Cultivating 5th Grade Designers

Each school year, educators working in schools across the country gravitate towards some of the same shared ideas that are touted to transform teaching and learning in the classroom. Several years ago, the burgeoning Maker movement made such promises, and you’d be hard pressed to find a set of slides at most educational conferences these days that forgets to make at least a passing reference to Stanford University professor of psychology and author of Mindset Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets.

Here at The Willows, we strive to keep up with the current trends everyone is talking about, while still staying grounded in the values and traditions that have guided us for the last two decades. The last two years or so, one of the current educational memes that we’ve tried in earnest to incorporate is design thinking (see previous posts here and here for more information).

However, true to our constructivist and progressive traditions here, we are not just talking or teaching about design thinking – we are actually designing, and, hopefully, cultivating young designers in the process.

Let’s take a look at some of what our fifth grade students have been up to lately as an example. In Maker classes, I began a design and robotics unit back in March with an initial study of a particular design problem nested within our own community – well, to be more specific, a few blocks away from our campus proper.

Here are two photos (annotated by a fifth grader) and a video of a stoplight near our school that myself and many other community members approach each day on our way to The Willows. For first time users approaching this intersection, it is entirely unclear how traffic is supposed to proceed – there are no yellow or green lights (only constant flashing reds), and “Right Turn Only” signs are regularly ignored by drivers who weave their way around the concrete median in the middle of the intersection. As I told the kids, I am consistently baffled that there are not more collisions here!

designthinking annotated process copyTo approach this intersection as a design problem, I gave my students an annotated version of Stanford’s dschool’s design thinking diagram and asked them to consider several questions for each step in the process, including:

  • How do you think the drivers approaching this intersection feel?
  • How do users of this intersection decide when it is safe to proceed?
  • If you were to redesign this intersection how would you want users to feel?
  • What specific changes to the design of the intersection do you recommend?

In order to answer these questions, we not only watched videos but also took a short field trip to the actual intersection to accumulate some real time observational data. I encouraged each group of students in their observing to really try to put themselves in the shoes of the people who used this intersection – to empathize and understand the decisions of the drivers and how the unsafe conditions at the intersection impacted these decisions. Unsurprisingly, many fifth graders enjoyed seeing people disobeying the traffic signs and going around the median (though I discouraged them from chastising the drivers while we sat there at the intersection!)

Once we had collected data about the intersection and came up with some possible solutions, it was time for us to move on to the next step in the design process – to begin working on designing prototypes of a new intersection. Currently, we are in the middle of this process; first, we have had to take a few weeks to learn how to program LEGO EV3 Mindstorm robotic vehicles to be our “cars” in the new traffic systems.

Look for a new post on our progress as well as some other design work 5th grade has been engaged with very soon!


News Literacy: Recognizing Fake News and Choosing Reliable Sources

Misinformation and fake news have become the clarion call in these politically charged times, but this is not a new topic. Journalists have been writing pieces from one point-of-view or creating a bias in a particular story to increase readership and ratings for as long as there has been news in print. Thomas Jefferson was credited as the first politician in the U.S. to use muckraking as a political tool, this method of discrediting your opponent has resurfaced lately. So, it is important that we give students the tools to cull through the information available online and in print to find reliable sources.

During a Willows faculty meeting in January, I spoke to the faculty about the proliferation of fake news and offered them some news literacy tools that they could share with the students.

The Washington Post and Reuters posted an article about Canadians heading to the Women’s March in the U.S. that were stopped by U.S. border patrol guards and told to turn back. Each article included an interview of one person (Sasha Dyck), who described the experience. It was the same person interviewed in the two newspapers. So, I wondered, “Why is there only one person being interviewed? Did one news source write the article and the other source copy the information? Was there only one person turned away at the border, or were more people turned away? Can I find more information in other articles?”


I searched for other articles about Canadians being stopped at the U.S. border because they wanted to attend the Women’s March, and found Joe Kroese, and Joseph Decunha were also turned away according to a BBC News article. Finally, I looked on the fact-checking site to see if there was any information about this incident. had an article about the incident that listed four people who had been turned away at the same border crossing. Was there one overzealous border guard on duty?

