Introduction: Light Up Poetry With Chibitronics

About: Educator, maker, librarian, and Director of Community and Instigator of fun at Makey Makey! I love making and creating all kinds of stuff, but am particularly obsessed with circuits and physical computing!

This teacher guide focuses on computational tinkering and literacy. Just as one might tinker with words when writing poetry, your students will tinker with code to see how the use of LEDS can change the way a poem is perceived.

If you are new to programming microcontrollers, you'll love starting out with the Chibitronics Chibi Chip!

It is so easy to map out a circuit and then clip this “Love to Code” board to your paper circuitry to test your code.

While it is simple to dream up an idea and map it out with copper tape, you might even get too complicated in your design ideas. When you have a few failures, start chatting with other makers about design ideas and brainstorming more ways to use this new technology.

For me while designing my project, I called up my maker friend Josh Burker and we talked a lot about poetry. And that's when I realized this would be a great tool for tinkering with poetry. I’d seen lots of black out poetry, but what about using lights to “light up” poetry?


Step 1: Picking a Poem and Brainstorming Illumination

When dreaming up multiple ideas for what I wanted my own light up poetry to look like I kept coming back to one of my favorite poems by e.e. cummings: “l(a”

I absolutely adore this poem and how the words themselves look like a leaf falling, so I knew I had to make this poem as if the words were animated and portrayed the loneliness of a leaf as it falls to the ground. I wanted each stanza to light up separately and give the viewer some time to think and experience the words as the falling leaf. Initially, I wanted to have the circuit on the clipboard, then have a sheet with the poem and put a semi-transparent gold paper with leaf drawings on top. I made my circuit, practiced drawing leaves, and tested out the light. Plus, I decided to incorporate my battery holder from sewing circuit club.

You'll want to create your own example of a poem before embarking on this journey with students. A rough example is actually better than a polished example because then students will feel the confidence to make something maybe even better than your own example!

You can have students write poems, or browse a collection of previously studied poems for this project. Let students spend some time thinking of the poem and how they want the poem to look and how they want the lights to light up. They can tinker with the lighting once they've created their circuit, but it will be good to get some brainstorming out on paper.

Step 2: Crafting the Circuit

Once students have decided on the poem and thought about the lights, it's time to pull out the chibi chip and lay out your circuit.

Remember that your copper tape traces can not cross, or if they do, you have to insulate the crossing. There are lots of great tutorials for crafting circuits on the Chibitronics site!

Make sure to send power (which will also act as a signal) to each LED along with a grounding tape trace.

Once you have your circuit drawn out, lay out your tape, add your LEDS, and clip your Chibi chip to your circuit to start coding your lights!

Step 3: Coding Your Lights!

Exploring paper circuits and microcontrollers is an interesting way to play around with literacy.

If using a board to code your poetry sounds scary, you might find that coding paper circuits is less intimidating than other boards that require breadboarding.

Coding with MakeCode

You can program your LEDs with the Arduino IDE, or you can head over to MakeCode to program your poem! There are great tutorials and examples already built in! So you can explore what each program does and view it before crafting your circuit, or you can craft a circuit and try out different codes to see what works best for lighting up your poem. That's why I love this activity as a form of computational tinkering. You can test out code quickly and simply! Plus, if I didn't mention it- the Chibi chip is programmed through the audio jack, so you can use a phone, any computer, or even an iPad!

A Word on Coding and Paper Circuits

One of the things I really love about Arduino (versus something like Raspberry Pi) is the hands-on aspect. But all the wires and breadboarding can be confusing when you are totally new to this type of making. I remember when I was hooking up my first Arduino project and I thought I had to match all the wires to the correct numbers on the breadboard so that it would look exactly like the diagram. I had no concept of what I was doing electronic-wise. I knew I had to hook wires from the Arduino to the bread board to the components, but I don’t think I really understood how any of it worked. And I think that’s why I love crafting and sewing circuits. Once I started sewing my circuits and programming and controlling components with e-textile boards like Lilypad, Flora, and Gemma, I actually started to understand how the wiring and coding was controlling the project.

All of the coding and wiring made so much more sense when I had hands-on experience with the components. That’s why I often suggest teaching students paper circuits before sewing circuits, and before programming with Arduino or MakeCode. I think these skills build on one another and students will need a solid foundation to understand how circuits work so they can pull those components off of breadboards and put them into projects. I’m stoked about this board because I think it will make it even easier for you or your students to understand how the microcontroller is working and I think laying out copper tape traces will make your student's learning visible.

Step 4: Troubleshooting: Light Diffusion

When I started testing out my code, I found that the words would barely show through when I layered multiple papers. But I still really still only wanted leaves on the top layer and the words to not be visible until the light shined on them. I kept trying different types of paper (even vellum!) and printing the poem darker…. it wasn’t working, but I didn’t want to give up on my idea.

I ended up making the poem into an image, then flipping it and printing it so that the words were printed in reverse (or mirror image) on the back side of the paper. I mapped out a new circuit and hot-glued together a cardboard frame so the light would be able to diffuse a bit before lighting up each word on the top paper. My reversal trick worked, but I still wanted to harness the light from those little LEDs. So I made some foil leaves to aid in reflection, poked holes for the LEDs to shine through, and covered the bottom of the foil with scotch tape to insulate my copper tape traces and prevent short circuits. (And I ended up adding more LEDs to the template above) The pieces fit together and now the light gives off a magical glow of a hidden leaf under the drawing. I hacked a simple fade code on my phone to light up each stanza and then light the first and last stanza together so readers would see the word “loneliness.” I’m pretty happy with the result!

Once your students have their light up poetry examples, share them by hanging their new art and literature in the hallway, or have a gallery walk with another class and let your students share how they designed their light-up poetry!

Here are some other maker educator light up poetry examples:

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