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Providing for Creativity through Origami Instruction

by Annette Purnell
To understand children we must hear their words, follow their explanations, understand their
frustrations, and listen to their logic. Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982
Paper is a malleable materialit can have endless possibilities for children. Barbara
Batton, Institute for Literacy Studies, 2009
Did you ever work at something and discover in the process, to your delight, that youve made or
invented something else?
Did ever experience an aha moment through a students comment?
Did you ever ponder how to teach a lesson from different entry points?
These are some of the effects that origami, the art of folding paper to create objects, has had on my
elementary students and on me. Origami is the medium through which we experienced inquiry.
I dont remember how I became interested in origami, but I have enjoyed folding off and on for over 20
years. The literal translation of the Japanese word origami is folded (ori) paper (kami). Origami is a social
craft that is to be learned and then shared with and taught to others.
There are many origami enthusiasts the world over in many organizations. OrigamiUSA is one of the
larger organizations, headquartered in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History. At its
annual teaching convention, origami instructors typically give a brief description of their origami
experiences before they demonstrate and teach origami model(s) to the class.
At one convention, a 16-year-old instructor named Melissa explained that she started learning origami at
home at age 3. I asked if origami had helped her in school. After reflecting for a moment, she recalled that
origami made junior high math easier because math, particularly geometry, is inherent in origami. Melissa
can now fold multi-piece modular models and other complex origami models that require the ability to
work in more than one spatial point of view at a time.
My interest is piqued when I hear how students have gained access to traditional subjects in expanded
ways. Id had a desire over the years to introduce students to origami, but the available time, lunch hour,
never seemed to be a good match. When the after-school opportunity arose, combined with the brief talk
with Melissa, I had my aha moment.

I teach in a public elementary school, grades Pre-K through 5, in the South Bronx. Our population is 550
575 African-American, Latino/a, and newly arrived African children, with a staff of just over 50. Nearly
half of the K5 students attend the after-school program.
Though the original purpose of the after-school program was to provide homework help together with
multi-cultural enrichment while enabling parents to work or seek work, the program now has a different
directive. It has four components: test prep, remediation, areas of interest, and art and homework help.
Students in grades 35 who are working at grade level may select, with parental approval, an interest area,
which meets three times a week. Those students have art and homework help on the other days. Other
students in grades 35 have test prep three days a week and art and homework help the other two days.
The remediation component is for K2 students, who also have art and homework help.
I teach in the interest-area component, called Learn & Lead, with some of the third, fourth, and fifth
graders. This component is funded by the school, but I donate just about all of the material. Students are

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selected based on positive behaviors and parent cooperation. The mission of the Learn & Lead component
is to teach skills students can place on their junior high school rsums. In addition, the program actively
engages students in practicing respect of themselves, of others, and of the rules of the group through
cooperative play and work with their group mates and teachers.
We currently have six activity sections: Cheerleading, Dance, Debate, Newspaper, Origami, and Soccer.
The six teachers selected these activities based on their personal interest and what they thought would be
interesting to students. During back-to-school night, parents and their children selected two of the six
activities for the year, one for the fall semester and one for the spring. Though most selections were a
good match, some were not, and switching was not an option. Next year, if the program continues,
childrens selections will be fluid to allow for a change of heart. Such mismatches between certain
children and the activity of origami became part of my inquiry work into how children make meaning. To
quote Ferreiro and Teberosky (1982), I had to understand their frustrations.

A Different Teaching Experience

In school, I teach kindergarteners or first graders. Teaching 911-year-olds felt a bit out of my league!
But I found that the third, fourth, and fifth graders approached and learned this new subject as early
childhood students do: one step at a time. My fears were allayed.
A colleague once told me, When the teacher is ready, the students will come; when the students are
ready, the teacher will come. My students were eager to learn; I was eager to teach. Over time, the
confidence I experienced from working with these older children has encouraged me to volunteer to teach
at my local origami organization or maybe even at the Origami USA Convention! Thats big!
Though all that confidence was fine and dandy, I didnt know what to do with students incessant chatter,
which proved to be a challenge in itselfor so I thought. But this problem was related to how the
students relate to the work, as Ill explore below. I believe this question began my inquiry about the
teaching tool, the material, and the process of making meaning.