These are the steps I used to check the authenticity of my source:

  1. Focus on finding good resources (The Washington Post and Reuters are good resources)
  2. Form questions about the information in the resources
  3. Look up other resources to determine the validity of the original source
  4. Use a fact-checking site to evaluate the information

Fact Checking Sites

Fact Check.Org: A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fact-Checking – Duke Reporters’ Lab Duke University’s database of global fact checking sites

Snopes.Com The definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation

Dyck, Sasha. “Sasha Dyck, Second from Left, Who Said He Was Was Turned Away at U.S. Border on Thursday, Instead, He Participated in Women’s March in Montreal with Family and Friends.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Jan. 2017, Accessed 2 Mar. 2017.

Erickson, Amanda. “U.S. Border Agents Turned Away Canadians Hoping to Come to the Women’s March.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Jan. 2017, Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Mann, Helen. “’We Didn’t Have Anything to Hide’: Canadian Heading to Women’s March Refused Entry to U.S.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 22 Jan. 2017, Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Palma, Bethania. “Canadians Reportedly Turned Away from U.S. Border on Inauguration Day.”, Snopes, 25 Jan. 2017, Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

“Protesters from Canada, UK, ‘Turned Away at US Border’.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Jan. 2017, Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Sharp, Alastair. “Canadians Traveling to Inauguration Turned Away at U.S. Border.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 20 Jan. 2017, Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Video Essays: A Win-Win

“I’m done with my work. Can I go on my computer?”

I don’t know of any teacher who hasn’t heard a student ask some version of that question. We hear it all the time, and the query usually makes us suspicious at best.

“That depends. What are you planning on doing on it?” And therein lies the rub. The technology our students have access to can be a teacher’s best friend and worst enemy, often on the same day. To those of us who went to school in the “olden days” (pencils, paper, maybe a typewriter), incorporating technology can be a bit of a leap of faith.

When I designed a project for my class earlier this year in which they were to create a “Video Essay” about a figure or event from the Civil Rights Movement, I was only trying to give them an alternative to a “typical research paper.” Instead, why not try to do something that speaks to the times and to my students’ skills and interests? I knew what I wanted them to get out of the project; I hoped that if I gave these kids the opportunity to try something different, they would surprise me with the results.


When the finished products began pouring in, I was floored at how good, how professional, they were. But you know what? I probably shouldn’t have been. These kids are constantly and consistently barraged with media, and as a result, have become experts by osmosis. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in front of the class teaching when some technical glitch attacks my computer. Before I know it, there are 3-6 helpful 8th graders providing me with quick fixes for not only the current glitch, but ways in which I can download a new font, change the language on my keyboard, and download a picture of a llama wearing a fez as my new screensaver.

So their ease with technical concepts such as pacing, editing, sound, music, montage, and rhythm were way beyond my expectations. But as this was still a research project, albeit one that seemed to play to their strengths, I was still concerned about some of the basics. Would they still be able to clearly convey a thesis? If so, will they be able to defend it with support? And what will that support look like?

As I watched these Video Essays, these concerns began to melt away. I watched one film about Plessy vs. Ferguson that used an iPad’s time-lapse feature, vocal nint_17_ms_intersession_bo072arration, and the student’s artistic talents to create a lesson so clear and concise, I am fairly sure I’ll be using her lesson in addition to mine in the future. Another student used editing techniques and music to create a feeling of momentum and excitement as she built toward her thesis in a video essay about our recent Intersession. Again, amazed by how sophisticated the work turned out to be.

So, is the takeaway here that students clearly no longer need to write essays, opting instead to let them play around on their computers? Absolutely not. Video Essays should be a complement rather than a replacement; an opportunity for students to learn how to develop a thesis and with valid support in a new, different way. To move scholarship beyond just creating knowledge and take on an aesthetic, poetic function.

I couldn’t be happier with how these projects have turned out. The students were excited about working in a new medium, while at the same time their strengths as thoughtful researchers were strengthened at the same time. I believe that is called a Win-Win.

*Some of the research and wording came from a website

Designing with Empathy


I teach in a makerspace each day. Design thinking and the steps of the design process are interwoven into so much of what takes place within my maker classes. During each hour-long class, students learn by engaging in work similar to real-world designers: facing challenges, coming up with creative solutions, and tinkering and experimenting their way towards a finished product.

In this space, I see myself as a coach or a guide, providing assistance, resources, and encouragement throughout the design process. When inevitable frustrations occur, I try to be present and listen to the needs of my students so I can provide a useful perspective to enable them to persist with the problem they’re trying to solve.

