Design thinking for reading comprehension

Kindergarten teacher Lou Frelinghuysen was grappling with ways to teach her students story elements, including character development and identifying problems and solutions, as well as finding text evidence to support their inferences.  Curious about design thinking, she decided to use it to teach her students creative problem solving while building reading comprehension skills.


A designer herself, she played around with a few different ideas in planning the unit. First, she chose a book with a compelling protagonist and clear problem. She chose William Steig’s Brave Irene, in which a plucky little girl doggedly brings a gown to a palace for a ball amidst a wicked snowstorm. Listen to Brave Irene (read by Al Gore) here on Story Online.

Then, she planned the lessons, breaking them down into each stage of the design thinking process. Initially, she ambitiously tried to combine crafting needs statements and brainstorming in one lesson, but realized she needed more time to model the needs statement. I share this to show that she too was embracing a prototyping mindset trying out a new instructional method, likely building empathy with her students!


Next, to showcase her students’ work, she devoted a nook in her room to the design wall. Here, she hung student work from each stage of the process to see their progress through the process. It also highlighted the divergent thinking at each step of the way, celebrating their creative thinking.

Here is an overview of how she taught the unit:

1. Empathizing: In her introduction, she linked empathy with work the students have done in the classroom in conjunction with a global PBL, in which the boys have practiced interviewing, perspective taking, and collaboration (for more info, check out the classroom website here).  Lou shared, “As I read I began to think aloud about what type of a person she was (and what evidence tells me that), what is important to her, and how I might feel in her place. As I read, I had boys join in and talk about how they might feel if they were in her situation. Some boys shared that they are also happiest when home in a warm house with their mothers. Others had also had experience with twisted ankles and knowing you need to get up and keep moving even though you are hurt. We played a mini-game of charades where I had boys make whatever expression Irene was making in the illustration and talk about what she might be feeling in that moment and why.  When we came to the description of Irene shivering and chattering, boys pointed out that those words told us that she was cold. When the box flew away from Irene, I asked how boys thought she might be feeling and Remy said he felt like she might be worried that her mother would be mad. Lo and behold, a page later we read, ‘Would her mother understand, she…'”

To anchor the boys’ inferences in textual evidence, she partnered them up and assigned each partnership one or two pages to review.   As Lou described, “The boys were tasked with highlighting (in pink) evidence in the words or illustrations that showed things were going well for Irene, such as the words ‘happy’ or ‘bright light’, and highlighting (in yellow) evidence that demonstrated things were not going well for her, such as the words ‘pain’ and ‘cried.'”




2. Defining needs: To define needs, she adapted a needs statement page she’d used in a workshop to work for her Kindergarteners. Much like a Madlibs, her needs statement student work pages said, “Irene is ________________. She needs _________________ so she can _________________.” Within that structure, boys came up with different but appropriate adjectives to describe Irene and her needs. Some boys targeted her reaction to her challenge, describing her as “sad” or “frustrated.” Others identified her tenacious character, describing her as “brave.” Variation also occurred in describing her needs, where ideas included “someone to help”, “animal friends”, “someone to pull her.”


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3. Brainstorming: The boys then brainstormed solutions to the individual problems they identified. Lou provided another developmentally appropriate graphic organizer, with four boxes to sketch ideas. She also gave prompts to help them connect their needs statement to their possible solutions