The Process: Tool, Paper, and Meaning

The craft as teaching tool: My process work with students
The last time I taught origami in a classroom was many years ago. I wanted to make sure the introduction
to and learning of origami were methodical but varied. Recognizing that the students had little prior
knowledge in folding models (paper airplanes and fortunetellers notwithstanding), I began to organize the
class around models that required few folds for completion. I also repeated models often to support the
students in memorizing the steps. So they learned several models: dog, cat, cup, sailboat, heart, and
others. The pace allowed students to learn to read simple origami symbols and to follow simple origami
diagrams. This method worked for the fall group, where the session was shorter than in the spring.
After engaging in educational conversations on exploration and investigation, I grew to understand the
importance of teaching the vocabulary of an art form. People identify themselves as part of a group or
community by their ability to communicate with one another using the language of the group. It took a
great deal of reminding, praising, modeling, and reinforcing to get the students to use the new terms.
Eventually, students even reminded me when I didnt use a term. I was encouraged when I heard students
reminding other students to use the vocabulary.
As part of the vocabulary development, the students were taking turns reading diagram instructions,
diagramming models, and connecting their geometry work with origami models theyd folded. As
assessments, I periodically asked to see them diagram a model, write how-to instructions, predict a shape
based on an additional fold, or fold a model by heart.

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Students were explaining their work using the vocabulary of math when possible. Teaching a model is
like talking in how-to form, giving directions, naming edges of paper, and renaming positions of folded
paper. I thought about my aha moment and wanted these student folders to see origami as another
way to see math. So we looked for triangles after we made a fold. We anticipated what shape would result
after a fold was performed, such as making a trapezoid from a triangle. We divided shapes so we could
note and name symmetries and fractional parts. Math was coming alive through this craft. Origami was an
efficient way to make concrete use of the math students were learning. One afternoon, Brenda and Anna
excitedly came to class having seen an origami-related problem in their third-grade math book.
But what surprised me was the feeling of group belonging that began to emerge. When I met the students
in the afternoon, Id greet them with, Good afternoon, folders! They would respond, Good afternoon,
Ms. Purnell!
Origami started to become a social craft in our school. Children not in my after-school activity started
asking me for origami paper; some also asked me for diagrams. Note that I was not teaching these
children origami! They were learning it from the children who were learning it from me. Some were
learning it from children who were learning it from children who were learning it from me! A fifth-grade
boy stopped me and said, Look, I can make a box. The assistant principal, overhearing, gave him a
sheet of loose-leaf paper. Quick as a wink, he folded the paper to make a star box. Children at the school
were not doing the fortuneteller or paper airplanes any more. I saw one fourth grader, using a radiator as a
table, working on a crane model from a diagram that a child in my class had given her. Another child said
that her mother, who used to do origami, wanted some diagrams and paper.
Two after-school staff members have origami pasts. One was surprised that she hadnt forgotten how to
fold when she substituted in my class. The other has a stack of Japanese-English word cards that she let
me borrow. Both of these teachers say hello each time they see me. Also, a teacher in the regular school
asked me to open a parent meeting with a lesson on how to fold a couple of models. The teacher wanted
her ELL parents to experience origami as a way of sharing language and math with their children.
The material as open-ended: Students process
Barbara Batton, an astute educator, told me, Paper is a malleable material; it can have endless
possibilities for children. Once students realize that they can manipulate it, paper can be a valuable tool
for self-expression. I use the word realize deliberately. When the students first handled the colored kami,
they pressed it lightly, hesitating when they had to fold it in half and wondering how the paper could ever
become another shape. But as they worked through the problem, they began to use the paper to rework
I began to wonder what other materials offered open-ended possibilities for children to test their mettle.
What role would those materials play in helping children to see themselves differently at school and at
home? Children are inventors and innovators. They can begin to see firsthand that math is in the model
and that learning is integrated all around them, not just in the textbook and the classroom. They can show
adults how they learn and understand things through their explanations and observations of the models
and the models potentials.
Maintaining two entire classes in the commonly used 6-inch square kami can become quite expensive.
The enthusiasm of the children made it worthwhile. But students also had to learn that part of the
vocabulary was to problem solve so they could create a square, from which most origami models begin,
from any rectangular paper. The tearing of paper was a discovery the children met with great caution. But
once they learned, they were independent of me for their paper. I had the pretty paper, but not the only
paper. The students had learned that any stray paper could be used for origami. Students who folded
models at home generally worked with loose-leaf paper.

