Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

LEGO and the MakerSpace Movement: Writing Prompts, Avatars, and More (a guest post by author Lyn Miller-Lachmann)


Last year I researched and wrote a proposal to create a mobile MakerSpace for my library branch, which was approved.  We now have the Mobile MakerSpace in two of the three branches of my library.  Because of our space limitations, it had to be mobile so it could easily be moved in and out.  And I decided to feature Legos because of the versatility the medium provided and because you can add tech components.  You can read about my Mobile Makerspace here.  Today author Lyn Miller-Lachmann is talking about Legos and MakerSpaces.

I became a LEGO fan along with my son, but when he outgrew the little bricks, I kept playing with them. LEGO released the Modular theme the year he left for college (after he sold his elaborate pirate village and medieval castles to help pay his expenses), and I bought the first three sets. Seven years later, I have a built-up town called Little Brick Township and dozens of minifigures whose intrigues I chronicle on my blog and Instagram feed.
The center of Little Brick Township is Town Hall, which serves as the backdrop and sometimes the source of conflicts at the heart of the Bricksters’ stories.
Several months ago, I began using my LEGO setting and minifigures as writing prompts. I also created graphic short stories ranging from four to thirty panels, with the same characters appearing in multiple stories. The “regulars” have their own personalities, backstories, desires, and dilemmas, so much so that my Instagram followers have begin to offer them advice. The community approach represented by the MakerSpace Movement is well suited not only to the construction of objects but also to this type of storytelling drawn from participants’ imagination and experiences and events in the wider community and society.

At the end of November 2013, I gave myself a storytelling challenge using LEGO minifigures and their accessories. I’m Jewish, so I celebrate Hanukkah rather than Christmas. In 2013, a once in 77,798 years’ event put the start of Hanukkah on the eve of Thanksgiving—a juxtaposition of religious and secular events. To celebrate, I bought the City Advent Calendar (another juxtaposition of religions and cultures), split up the 24 days’ worth of small packages into three groups of eight for the “eight crazy nights” of Hanukkah, and each night when I lit the candles of the Menorah opened three packages at random. Then I created a scene with the three packages’ contents and wrote a caption tying them all together.
Thanksgivukkah Advent Calendar Challenge, Day 4: Because he’s the Man, Santa gets to chill under the menorah while Snowman does all the work. (This one was tied for the audience favorite.)
Thanksgivukkah Advent Calendar Challenge, Day 6: This is how the kids burn the house down. (Tied for my favorite.)
Thanksgivukkah Advent Calendar Challenge, Day 8: As Hanukkah 2013 ends, Lego Daft Punk, Mumfield & Daughters, and the little boy who nearly burned his house down wish you a Happy Holiday Season. (Tied for both audience and my favorite.)
I chronicle the eight nights of the Thanksgivukkah Advent Calendar Challenge on my blog at http://www.lynmillerlachmann.com/the-thanksgivukkah-advent-calendar-challenge-juxtaposition-and-a-writing-prompt/, where I also talk about using LEGO as a prompt for writing and storytelling.
While LEGO buildings, robots, and other constructions can be quite elaborate, containing thousands of bricks, even a small number of bricks and minifigures can bring people together to create objects and stories. Many of my own panels have come from what I can fit into a small sandwich bag. Minifigures can be posed and photographed in indoor and outdoor environments, as I did in creating a holiday card using a small shack, four minifigures, a handful of accessories, and a copy of my novel, Rogue
Kiara, Chad, and the Bike Boys wish you a Happy New Year. May 2014 be filled with joy and LEGO.
Because minifigures have a wide range of expressions, LEGO builders can endow them with character traits and emotions. LEGO minifigures can also serve as avatars. Many of the people I follow on Instagram have avatars made from minifigures, and even though I don’t know the people personally, I get a glimpse of their personalities and interests from the avatars they have constructed. For young library patrons, creating an avatar may serve as a way of expressing emotions that cannot be expressed directly. Many young people participate in online games, sometimes to the detriment of interactions in the real world. LEGO bricks and minifigure elements available in MakerSpaces evoke a pretend world, but one that involves real peers (and caring adults) in a community space.
If you would like to create a MakerSpace in the library using LEGO elements, here are a few tips based on my experience as a builder, storyteller, and photographer:

  • Buying LEGO kits new can be expensive. Put out a call for donations from families whose children have (unfortunately) outgrown LEGO. In many areas of the country, local LUGs (LEGO Users’ Groups) can take on the collection of donations as a service project. Absent donations, garage sales are a good source of inexpensive pieces.
  • Members of LUGs can also provide attractive displays for the library and advice for young builders. Join forces with these community groups.
  • The LEGO.com site has a Pick-a-Brick option that includes heads with different expressions (including two-faced heads), bodies, legs, hair and hats, and hand-held accessories. Have your teens browse the site and select their own avatars, which can be reflections of themselves or aspirational characters such as superheroes or space figures.
  • Use graph paper to plan models or to keep a record of models that have been built and then disassembled.
  • Don’t forget to take pictures! You can add these to the library’s website or post on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and other social media.
  • Look at models on Instagram and Tumblr for ideas. For instance, Leon Scopes, a builder on Instagram who goes by @leons_rotten_corner, is an expert at constructing trees and forests with LEGO pieces.
  • Share with each other. LEGO is a great way to bring people together to share building ideas and stories. There’s no “right” way to build, and the most important thing is to have fun!