4. Prototyping: Using low resolution materials, Lou had the boys then build prototypes of their solutions for Irene. The boys cleverly used materials to express ideas.  As Lou elaborated, “Blake made a dagger out of tape and cardboard and shared, ‘This is a dagger to help Irene to cut down wood to make a fire to keep her warm, and if there any any wild animals so she can kill the wild animals.’  Aidan made two sleds out of toilet paper rolls, tape, and popsicle sticks. He explained, ‘These are sleds so when she broke her ankle she doesn’t need to walk. She can just slide on sleds so she doesn’t need to walk and her foot will get better.’ D made a dinosaur out of clay and paper and said, ‘This is a dinosaur so that she could ride on it and it could carry her down.’ Theo constructed a house out of paper and string. He told  us, ‘This is a house so that she can stay warm.’ Nathaniel made a sled out of clay that had a jet attached. Benjy made a car from a cardboard container to get Irene to the palace ‘in one second.’ Everett made a sled out of clay, tape, and pipe cleaners so that, ‘she can get to the duchess.’ Shloak constructed ‘a bus that goes underwater’ out of a toilet paper roll and tape and Remy fashioned a first aid kit our of paper, packing materials, cotton balls, string, and popsicle sticks. He explained, ‘It can help her if she was bleeding, this [the popsicle stick] could get a little blood off, and this is the bandaids [cotton balls]…’ Caden also made a dagger out of cardboard, tape, and a yogurt container. He said, ‘This is a dagger, just like Blake, to kill wild animals so she doesn’t feel scared out in the big wild areas, and she can just cut down trees, but I don’t think a dagger can really cut down a tree. She would maybe have to work all year.'”

The boys had eight minutes to prototype and at the end of the eight minutes we circled  up and each boy shared his work before we reflected on the process.





5. Reflection: Since the boys wouldn’t be able to test their prototypes with a fictional story character, Lou deftly adapted this phase of the process to a reflection. Here, she scaffolded feedback in two steps: I notice… and I wonder… After sharing their observations and questions, she had the group share their favorite and most difficult steps. They also circled back to their prototypes, asking if they would address Irene’s needs. Finally, she reinforced the collaborative nature of small group learning environments by asking them to think about how their classmates helped them.

Lou found the students were open to sharing their experiences, “Remy shared, ‘I noticed that Caden’s is really beautiful.’ Benjy noted that Theo ‘worked really hard’ on his house. Caden shared, ‘Blake was running out of time so I helped him very fast. So I just wanted to say Blake, nice working together.'”

When she asked what the most difficult step of the process was, most boys found the prototyping challenging, “Aidan answered,’Prototyping, even though it’s my favorite. Because you have to figure out what you’re making and how to make one and you can also try one way and then you can take it apart and you can make the same thing of two.’ Everett shared that prototyping was challenging for him because he, ‘couldn’t find the right tape.'”
The boys were able to articulate how they collaborated, as Lou documented their responses, “Blake replied, ‘I was running out of time and I had this toothpick with some glue and some paper and it was not like holding together and then Caden was like, ‘Hey Blake, can I help you?'”


Lou’s reflection:

I loved going through the design thinking process with my students. It was a challenge to try something different from what we do in the classroom on a daily basis, and the boys were engaged throughout each step. I felt that they boys were able to empathize with Irene and they became adept at explaining what clues the text supported their thinking. While I’d tried to scaffold the evidence gathering as best as I could, I think that the text was complicated and in the future, might either use a simpler book or do that step as a whole class. I’m afraid that I didn’t model the needs statement as well as I should have. I modeled it with a more specific example and consequently some boys’ needs statements contained specific solutions rather than broader concepts. I realized this when a handful of boys suggested that Irene needed “a man.” Eeek. (Not exactly the magical kindergarten thinking I’d expected.) Trying to reframe their thinking, I quickly asked those boys, “What does Irene need a man for?” and they replied “to help her stay warm,” “to give her comfort”, and “to help her get to the palace.” I applauded their thinking and asked whether they felt the need was the man himself or rather to stay warm, feel safe, or help getting to the palace. From that point they successfully moved on to brainstorming. I was very impressed with their prototyping skills and the thought they put into their work. I worried that it would be hard for the boys to stop work after 8 minutes and so explained that rapid prototyping was fast, and that their products needn’t and shouldn’t be finished or perfect. I would have loved to have one more day to reflect and perhaps allow boys to give each other feedback. It would have been interesting to see both their suggestions as well as their reactions to their classmates’ questions and suggestions. 