New York City Writing Project, Lehman College/CUNY, 2009

Making their own meaning: Student inquiry

As the semester went on, confidence grew. It was a delight to hear a fourth grader who could do very few
folds unassisted declare, Oh my gosh, I did it! after finishing her first independent model.
Teaching origami means going to each folder to see the work. I also encourage the students to teach.
Some students were anxious to teach others. For instance, well into the first semester, two new children
entered. Wendy, a third grader, assisted one of the new children with aplomb without being asked. I knew
then that she understood what to do with origami! She was on her way to working in a community of
folders almost anywhere. Meanwhile, I saw students who were shy in their interactions with other folders
volunteer to teach models to the whole group. Educationally, this behavior was significant because the act
of teaching the class gave them a positive and successful experience they can remember as an ability they
own. How empowering is that?
As students demonstrated their models, I recorded some of the comments made by other student folders.
Melody said about Jeans bat with wings, I can see that there are a lot of triangles. Kathy asked, Are
we going to use the water bomb base or the square base? These comments were a sign not only of
their growing comfort with the vocabulary but also of the fact that they were making meaning with the
Students also taught family members who had the necessary patience. Wendy taught her six-year-old
brother. Katy proclaimed that she and her brother and sister all learned. Janet taught her six- and sevenyear-old brothers; the older one, who I know from working in his classroom, occasionally asks me for
paper. Ben taught his two brothers. (I had the younger one as a student in kindergarten and first grade. I
also had their father when he was a kindergartener. Small world!) As they engage others and show and
explain, the students further their understanding of how paper folding works. They also gain a sense of
themselves not only as learners but also as teachers.
Some students challenge themselves. As in most crafts, origami has levels ranging from simple or low to
intermediate, complex, and super-complex. Students would ask, Is this harder because it is a harder
level? I heard comments such as Arlenes Origami has a lot of hard folding but its a good thing to
learn. Another student said, You can make up your own invention. To sum it up, Nancy said, Origami
is a fun place to be creative.

Learning and Leading Unfolded: A Tale of Two Groups

This inquiry process through the craft, the material, and the childrens meaning-making looked different
in each session. Every class has its own tenor and rhythm, so that teaching the same grade is significantly
different from one year to the next. The curriculum may be similar, but my delivery is tailored to each
These two groups of third, fourth, and fifth graders were different in their sophistication and zest for
learning new models. But, my, they were both extremely talkative. They thought they could both learn
folding and talk at the same time. It took coaxing and more coaxing. I had to remind, wait, and watch to
see if they would modify their talking approach to origami. Some were convinced by seeing their
models poorly completed. It took time to show them that the rule of quiet focusing, as well as respect for
group mates, was necessary.
Session 1 ran from October to December, three days a week, 4:15-5:30 pm. Session 2 ran from January to
June, also three days a week. On a typical day in session 1, all the students were in their seats, several
holding a folded model, usually a fortuneteller, in their hands. With regret, they abandoned their
perfected origami toy. Every OctoberDecember session began the same way. I would ask, Did
anyone fold at home and would you like to tell your story? I recorded what they reported and the models
they folded. This storytelling consumed a good portion of our folding time, but it provided a continuity
that linked each session to the next. Also, this discussion of practicing the craft outside of school had