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of the YA novels Rogue (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013) and Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press, 2009) and the builder of Little Brick Township, a LEGO city where stuff happens. You may see her LEGO creations and stories on Instagram (@lynmillerlachmann), Facebook (www.facebook.com/lyn.millerlachmann), and her website (www.lynmillerlachmann.com). 
About Rogue (Publisher’s Annotation):  
Kiara has Asperger’s syndrome, and it’s hard for her to make friends. So whenever her world doesn’t make sense—which is often—she relies on Mr. Internet for answers. But there are some questions he can’t answer, like why she always gets into trouble, and how do kids with Asperger’s syndrome make friends? Kiara has a difficult time with other kids. They taunt her and she fights back. Now she’s been kicked out of school. She wishes she could be like her hero Rogue—a misunderstood X-Men mutant who used to hurt anyone she touched until she learned how to control her special power.

When Chad moves in across the street, Kiara hopes that, for once, she’ll be able to make friendship stick. When she learns his secret, she’s so determined to keep Chad as a friend that she agrees not to tell. But being a true friend is more complicated than Mr. Internet could ever explain, and it might be just the thing that leads Kiara to find her own special power.

In Rogue, author Lyn Miller-Lachmann celebrates everyone’s ability to discover and use whatever it is that makes them different 

Mr. Internet: Teens on the Spectrum and Online, a guest post by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

My novel Rogueportrays a young teenager on the autism spectrum who has come to rely almost exclusively on “Mr. Internet” to learn about the world, especially after she gets suspended from school for attacking a bully. Through Mr. Internet, Kiara has diagnosed herself with Asperger’s syndrome, learned how to fix her brother’s bicycle, and found out that the neighbor boy who she thought was her friend may only be using her for his parents’ drug operation. In her online searches, she has discovered some useful information, some information that may or may not be true, and some information that she’s ill equipped to handle.
Like much of Rogue, Kiara’s online activities are drawn from my own experience as someone diagnosed with Asperger’s. Children (and adults) on the autism spectrum are often drawn to the computer and to seeking information online. I know this process firsthand, because even though I have a Masters in Library Science, I would prefer to stay in my own home, where I feel comfortable, rather than go to the library and try to explain my information needs to a stranger. At the same time, I enjoy looking up information for others and will persist in finding answers with reliable sources to back them up long after most people would have quit or settled for half an answer.

This past June at the ALA conference in Chicago I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Lesley Farmer, the foremost authority on Internet citizenship for young people on the autism spectrum. She had a table at the Diversity Fair, and we talked about the promise and the perils of the Internet for tweens and teens with autism. While we spoke about the dangers, specifically of young people being taken advantage of by scammers and predators, she also emphasized the Internet as a place where those young people can gain self-confidence as well as knowledge and become leaders among their peers.
Leaders? Maybe she was going a little too far with her optimism.
While I know that information-seeking online offers comfort and solitude, I expressed my concern that we can become too comfortable—thus further isolating ourselves. My nephew, who has also been diagnosed with Asperger’s, spends entire days alone in front of the computer, keeping up with relatives and fellow hobbyists through email and Facebook. I know I would do the same thing, if I didn’t have other responsibilities. Time spent in front of the computer is time away from other people, and no matter how much one reads advice online (as Kiara says, “when I go upstairs to ask [Mr. Internet] how kids with Asperger’s syndrome can find friends, he has 255,000 answers for me”), hard-won social skills wither in isolation.
Aware of these concerns, Farmer advises librarians and others who work with young people on the spectrum not only to teach them the principles of “digital citizenship” but to prepare them to teach others. She argues that young people with autism spectrum disorders can become model digital citizens because of their comfort with machines and technology, their attention to detail and rules, and their sense of what’s fair. Once children and teens with autism have a clear understanding of rules, safe practices, and the need to examine information critically, they can teach others those same rules, practices, and processes of critical thinking. In teaching, knowledge is reinforced as social skills develop. 
Farmer suggests using simulations and role playing to teach digital citizenship and to rehearse ways the young person can in turn teach peers. Some of this is already being done with great success. For instance, young writers on the autism spectrum have found an outlet in the online site Figment not only for their stories but also for using their technology skills to help others. Around the time I met Lesley Farmer, I also received this inspiring email from Figment co-founder Nicole Valentine, describing the day the staff invited the site’s most active users to a workshop in New York City:
Well, one mom kept sneaking over to the door to spy on her teenage daughter. I thought it was a classic case of helicopter parenting, but then I noticed how emotional the mom was getting. I asked her if everything was okay. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said her daughter had Aspergers and she had never seen her hold court like this before. I peeked in with her and indeed, her daughter was THE mayor of Figment. I said, “you know, she’s our most popular user. She has hundreds of followers and is really active on our message board.”
She told me she had never seen her daughter say more than three words to anyone in a group situation. We both stood there for a moment watching this girl lead a discussion about how to improve the site. I stood there and I cried along with her mom. It was my single best day on the job. We won an LATimes Book Award and I got to go to that ceremony and accept the award, even that didn’t beat that day. It was the day I knew my work was changing kids lives.
If you would like to help young people on the autism spectrum use the Internet more effectively, become good digital citizens, and become leaders among their peers, here are some resources:
Lesley Farmer has a wiki resource on Digital Citizenship at: http://k12digitalcitizenship.wikispaces.com/. Her book, Library Services for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders, will be published by ALA editions this fall.
For more information about the teen book discussion and writing site Figment, visit www.figment.com.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the former editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and the author of resources for educators and fiction for teens. Her young adult novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press, 2009), about a teenage refugee from Chile coming to terms with his father’s imprisonment and torture under the Pinochet dictatorship, was a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and received an Américas Award Honorable Mention from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. Her most recent novel is Rogue (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection. When she isn’t writing fiction, Lyn is the co-host of a bilingual program of Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history on WRPI-FM, a blogger, and a Lego builder. She reviews children’s and young adult books on social justice themes for The Pirate Tree (www.thepiratetree.com). For more information and cool Lego pictures, visit Lyn’s website, www.lynmillerlachmann.com.