Pop-Up Projects Part I: The Case for Paper Engineering

It’s the day before Thanksgiving break, and I’m racing from a kindergarten classroom to a first-grade classroom while calling a second-grade teacher along the way. As I’m about to visit another room, I’m stopped dead in my tracks. In the hallway is one of my middle school students on the floor with his illustrated pop-up book of The Odyssey and four young kids are clamoring to see the pages and hear the story. The moment is absolutely precious. So, I take a moment to go into a classroom and simply watch. There are small groups scattered all over the room with middle school students reading their illustrated pop-up books to enthralled elementary students – the young kids listening to the story playing with the pop-up features.


The scene sticks with me not just because it was cute but because it was such a powerful learning experience. I used projects in my classroom because they created space for students to have such an experience. They develop over time, embedding essential content, and built meta-cognitive skills along way. Projects are powerful; the challenge is in planning for that experience.


Projects exceed academic standards and encourage students to develop organizational, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Yet, it is so easy to rely on the classic research, essay, and presentation project. It is not hard to understand why! Research projects clearly develop necessary skills – conducting research, analyzing information, writing an essay, and publicly presenting information. And while I certainly value the benefits of these projects and have assigned a fair share of them myself, one project that sticks out as an amazing learning experience is when students engaged with paper engineering. Paper engineering is a fancy way of describing the students’ work with paper to create pop-up mechanisms and features.


[Caption: The images shows spreads from the illustrated pop-up book. Here, the student created columns using a parallelogram pop-up mechanism and a window.]


The scene I described above did not just happen. While students studied Homer’s The Odyssey, I collaborated with the art teacher on a pop-up project that challenged students’ evaluation of the epic story. Students transformed Homer’s masterpiece into their own children’s illustrated pop-up book. While we examined the historical and literary significance of the work in History class, the students spent time in their Art class planning and designing two-page spreads that synthesized all the information in each of the 24 books into a single story accessible to a younger audience.


What started out as a cross-curricular project quickly became a much richer experience. The project taught perspective to my students as they considered how best to utilize pop-up features to communicate to their younger audience. We saw students hone problem-solving skills as they figured out how to master angles and the physics of force. Meanwhile, they grew determined while learning from then overcoming mistakes in the process. Although the project took longer than anticipated (sometimes the best ones do – within reason), we recognized the importance of having students see their work through to the end. This is another aspect of projects: they may not go as planned in the process. That’s okay too. You have the ultimate end in mind and the challenge is in navigating students to that place. It is that process where the best learning can happen. For me, after weeks of hard work, I saw students read their final children’s book to the K-2 students at our school. The engagement of every student was so palpable that all the teachers were afforded some time to simply watch the learning unfold.

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