Thursday, April 28, 2016

Parts and Crafts Self-Directed Learning Center

My son at Saturday Open Shop at Parts and Crafts

I have written before about how one of my family's favorite spots is Parts and Crafts in nearby Somerville, Mass. Catering to the needs of unschoolers/homeschoolers during the week as a self-directed learning center, as well as to children and families in the larger community through after-school programs, camps, and Open Shop hours, Parts and Crafts is a very special place. 

Right now, Parts and Crafts is in the middle of a fundraising campaign for their Free Lunch/Free Camp program, in which they raise private money to fund their camp programs for low-income students who qualify for the free school lunch program. Learn more about Parts and Crafts through my interview below with Parts and Crafts educator, Katie Gradowski. And please consider donating to their Free Lunch/Free Camp program to help make self-directed education accessible to all children!

1. What is the vision of Parts and Crafts as a community-based, self-directed learning space?

Parts and Crafts launched in 2010, was among the first generation of child-centered makerspaces that explicitly self-defined as such. The goal, quite simply, was to cross the values of a free school -- open play, self-directed learning, kid autonomy -- with the resources of a makerspace: tools, resources, and a range of projects to get people started.  What does that look like in practice?  We spend a lot of time taking apart computers, programming in Scratch, building kid-size hovercrafts, building, crafting, inventing, playing, and having a blast exploring the world around us. Our programs are modeled on community-based programs like Leonardo’s Basement and the Community Science Workshop Network, with access and autonomy built in as fundamental aspects of our educational philosophy.  Above all, we believe that kids learn best when given the space to play, mess around, and be themselves.  

2. You serve the needs of a diverse group of people within the community (homeschoolers/unschoolers, as an after-school and camp program for young people, as a family hackerspace). How does your philosophy of self-directed learning carry over to all of these groups and differing programs?

We have a pretty amazing staff, many of whom have worked at Parts and Crafts since the beginning.  Almost everything we do is a collective decision, whether it's starting a new program or figuring out how to grow or improve an existing one. It's amazing to work with a group of makers and tinkerers who are not only talented artists in their own right, but who are very much on board with the broader mission and interested in building this type of community in Somerville. 

Above all, we have a great community of kids and families.  Many of the kids who come through our programs have had negative experiences in school, and I would say that whatever place a child is coming from -- whether they're a homeschooler, a camper, or a drop-in weekend workshopper -- the real value of a program like ours is in creating a collaborative space for kids to engage (or re-engage!) with learning on their own terms.  That's basically the goal -- to create a friendly, supportive space where people are engaged in making, building, and doing cool stuff together.

3. What is the Free Lunch/Free Camp campaign and why is it so important?

We believe that maker culture -- the ability to think, create, and build with your hands -- has a transformative capacity, one that should be available to all kids regardless of income, background, or socioeconomic status. From the beginning we've run all of our programs on a sliding scale and have made them available regardless of a family's ability to pay. 

Last year we launched Free Lunch / Free Camp, which provides full scholarship spots for kids eligible for free school lunch.  We had a great first run, raising over $6,000 and funding 22 spots totally free of charge.  We're hoping to double that this year, with the goal of funding 50 totally free spots for our summer program.  Right now about 40% of the kids who come to Parts and Crafts do so at steeply reduced rates, and demand for free spots and low-cost spots is quickly outpacing our ability to provide them through regular program funding. Why is this program so important? Somerville is a diverse and economically polarized community. Area median income (AMI) for a family of four in greater Boston is $98,100 (2016 numbers) yet 64% of children enrolled in Somerville Public Schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch. 1 in 5 children under the age of 18 in Somerville are under the poverty line. Those are astonishing figures given the sheer amount of real estate wealth that is currently pouring into our community.   

40% a great start, but it's not anywhere close to the number of kids we could be reaching.  We need your help to make it happen!  Last year, for instance, we raised $15,000 in total outside funding for the entire year ($6,000 for camp), while we spent the equivalent of $91,000 funding free and reduced cost spots. 50 spots is a big goal!  We think it's a totally achievable goal and we need your help to make it a reality for Summer 2016!

4. What are your hopes for the future of Parts and Crafts in particular, and for self-directed learning in general?

We've been very lucky to be able to build a scrappy community space at the intersection between hackerspaces, free schools, and the growing homeschool movement, and we believe our approach to STEM and STEAM plays an important role in an increasingly test-driven environment. We're excited to think about ways in which small-school and alternative environments might intersect with more traditional schooling, and are very interested in working more closely with the public school system to bring tinkering and hands-on learning to that environment.  

5. How can people get involved in supporting Parts and Crafts and its initiatives? 

Lots of ways!  You can come by our Saturday Open Shop programs and spend some weekend hours helping kids build and make stuff.  You can volunteer to teach a class at the Center for Semiconducted Learning, our homeschool/unschool program.  You can volunteer with the Somerville Tool Library and participate in our growing set of adult programs.  Above all -- and most importantly! -- you can contribute some dollars to our Free Lunch / Free Camp campaign. It makes a huge difference for us, and will help us make this program available to kids across the Boston area.  

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