Hummanacrafts and the spirit of invention

It’s not some fictitious contraption. The drawing below, made by Justin McCarthy sometime in the fall of 1990, advertises something real. It represents a retooling, a chopping and channeling, of a small paperboard tray, the kind in which take-out french fries used to be served. It’s a design for a hummanacraft, a vehicle that could hover gracefully, thrillingly, along the updraft  from our classroom air vent.


That classroom’s air intake occupied a shallow metal box under the windows along the outer wall, like an over-sized radiator. The grated vent on the top, about 6 inches wide and 6 feet long, worked perfectly for hummanacrafts.

What gave the hummanacrafts direction along the vent? What kept them from just getting blown off?

Justin now lives in California and works as an engineer, a developer of ideas. If you knew him in his hummanacraft phase, you are not surprised. Colby Brown, another hummanacrafter, grew up to be a transportation planning technologist—obviously as a result of this early influence. Recently, Colby heard the word “hummanacrafts” and had a lot to say.

We’d cut one of the short flaps of the little tray, and bend it up or remove it. The air flowing out that end, the back, propelled the craft forward. The front end just barely touched the top surface of the vent, and that provided stability.

Colby went on to remind me that this particular class had operated as a design workshop for years. For example, several years before the hummanacraft phase (and before organized paper recycling) members of the class had engineered long cardboard chutes to carry crumpled waste paper to the wastebasket.

That group of students were entrepreneurs, also, with a thriving economy on the playground, buying and selling real estate, using all sorts of natural objects as currency. (Kate and I had to ban the indoor stockpiling of pine cone currency in paper bags under desks, because they got buggy.)


Not everything these kids made involved a cash exchange. Colby made and gave as gifts a whole series of ducks carrying marbles. (Nobody remembers why.)

The hummanacrafts fit into a proud tradition.

I’m pretty sure the kids first invented hummanacrafts with Kate, in the mornings. She would have been the one to ask, ‟What if you make the vent flap smaller?” Or ‟What if you add some weight?”

Justin and Colby were both talkers. Some of their classmates weren’t, at least not in the same way. Watching the evolution of the hummanacrafts in all their hands, listening to their explanations, triggered my first deep awareness that some kids make a lot more sense in motion. I’d read Howard Gardner. I knew, from the experience of my own family, that there are many kinds of intelligence. But hummanacrafts, crazy little paperboard crafts for imaginary drivers the size of mice, convinced me, to the soles of my feet and the outer margins of my plan book, that kids could be smart in ways that had nothing to do with my own.

In fact, some of my students, I saw, would do their best work only if I arranged (or permitted) the sort of learning experience that might have terrified me, or at least intimidated me, when I was a student myself.

And that was the beginning of many stories.

Hooray for hummanacrafts! Hooray for their engineers and operators! Hooray for many things slightly illegal, happening off on the edges of classrooms; things that can teach the teacher, if she’s lucky. (And I was.)

I’m going to try again to get other people to commit themselves in writing. (It’s free, after all, and it can be really short.) (Or long, too.) Did you ever invent or create something on the edges of  classroom culture? What was it? And–I always want to know this: then what happened?

1 thought on “Hummanacrafts and the spirit of invention

  1. One of my most substantial memories of a typically atypical Touchstone project is writing a book of short stories with Suzanne. Shy as I was at the time, I loved being able to interact with just one other person, in a corner of the hallway, inventing story after story after story and orating them from our cardboard pulpit. I think we had 50 or 100 after two years. I always wonder if those survived in someones basement somewhere…..

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