An abstract blueprint of a machine representing the engineering of the space for its purpose.

The Architecture of Gender

The Makerspace, up until last summer, was dominated by a single, huge table with workbenches on two sides. It was covered in graffiti of kids’ names (which was great — when it’s not disallowed, they take the time to make it beautiful), but the drawers under the table were in unrecoverable condition and barely usable, and the table was so large it was hard to get all the way around the classroom, making dead spaces that caused a mess and the occasional hazard.

So we fixed it! And the gender makeup of the space started to change.

Last summer, another teacher and I spent some thought on redesigning the Makerspace. We had enough money for some wood and he’s skilled with wood tools to a far greater degree than I. So we looked at the Makerspace the way it was and thought about how we’d like it to be different.

The giant table had to go. It was hard to even get into the room. The drawers were nonfunctional and we didn’t have anywhere to store materials. We couldn’t use the floor because there was barely enough room to pass by when someone was standing or sitting on a stool, never mind actually putting something on the floor to cut or measure. And the table was so big, you couldn’t reach the center, which meant that it was wasted space that, at best, held a pile of coats and backpacks.

We’d noticed that the class was a little hard for new students, anxious students, and shy students because you had to face everyone else. So we designed some workspaces to go around the edges, little private spaces facing the wall, some of which are big enough for two students to work together.

We changed it around a couple of times and, it many ways, it’s a better, more functional space.

But the cost was that it stopped being a social space for any students but the ones who were already comfortable there. You couldn’t sit near a conversation and listen anymore. You were now in your own space (perhaps shared with one other student). And that meant that we lost a critical population of the Makerspace: a clique of mostly-girls who, in some cases, were relying on me for straight talk with a door that could close.

And without that particular group of mostly-girls, so went most of the rest of the girls, til there was only one who was coming in freely and feeling like the space is hers. She’s an incredible, devoted, creative, intelligent, and self-motivated student who isn’t swayed by social movement of the students around her without weighing it wisely in her judgment. But she’s graduating.

That clique first took over the Quiet Room — a room dedicated to peace and quiet — and, with their closed door and no adults in earshot, started to embark on some really antisocial experiments as they tried out the levers they could pull with their adult-like powers in a social system that they understood pretty well.

Some teachers asked them to not turn it into their turf and to leave the room free, so they moved to an area in the common space. That meant that I only saw them occasionally. And they never came into the Makerspace. It was no longer their turf, and they had student teachers they could deftly outmaneuver in the common space. Because while some of them relied on me for listening and straight talk, they also knew that I would push them hard to learn new things, to encourage them to do things beyond their abilities, to feel kinda stupid sometimes and get back on their feet more wise, compassionate, and courageous than before.

And the student teachers pretty much just wanted to be liked.

And figuring out how to affect someone’s emotions had become their study.

I miss those kids. I miss each one in a particular way. I miss being blamed for their feelings of failure as they succeeded and then looked at their accomplishments with confusion, as though I had somehow done it and not them. I miss their jokes about memes and dicks and silly dances, I miss learning new things because they wanted to learn them and I wasn’t yet sure how it worked.

And I miss them having “private” conversations right next to me so then an adult would just haaappen to be present and say, “If you don’t tell your girlfriend and she never finds out, are you going to feel OK about it? Or would you rather she knew about it and was OK with it?” Or, in one case, something more like, “An adult can’t ask you for sexual consent because they’re an adult and you’re a kid, so they have more power than you.”

So, when we have a physical space again (and no one in our country has their shit together enough to be in a physical space together in the next 7 weeks! So this could be a while) I want to redesign that space again. Give kids a way to face each other, to have some incidental contact and subtext that gives them a safe way into a social environment while they share the text of “learning how to solder” or whatever.

Part of that is changing the description of the Makerspace class. It’s not there to be turf. It’s there to be a safe place to learn to create and explore. So the class is no longer just “Open Makerspace”. It’s “Make What You Want”. And it’ll be a matter of getting kids the materials for them to work on projects from sculpture to electronics to drawing or 3D modeling. Some of it I’ll have to learn with them, as always, and some of the time, in the coming block, I’ll have to drive a disinfected bag of materials to their house. But I want them to understand that it’s about the process of making stuff, confronting your own ignorance with curiosity, but not whose presence echoes most loudly in the space.

Somehow, eventually, all that will come down to the design of a table.