Do I see myself as someone who’s teaching children to develop their emotional intelligence? I have to admit that in the past I have not, or at least not in the same way as I see my colleagues, who are directly teaching tools for developing emotional intelligence in the classroom. However, recent events at The Willows have caused me to contemplate the connections between design thinking and the work we’re doing with emotional intelligence within our community.

As we begin our second year of work with Yale’s RULER program, I am reminded that the “R” and “U” in the RULER acronym stands for “recognizing” and “understanding.” Taking a second look at the design thinking process outlined by Stanford’s d.School, the first step, “Empathy” matches perfectly with these ideas.


When designers are beginning a project, it is important that they ask questions like:

  • Who am I designing for?
  • What are their motivations?
  • What needs am I seeking to meet?

Stepping into the shoes of whom you are designing for and understanding the world from their perspective is crucial to the design process. Similarly, successfully navigating our interactions with the members of our community also requires recognizing and understanding the feelings of others. There is a spirit of inquiry and openness that is essential to both, and empathy is a key component to developing collaborative skills across the curriculum.

I give full credit to Christina Kim, our Director of Student Life, for helping me fully connect these ideas together. She was part of a group of Willows teachers and administrators that visited the d.School last spring while in the Bay Area for the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) conference, who came back inspired to redesign a space in our Middle School based on what they had observed on their trip.


Shortly after their return, I found myself in a meeting that exemplified for me this intersection of design thinking and empathy. Lisa Rosenstein, our Head of School, brought together an eclectic group of 8th graders, Middle School teachers, administrators, and specialists in IT, ed tech and maker to engage in a dialogue about how to best transform one Middle School classroom into what has now become our designLab.

In a sense, all those assembled were being asked to empathize with the future users of the space – incoming 6th, 7th and 8th grade students (as well as their teachers). I was most impressed in this dialogue by the 8th graders; even with only weeks to go before graduation, they were full of constructive suggestions and comfortable sharing ideas at a large table full of adults. I saw a group of students reflecting on their experiences and imagining how the space could best serve the Middle School after they leave, and I also saw the kind of collaborative effort between different members of our community that makes me inspired to work at The Willows.







“Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It”

All of sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

In advance of a visit to The Willows next week from Nicholas Negroponte, one of the world’s most innovative, revolutionary thinkers (and grandfather to one of our Kindergarteners), I was inspired to revisit an incredibly prescient short piece he wrote for Wired magazine 22 years ago, from which the above quote was taken. The whole piece, “Learning By Doing: Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It,” is short and worth taking the time to read in full.


Negroponte is well known as one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab and for giving the very first TED talk, where he predicted much of the modern technology we use today (see links below). Reading this Wired article again, I found it fascinating to reflect on which of his predictions for education and society at large actually came true.

One quote that really caught my eye in the  article:

In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now with multimedia, we are faced with a number of closet drill-and-practice believers, who think they can colonize the pizazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the thick heads of children.

What was true in the 1960s and the 1990s is still true today. Now more than ever, what sells in Ed-tech are just shinier devices and platforms for delivering facts and practicing rote skills. Arguably, there are times and places for facts and skills, but Negroponte reminds us here that educators need to imagine all the ways to use computers to help people learn something besides Googling facts.

Learning By Doing

Negroponte’s insistence that schools promote more learning by doing resonates most today. Essentially, this is the ethos of the maker movement, and one that informs many of the projects I choose for the maker classes that I teach at The Willows.

For example, our third graders are learning about the Native American tribes of California, specifically the villages of the Chumash tribe. Naturally, the classroom teachers and I thought it would be a good idea for the students to make their own interactive version of a Chumash village, complete with littleBits circuits and other tech-related components.

However, before even beginning to create the Chumash village, I asked students to first just build a village. To kill two birds with one stone, I actually asked them to draw and program a village using the software Microworlds EX, so they could practice coding skills while sharing what they know about villages.

The direction I gave was simple: think about what you would find in a village and try to represent that on your screen. As they worked, spontaneous discussions arose about the difference between villages versus cities; students would identify certain components (shelter, food sources and storage, water), inspiring others to add on to their villages in an organic manner. By observing and taking notes as I circulated, I was certainly learning from their doing, and as they designed I noticed they were learning a few things too.

