This July I spent a week and a half at my family’s cabin in the Adirondacks. It’s a great place to dream big, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the new school year. And one of the things that I couldn’t get out of my head was design thinking.
I’ve been following John Spencer, one of the gurus of design thinking, for a year now, and took his book “Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning” with me on vacation. His ideas about turning a classroom into a place where students design their own problems and design solutions to those problems slowly became something that I was interested in applying to the study of literature. His philosophy that we need to create learners that are prepared for anything is one that I think can have transformative effects in my classroom.
I had a great year last year. All of my classes were filled with eager learners that practically taught themselves. That is, all except one of my classes. This class was filled with students who didn’t like to discuss literature. They were smart, but passive learners who only wanted to know what they needed to do to get the grade. They weren’t naturally curious- at least not about my subject matter. Frequently the class was painful for all involved as I tried to lead them through discussions about literature that no one seems engaged in.
Despite the rest of the classes being a joy to teach, this is the class that I’ve been thinking about the most this summer. Where had I failed these students in my instruction? And if a lot of these students weren’t engaged in what I was presenting to them, I was sure that there were others in the classes that went smoothly. Was there something I could add to make the classroom work better?
I learned a couple of things last year. One is that I’m a much better teacher when I’m not in front of the class. I do better roaming around the room when students are working individually or in groups and my role was helping them problem solve. When my problem class worked well, it was when this was the mode of instruction.
The other is that when I collected my end of class assessments, my students told me the best learning took place with projects in which students had to design a solution to a problem.
Successful Class Projects that Involved Design Thinking
In one instance I had them create an infographic to display their knowledge about chapters in Pride and Prejudice. They not only had to find a program to use to design one, but they also had to learn how to use it because I gave them no instruction on it.
In another, I had them create a verse of Emily Dickinson poetry that would pass as one of hers. We had a contest to see whose verse was the best impostor. Students had a problem to solve – how can we create a verse of poetry that looks and sounds like one of Dickinson’s – that made them use a fair amount of critical thinking skills.
In another activity from a previous year students designed hats based on one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. It was a great end of the year project that was based on the types of challenges I saw on show like Project Runway.
These activities worked because kids were actively working to design solutions to problems. I began to think about whether my class could be like this more often. And could I eventually get to the point where students could design their own questions about literature and a way to find the solution?
I’ll be blogging a lot about this over the course of the school year as I try things out and share what worked and what didn’t (and blogging is right in line with design thinking as a way to process learning). I’m not sure how essays will fit into this, nor if I sure how this will work with all of the stuff that we have to do, like common novels and preparing for mandated tests.
But I feel confident that there’s something to this based on my experiences last year. And I’m excited to see what happens.
David Rickert is a high school English teacher in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. He has been teaching for over 20 years and has taught virtually every grade and every subject. David is passionate about developing lessons that make difficult language arts subjects fun and engaging. He is also an author on Teachers Pay Teachers.
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