The Most Magnificent Thing

Welcome to the Extraordinaires Middle School Design club.  On December 9, twelve middle school students from Perkiomen Valley Middle School East began a journey to develop their innate design muscles and minds through a human-centered approach to problem finding and solving.

We began the year with an improvisational theater game to get comfortable with one another and to better learn each other’s names.  I then read the children’s story, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires.  This led to the group pairing up and conducting empathy interviews with each other in which they were asking questions and probing to find out as much as they could about their partner, not only through what they said but how they said it.  (The better part of this lesson is adapted from Kriscia Cabral‘s contribution at

After interviewing their peer partner and looking for patterns and emerging problems amidst the answers, students begin sketching potential “magnificent thing” for their partners.  Ms. Caadobe-spark-4bral rightly includes a preparatory step — the framing of a problem statement–which helps students organize their thoughts and narrate a problem, but my high-school student helper and I could move amongst the group quickly to provide 1-to-1 support and advice, and, in doing so, move the session along a bit more quickly.

Working with middle school students, which I’ve done for over 20 years, takes a good deal of patience and a lot of individual attention.  Some of them have already put up the ego defenses while others are as willing to take risks as third graders.  So putting them at ease that there was no “right” answer here and talking them through ways to synthesize their data and find ways to address multiple perceived problems at once gave them the confidence they needed to step up their process and move to the actual low-fi prototyping that most wanted to get to from day 1.

Pictures below reveal a good deal of their process and progress.  Next week:   Completing the projects, Presenting Magnificent Things, and Unboxing the Extraordinaires.

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Haroun Reflection

Nothing like having your new student give a shout out to your methods in class…Just saying.

A High School Writer's Life

The project my group did is a Prezi on Allegories. (This link takes you to my file in my Portfolio, which contains the link to the presentation.) We chose Prezi because it was prezifacesomething hardly any of us had used before and we thought it would be cool to play around with it. Despite it being a group project, each of us worked on two or three individual slides. Each of our groups of slides were focused on a central allegory or other topic. At the end, we blended some things into what I think is a fairly good-looking presentation.

I don’t think I’ve done something like this before, in any grade. We were to focus on things like satire and allusion, but we spread our focus over many of them, trying to soak up as much information as possible. Looking back, that doesn’t seem to be very effective…

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Morally Good Lies, Questions, and a Bias Towards Action: Reading, Interpreting, and Making in the Classroom

For the first part of this year my students, in all my classes (9th and 10th grade Gifted English, and Design Lab) have been keeping blogs (somewhat infrequently) on the books we’re reading or the things we’ve been doing in our Design Lab.  What strikes me most about these blogs (and granted, I’m late to the student blogging party–maybe because it was always such a hassle to get kids to the computer lab) is that the vast majority of them are polished and highly readable.  As well, the insights, especially into our activities (in d-lab) or our readings provide a quicker and richer way for me to understand what my students understand.

I’m more than pleased.

Below I link to several blogs from my Gifted English Classes.  They’ve been reading Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  This particular reading was kicked off with the use of a Question Formation Technique, a method I learned by reading Make Just One Change, a fantastic publication that outlines the work of “The Right Question Institute.”  (If you’re a teacher and you’ve not worked at trying to get your students to ask more question or to improve the questions they do ask, I know of no other text that goes to the depth, that argues with such passion and experience for the importance of teaching people how to ask the right questions as this text does.)

haroun-and-the-hoopoeI focused the student’s questioning around a focus point that I’d devised to help them think about an issue that is central to all we do in English:  “Fictional Stories are Morally Good Lies.”  This Question Focus led to a day of question asking, grouping, rewriting, and synthesizing… or well over 200 original questions which we paired down to approximately 25 question areas.

As we read the story, students were never too far from the ideas of art, truth, and lies, a notion that so many artists in all media have questioned and investigated through their work.  As you read the their blogs, you’ll notice how the students returned again and again to the issue of storytelling and morally good lies.

Gigi’s Journey,   Olivia’s Playground, Mind Depiction, Adventures of a Teenage Dreamer An Abundance of Thought



In my Design Lab course, students have been blogging approximately once every 7 school days.  Their insights into process, product, the human centered nature of design thinking, collaboration–indeed to learning in a way that is, for most of them, rather different than what they are used to–is always frank, often complementary, but never without legitimate and often incisive criticism.  This is what I’d wanted from blogs–informal writing that is at once full of voice, clear in purpose, and directed towards an audience beyond our walls.

Smooth Sailing…  AKA Enlightenment  I Have No Idea What I’m Doing  Acute Ideation

Levels and levels

ha-bannerA final blog post on Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the Salman Rushdie novel we just finished in my Gifted Honors English, grade 10, class.

Improbable Impossibilities

The finale to my thoughts on the book “Haroun and the Sea of Stories”. (Spoilers to those who haven’t read the book)

First off, the ending took me by surprise. While I did anticipate a happy ending (it is a children’s book, after all), the ending was literally artificial, generated with P2C2E. It is also interesting that Butt the Hoopoe is still with Haroun when he is on Earth (and can still speak). Furthermore, no time has elapsed between Haroun’s entrance into Kahani and his departure. Earlier in the book, Haroun is able to enter a story and experience it first hand by drinking water from a Stream of Story, and now, as Haroun returns, it is raining in his town. From the book, “‘It’s the Walrus, making my wish come true. There must be artificial happy endings mixed up with the rain'” (Rushdie 208). This means that, the Eggheads/Walrus in Kahani…

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Some Student Blogs: What’s up in Design Lab

We’ve been working on a classroom redesign.   The project takes the students through at least one full cycle of the the DT model and two iterations of a prototype.  We’re then going to synthesize the best ideas for redesign for student needs and teacher (that’s me) needs, write up a grant proposal, and present in front of our District Foundation as part of the grant proposal.

Here are a few students’ blog reflections from the past week.  Please leave comments if you have time.

Rei Can Design:  This one is image heavy and pointed in its reflections.  Take a look and leave some comments if you can.   Check out her 9/28/16 post–She’s working on a project and totally aware of just how confining the space actually is for students working on projects.

Welcome to the Life of Adam:  This boy’s doing some serious thinking about the process.

Adventures of a Teenage Dreamer:  An insider’s view of our design process and interviews so far.

Love this student’s insights into the empathy interviews: Lost in Thought