approachable”; and finally “the mind can dedicate more resources to the idea and fewer to filtering distractions” due to the “simplicity” of this mode of presentation.

There are indeed many compelling reasons to incorporate into our lessons opportunities for working with one’s hands – not in opposition to technology but in tandem with it. “Hands-on” manual assignments can be quite simple to incorporate into our lessons, alone or in conjunction with technology. When we were reading a novel that takes place in a junior high school, I projected images of homework in France, gave each student a sheet of French notebook paper, and told them to use their best handwriting to do one of the writing assignments given to the characters in the book. French teacher (and former Wisconsinite) Betsy Sanford asked her first-year students to draw and label a place setting. One of her students took the assignment further by sewing rather than drawing it, providing an impressive example of student-initiated differentiation.

Offering our students low-tech mrealia_handmade_sewedanual options for projects and assignments is an excellent way to differentiate and to support their creativity and self-expression. When I first learned of Glogster, I was attracted to it because it reminded me of the tactile pleasures of collage and scrapbooking. So I began to encourage students to choose between high-tech presentational applications and old-fashioned poster board or three-dimensional projects. Now, because of QR codes, students can easily combine high and low tech by embedding links to digital media in their handiwork. And, of course, technology allows us to offset the ephemeral nature of handmade projects – whether they deteriorate over time or have to be decluttered due to space limitations – by making it possible to capture and preserve them digitally.

Recently, I have had the occasion to be grateful that handmade projects sometimes survive the test of time. The power of pedagogy that incorporates the use of our hands was quite literally brought home to me: I received a package in the mail from someone who had been my mother’s student over 50 years ago at the Tehran American School. It contained her third-grade art projects that she had discovered when clearing out her mother’s attic (our mothers, both of whom have passed away, were friends). She also sent me detailed lesson plans for each of the projects – including direct quotes of my mother – that came flooding back to her as she held them in her hands. I conjecture that she was able to recall what she had learned in such detail because she thoroughly enjoyed doing the well-thought-out projects. Although we occasionally get lucky glimpses, we will never know the full impact over time of our best efforts at teaching. So let’s tip our floppy hats to all the dedicated teachers we know, past and present.

Note: This is the second of three articles exploring the advantages of using realia.

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