I believe that this project opened the door for boys to think more deeply about the stories they read. I hope that as the year progresses and we talk more about how readers makes connections with the text, the boys will have language in place around empathizing with characters and recognizing their development throughout the story.  And that they will be able to explain what evidence in the book supports their observations and beliefs.

How might we use DT to improve our teaching?

In addition to teaching our students to view the world as designers, we are helping teachers to do the same.  As Sandy Speicher of IDEO told a group of educators, “All teachers are designers.  Once they discover that, they are empowered.”  So with that in mind, we set out to empower our colleagues.  

Wednesday afternoons are reserved for Professional Growth time at Town.  On a recent Wednesday, we held a design thinking workshop serving multiple purposes: to introduce the process to teachers, to try to improve each other’s day, to share the DT work we’ve done, and to provide resources for extensions all with the goal of cultivating a design thinking community among our colleagues.  With over a dozen colleagues choosing to attend and throwing themselves into the process, we think we stoked the flame.

The format was as follows:

1) Stoke design activity (5 minutes)

  • We played an improv game called “Let’s plan a picnic!”  We played in two rounds: leading with the phrase “No, but” in the first round, followed by “Yes, and” in the second.  It highlighted the generative result of building versus blocking ideas and got us primed to take on a design thinking challenge.

2) Design thinking challenge (40 minutes)

  • We introduced the design thinking process by having everyone take on a challenge to design for a partner in the room.  The challenge was, “How might we improve each other’s days?”  Grounded in a graphic organizer designed for students, the group was led through a rapid cycle of interviewing, defining needs, ideating, prototyping, and testing.  At the end, they “bragged on their buddies”, sharing the prototype designed for them with the whole group. We observed the diversity of designs: a portable heater, custom alert system, nap pod, and even a superhero robot! It was incredible that such disparate ideas stemmed from the same challenge, highlighting the range of needs in our community and open-ended nature of the process.

3) Reflection (10 minutes)

  • Everyone spent a few minutes sharing potential applications to their own teaching and asking questions.

4) Share our projects, website, and resources (10 minutes)

  • We shared this website with the group to show how we’ve collaborated to create design thinking challenges, as well as resources to help them learn more.  We also offered to schedule individual meetings with folks to discuss ideas for their own classrooms.  Since then, we’ve met with several different teachers to make connections to Kindergarten reading, middle school world history, and foreign languages.  

By framing curricular challenges as opportunities, teachers are embracing their roles as designers. We are looking forward to bragging on our buddies and sharing our colleagues’ projects on this blog!

Interviewing: need-finding, building empathy
Testing prototypes: hoping to get the portable heater to market!

Testing prototypes: hoping to get the portable heater to market!



MythBusting Begins!

That’s right, we are kicking off the 2013 Town School MythBusting project!

For the next few weeks, 8th grade science students will be working in the design thinking process to guide them in creating their very own episode of the popular TV series MythBusters. 

We will tackle the driving question:

“How might we design an apparatus to test a popular myth?”

The boys will work in pairs to explore different common myths before defining a particular myth they would like to test. They will then brainstorm possible approaches and work on prototyping an apparatus to put their myth to the test. Along the way, they will record footage of their design process to create an episode of MythBusters starring them!

Past myths have included:

  • Is sliding really faster than running during a close call in baseball?
  • Could a person really hold enough helium-filled balloons to lift them off of the ground?
  • Could a penny dropped off of the Empire State Building really harm someone?

Final episodes will be screened (with popcorn) in the STEM lab during the week of Dec. 16-20.






Making Waves

How can we build a boat with 4 paper cups, a square of plastic wrap, 10 plastic straws, and a strip of duct tape? This is the challenge we recently put to the 8th grade physics class.  To make things even more exciting, we held a little competition–which boat could hold the most pennies before capsizing?

Rapid Prototyping!

