Middle Schoolers Are Reading Pop-Up Books—That They Wrote and Made Themselves

Charlotte students built their own pop-up books and learned about science and engineering along the way.

A group of administrators at Kannapolis Middle School near Charlotte, North Carolina, peeked into a classroom. The students—25 fourteen-year-olds—were typing intently on their computers, deep in thought. The administrators backed out the door quietly. The principal whispered a goodbye to the teacher—“we don’t want to interrupt your testing,” she said.

The teacher smiled. “But we’re not testing,” he said, signaling for them to return. “Even better,” he added, “they’re writing reflections on the pop-up books they’ve created. You should definitely stay and see what this group of rising ninth graders can do.”

At the back of the room, a counter was lined with small, handmade books carefully crafted by the students, each telling a story of injustice that mattered to students. The work was the culmination of two weeks of conceiving, designing, and building their own pop-up books. For the educators involved, it was the culmination of two years of conceiving and designing the approach.

While often thought of as books for younger children, the pop-ups in this North Carolina classroom were a perfect vehicle to combine science with writing. They allowed students to be creators, not just consumers, of media. The hands-on experience of making a pop-up book showed them how math, science, and writing can converge. Through an open-ended, iterative, and often messy process mirroring both the real scientific process and the writing process, the students became “makers” or “curious, enthusiastic inventors,” as Dale Dougherty, publisher of Make Magazine, described the Maker mindset in a TED Talk.

The open-ended, iterative and messy process mirrors both the real scientific process and the writing process.”

The two-year project, through Intersections, brought together educators from Discovery Place museum, Charlotte-area public school faculty, and teacher consultants from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte Writing Project. The classroom that the Kannapolis administrators had visited was just one of four projects in local public schools that focused on merging science and writing in informal and formal learning spaces. These “third spaces” where informal and formal learning unite are a sweet spot where authentic learning often takes place. Educators hope to give all children the opportunity to take part in authentic learning experiences by expanding and enriching programming at schools and museums across the city.

At Kannapolis, the students together read 20 young adult books that shared a theme of injustice. Teams then brainstormed subjects related to the texts that they felt were important to their lives or community. The classroom then quickly transformed into a paper-engineering workshop as the teams made pull tabs, sliders, flaps, layers, fold-outs, and wheels—the key elements of any good pop-up book. Students searched YouTube and discovered different ways to engineer paper. They even tried enhancing their books with new materials, such as string, duct tape, and electronic circuits made from LED lights, copper tape, and coin-cell batteries. Through trial and error, many iterations, and growing excitement about their own abilities to solve the problems that constantly arose, the students slowly became book makers.

“It wasn’t neat or easy, and [was] fraught with unexpected challenges and frustration,” wrote the teaching team in their final report on the project. “In other words, it was a space that was rich with learning.”

At the end of their project, the students made videos of their books for publication on social media, arranged to display them in the teen section of the public library, and planned to host a maker fair at Discovery Place to show others how to create pop-up books.

The educators themselves were not done yet, either. Discovery Place and the UNC Charlotte Writing Project have since brought their model to a community on the west side of Charlotte where the former site of a housing project is being rebuilt as a mixed-income neighborhood. They’re aiming to apply the approach used in the classroom projects on a larger scale, bringing hands-on learning experiences to even more students. As a group, they are working to help foster a school community where formal and informal learning, and science and literacy all intersect in a natural, authentic way.