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validating importance that I wasnt aware of at the time. It said, Your folding work is valued even when
I am not teaching you. Learning extends beyond the classroom. Isnt that what educators want to see
students becoming independent learners?
Millie, a fifth grader, announced, I taught my little brother the sailboat. I responded, Would you like to
teach it to us again? She teaches us, using some of the language of origami. Millie started out quite bored
in my class. She much preferred soccer but was closed out of that activity. Her consolation was to have
soccer for the next session. Seeing her sadness, I allowed her to sit outside the group to fold. She came to
join the group on her own. She found that she had a curiosity for folding. Today, when she doesnt have
soccer practice due to inclement weather, she visits to see what new models are being taught, get
diagrams and paper, and talk with me and with other students about her problem solving and successes
with models.
Wendy invented her own model and diagrammed it on her own volition. Id introduced the concept of
diagramming ones own work when the students used diagrams from books. What a pleasure it was to see
Wendys depth of interest! The experience of learning and teaching origami was a help to my students
when they were taught how-to procedure writing in their daytime classes.
As a group, session 1 visited the American Museum of Natural Historys holiday tree, decorated by
skilled and imaginative volunteer folders. An OrigamiUSA volunteer taught all 14 of my students a
scrunch tree model. This experience later served as a model for them during their end-of-school teaching
of parents and schoolmates. In preparation for the trip and celebration, the group decorated T-shirts with
their group name: Folders with Folders. Wendy came up with this name because each student folder had a
red folder in which to keep models and diagrams.
Folders in session 2 had a different group personality. They were assertively eager to start folding models.
They did not make one fortuneteller! They had the advantage of seeing the previous sessions work, so
they already knew names of models they wanted to fold. Can we make a dinosaur? I want to make a
bird. I felt compelled to jump right into model building, foregoing my plan to take it slowly and
methodically as I had previously done. The early meetings had a faster tempo. More models were folded
per session, since I had eliminated the reflection part of the class structure. Bad idea! The class had no
sense of community; they were rather a set of singletons occupying the same space. The students rarely
listened to one another. They did not help one another as quickly as the previous group had. I had not
taken time to help the students get to know each other as folders through stories and thus to cultivate a
sense of community as I had with session 1.
For example, Marsha complained that she hated to sit next to Allen because she couldnt practice saying
doi-kashi-mashte (youre welcome) because he never said arigato (thank you) to her! I thought it was
their chemistry until I participated in a writing reflective exercise. I realized that I was not actively
listening to what the childrens behavioral patterns were saying. So I restructured the class to support
noticing time. I reintroduced opening stories about folding outside of school. This sharing supported
and validated their skill building and helped them acknowledge themselves as members of a community.
They were able to talk about how they made sense of this new learning and of the reactions they were
getting from family and friends. Some family members made time for the childrens origami, and some
didnt. Grandparents seemed the most willing subjects.
One of the questions I asked the group was, Are you teaching or do you want to teach an invention or an
innovation? Innovation or invention of a model became this groups inquiry! They were actively
exploring this paper medium, seeking the answers to what if by trying it out. My kid-watching (Wilde
1996) showed that they were approaching origami differently from the first group, more often innovating
and inventing. They wanted to use diagrams to fold independently with me facilitating when they hit a
snag. They were participating in a way that made sense to them within the structure I presented.

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These students were fascinated with alternative possible models within models. Their talk was continually
prompted by, I noticed that this model looks like a ___ , too. Nancy, Allen, and Bryan were the most
explorative in their seeing. They wanted to be inventors of the work. The diagrams were the folders
mentor texts. For those who needed assistance, I moved to them. When others got stuck, they tried until I
was at their spot, or they got help from each other.
Bens needs were different. He needed to move, even if it was only his fingers. He liked airplane models,
but that seemed to be all. He completed other models partially or poorly, with little effort. I offered him
the alternative to sit out and do homework. He was happy to do so, but it just didnt feel right. If he
completed only airplanes, then maybe airplanes would be his inquiry work. But then he was given a
chance to go to a baseball group that was part of another after-school program in the school. He jumped at
the chance. Before he left, I did learn to look at him despite my frustration and think of other possibilities
for him.
When I asked this group what they wanted to call themselves, one student had a name ready: Focused
Folders. I guess the value of being focused sunk in!