Rapid Prototyping!

The goals of this challenge were to:

1. Give the boys an experience using the design thinking process with constraints. In this case, the constraints were the materials and limited time (prototypes were built in a mere 30 minutes).

2. Demonstrate their understanding of the concepts of buoyancy and density in a novel situation.

Check out the winning boat below, which managed to hold 350 pennies!

Next Stop: America's Cup!

Next Stop: America’s Cup!




Sharing Prototypes: Presidio Challenge

Sharing Prototypes: Presidio Challenge

We met in the Presidio to share our prototypes with each other. After an exuberant greeting, the 7th graders first shared their field guides with the 2nd graders. They showed them their work, explained how it was specifically designed and tailored to meet each boy’s needs. For example, some included graphics, illustrations, or were organized differently. The 2nd graders tested them out by using the to identify plants in the park. They shared feedback using safe terminology, “I notice” and “I wonder”. Then we swapped and the 2nd graders got to share their designs for bird awareness with the 7th graders. These had a more open form, taking shape in the way of apps, books, signs, and games. The 2nd graders were beaming with pride as their buddies listened attentively and gave encouraging feedback. They then discussed possible next steps for refining and producing their prototype.

During this weeklong challenge, the boys felt engaged (cheering when they saw designing in our schedule!), focused (deliberate in their work), empathetic (honing on their specific buddy’s needs), and creative (generating ideas upon ideas upon ideas). We are looking forward to our next cross-grade collaboration in the winter: redesigning the cable car experience!






















Prototyping: Presidio Challenge

For our introductory design thinking challenge in second grade, Rachel Dionne and Amy Nielsen created a helpful template for planning prototypes.   They made a large sheet (11×17) that included a graphic organizer for planning (Idea?  Materials Needed?  Description?) and an open space for drawing the plan.  Students in their class used the data they collected from interviewing 7th graders to collaborate and plan prototypes together.  While they all were addressing the same design challenge (“How might we educate our 7th grade friends about native Presidio birds?”), their ideas were extremely varied.  Some ideas included board games, models, motorized birds, books, apps, and diagrams.

I also observed students using a generative design thinking mindset, building on each others’ ideas with a “Yes, and” approach.  In particular, we witnessed this exchange between two boys working on a board game:

Boy 1: “How will people move forward?”

Boy 2: “We should have cards.”

Boy 1: “Yes, they should have bird trivia on them!”

Boy 2: “And they’ll tell people how many spaces to move!”

Boy 1: “And they should have answer options A, B, C so people can guess the answer!”

Despite the government shutdown, we’re excited to share and test our prototypes in the Presidio tomorrow!

Prototyping a board game

Prototyping a board game


Using diagrams in books for prototyping inspiration


Sharing prototype ideas






Introducing the protoyping planning template

Defining and Ideating: Presidio Challenge

To introduce the second graders to the defining phase of the process, we created a template for them to distill some big ideas about their buddy’s needs from the interviewing.  As one kid observed, it was sort of like a Mad Libs!  We wanted to give them a framework for defining needs, and provided modeling and some options for them to think about the learning modality they would be designing.  We will continue working on developing need-finding and creative confidence, before jumping directly to a solution.  We will can do this across curricular topics, such as sharing different strategies to solve a math problem and predicting and evaluating outcomes in literature.  I’m reminded of a quote often used at the that highlights the importance of defining needs: Henry Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”

My buddy Connor needs games, technology, and illustrations to learn about how birds fly.

My buddy Connor needs games, technology, and illustrations to learn about how birds fly.

My buddy Anton needs an app to learn about everything and facts about birds.

My buddy Anton needs an app to learn about everything and facts about birds.

My buddy Will needs games and illustrated books to learn about how birds fly.

My buddy Will needs games and illustrated books to learn about how birds fly.


My buddy Ben H. needs an illustrated book to learn about parrots, how they fly, and what they look like.