First, given a finite space on which to build, they had to carefully consider where to place different elements of their village, and how much space each could occupy. For example, most students showed that a village has more than one building some for inhabitants to live in and others for various communal purposes; each had to be scaled and placed properly, and much revision was needed as they tinkered with their designs. Second, many students learned that in their first iterations they had omitted certain vital features; for example, only certain students included some means of transportation to move people in and out of their hypothetical village.

Of course, I could have simply read a book or showed a video about villages to them beforehand if I wanted to ensure that they all had close to identical villages with all of the same elements. But my goal was for these third graders to construct their own understanding about how villages work, rather than mimic what I told them should go into a village. Or, echoing Negroponte’s words, I asked them to build their own village instead of dissecting someone else’s.

By asking them to learn by doing, I was actively engaging them, and also allowing them to teach me what they knew or didn’t know, to inform the rest of our project.

For more on Nicholas Negroponte, here are a few links, old and new:





Reinventing Math

Most students when asked what they think their role is in math classrooms say: it is to answer correctly. They don’t think they are in math classrooms to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, to approach the rich set of connections that make up the subject, or even to learn about the applicability of the subject. They think they are in the math classroom to perform. – Jo Boaler, What’s Math Got to Do With It?

At our Learning Lunches this month, teachers and administrators at the Willows began our time together pondering two questions:

Why do so many students loathe math?

Why do many teachers feel uncomfortable teaching math?

The initial discussion that followed focused on a few recurrent themes:

  • Math is different from other more open-ended subjects – there is just one correct answer, and you’re either right or you’re wrong
  • When students struggle with math problems, teachers feel they only have a limited amount of strategies to help students get to the correct answer
  • Teachers feel less comfortable with teaching math in different ways than they learned it as students

One teacher even spoke about math as being its own language, separate from the usual language we use to engage with language arts, history or even science.

All of this set the stage for us to watch a provocative TED talk from renowned physicist, mathematician and technologist Conrad Wolfram, who will be one the keynote speakers at the upcoming Reinventing Mathematics Education Symposium being held here at the Willows on January 4th.wolfram ted

In a recent Financial Times article, “Stop teaching kids to add up – maths is more important,” he states:

At its core, maths is a problem-solving process. You specify a real-world problem, develop an abstract representation of it, calculate an answer for the abstraction and then translate back into the real-world language you started with. Before computers, almost all human energy was focused on the third stage: calculating. Now it is usually focused on the other steps instead.

Throughout the video we watched, Wolfram essentially sidesteps much of the traditional debate about how to teach mathematics, in favor of a discussion about why we teach math – and, more crucially, what math is actually taught in schools.

Wolfram’s idea for reinventing math education: use computers. Not just for calculation, but also to build conceptual understanding beyond mere calculation. He maintains that the primary way that people understand processes and procedures that drive most of our modern world is through programming; a great way to check if someone understands math, he claims, is have them write a program to do it!


Looking at our classrooms at the Willows, we can see some applications of Wolfram’s ideas, mainly in the programming that students have been doing at our school for many years now. Even our youngest students begin wrestling early on with the basics of programming as they work with Bee Bots, working later with more formal programming in Turtle Art, Scratch and Microworlds.


Beyond providing opportunities for programming (year round, not just for the Hour of Code), Willows teachers have also begun to take steps this year to reinvent math in other ways. Inspired by our school-wide theme of action, teachers in the P.E. department have started to incorporate the concepts of estimation and averages into the weekly activities happening in the gym. Utilizing pedometers for precise data collection, K-5 students were asked to estimate and then discover how many steps it took to complete a lap around the gym. Real-world results enabled rich discussions, as students saw that different student factors (pace, stride, height) influenced the findings. Further conceptual understanding of variance was explored as they worked to estimate and find the average number of steps per grade data

Further data collection and analysis has taken place in Middle School classrooms, centered around the question: What does a typical middle school student do for all four of his/her P.E. physical fitness tests?  Students estimated mean, median, mode and range for the tests, used Excel to work with the data collected by the P.E. teachers, and created graphs to make conclusions about the data. Best of all, student engagement in real-world math in action was clearly evident throughout both of these projects.

Next Steps

With our Math Symposium right around the corner, mathematics is on everyone’s mind at the Willows. Look for future posts on the subject after the Symposium in January!