What Emerged from the Work: Listening to What I See

In session 2, once I incorporated noticing as part of the lessons, the children found their own creative
seeing more enjoyable. Comments such as This looks like a or If you do this it will turn into a
filled the room. Instead of spending a lot of time on home connections, I would ask them to demonstrate
and then teach us the models that they had invented or innovated. They showed enthusiasm for their
inventive work. I still provided time for their teaching stories outside of class because of my belief in
linking school, home, and creativity. This group found gratification in what they could do through their
own creativity. Janie, Melanie, Nancy, and Katy taught at home more than the rest, while others preferred
to fold from diagrams. Edna wrote a two-page instruction sheet for folding an inflatable balloon as part of
her daytime class work.
This group also wanted more Japan in their lives. To satisfy that need, I showed the DVD Portraits of
Origami Artists (Gould, 2008) which has interviews of folders, a snapshot of a day at OrigamiUSA
convention, and a folding session. Having spent session 1 in History or Debate, these students came with
a curiosity about Japan. They also showed interest in Japanese counting and in building words using the
Japanese method of adding on.

The Origami Extension

This inquiry into origami has sparked an interest in students who did not take origami. They are problem
solving to redesign their models to work for them. Olive, trying to make a mug, came back to me saying,
I tried it again and I made the handle stay on the mug! The art teacher was amazed at the project
produced by her non-origami students who had been studying positive and negative space. They folded
origami 30-star boxes, using only white paper, black paper, and scissors, and stapled them together to
create positive and negative spaces.
I brought in two issues of the OrigamiUSA magazine to better acquaint the students with the folding
organization. The students saw possibilities in the work of student folders like themselves. I had session 1
students try to fold a model with their eyes closed, following the instructions of a blind folder that were
printed in the magazine. I gave the task too early in their learning; it was too difficult, and they had not
gained the confidence not to peek at their work as they folded a familiar model. But if I had not tried it, I
would not be able to make a better judgment of students confidence and skill next time. Session 2 is
ready for the challenge, considering what I know about their personalities, their approach to the work, and
their level of skill.

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My Reflection
In the origami inquiry, I became the student and the students became my teachers. Teachers can connect
with students in expanded learning in ways that have the potential to help children to be self-motivated in
building positive skills. Children get to see another side of their own thinking and have it validated. In
addition, the community building of origami supports students and teachers in their school pursuits. I also
saw that students want to be experts and want others to know that they are experts, as in the case of the
non-origami student who folded the star box. Students need this acknowledgement and validation of their
abilities by teachers, peers, and themselves.
Yetta and Kenneth Goodmans kid-watching (Wilde, 1996) is a valuable tool. Great learning
opportunities grow in their own ways. In origami class, students not only had the potential to gain
mathematical insight, but they also learned something about themselves. Students are not always easy to
see, but they need watching, access, and an opportunity to be noticed.
This inquiry into origami helped me to see not only the benefit of an extended avenue of study for
students but also the impact diverse ways of learning can have on students and staff. As the sessions went
on, confidence grew in the students and in me. I started thinking about using other malleable materials,
such as cardboard, clay, or cloth, for student growth and inquiry. Similarly, the students grew in their selfconfidence. As Abigail wrote: I couldnt swim. I couldnt write neat. I didnt know how to do shapes. I
can read a simple diagram. I can teach [a] model. Jenny wrote, I love origami because we can teach
people things that they dont know and theyteach people too.
Finally, when teachers push themselves beyond the boundary of the textbook or syllabus to the spirit of
inquiry, they can instill much more understanding. As Ferreiro and Teberosky (1982) put it, To
understand children we must hear their word, follow their explanations, understand their frustrations, and
listen to their logic.

Ferriero, Emilia, and Ana Teberosky. 1982. Literacy before schooling. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gould, Vanessa. 2008. Portraits of origami artists (video). OrigamiUSA.
Wilde, Sandra, ed. 1996. Notes from a kidwatcher: Selected writings of Yetta M. Goodman. Portsmouth,
NH: Heinemann.

New York City Writing Project, Lehman College/CUNY, 2009