Tag Archives: Town School

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.

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

Exploring New Ideas (ENI) Workshop

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ENI workshop

Today I had the opportunity to take a peek into the Explore New Ideas (ENI) Workshop, which is new to the Lower School at Town.  It’s a great resource for our design thinking endeavors, as it provides space and materials to tinker and build.  There are designated times for 3rd and 4th graders to use the space, and all teachers can sign up to use the space on their own, or coordinate for coaching from fourth grade teacher, Jij De Jesus (“Mr. D” to the kids),  who is managing the ENI Workshop.  He’s shared some background about the ENI with us:


ENI Process

What is it

ENI inspires curiosity and creativity in students through hands-on, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-centered inquiry activities.


By creating opportunities for boys to “explore new ideas”, and coaching them through the learning and thinking processes, students develop core competencies and skills that are relevant in all aspects of life. Hands-on investigative STEM activities develop inquiry, promote an understanding of the nature of learning, and allow for students to autonomously engage in the process of knowledge construction.

As a school, we also recognize the unique opportunities presented to us as inhabitants of the Marina Campus this year. We want to take full advantage of the increased space and prime location to maximize the benefits for the boys and their learning. In that sense, ENI will draw inspiration from the Exploratorium, former occupant of the Marina campus, and the surrounding Golden Gate National Recreation Area.


ENI utilizes best practices from a number of innovative teaching approaches to meet the specific needs of our boy learners.

  • Project Based Learning (Buck Institute)

  • Design Thinking (Stanford d.school and Lime Design)

  • Inquiry and Science Process Skills (Exploratorium)

ENI activities and projects will involve investigating and solving a real-life problem, or building and designing a product that successfully meets a given challenge. Students will often work in small teams, using collaboration and communication skills.

Significant academic content will provide a foundation for ENI projects, exploration will be guided by questions that provide focus, and after multiple opportunities to research and develop their ideas, students will be asked to publicly share their thinking and what they learned.


ENI will be integrated into the already existing curriculum and schedule of Lower School classes.

Students in K-2 will participate in ENI activities as scheduled by grade level teaching teams, especially during times where the curricular content is particularly conducive to creative exploration.

In 3rd Grade and 4th grade ENI Workshops take the place of the former electives program. Boys in these grades will participate in 2 of the 4 ENI Workshops this year, 1 per semester. The Workshops offer small group instruction (10-12 students) during one hour-long class each week. ENI Workshops for this year are:

  • Lego engineering

  • How does it work? Bicycles!

  • TED (technology, engineering and design)

  • ENI Challenge Workshop


Most ENI activities will take place in the ENI workshop, located in the northeast corner on the ground floor of the Marina Campus.  At times, aspects of multi-day ENI activities will  be facilitated in students classrooms or outside in the surrounding area.

Our second graders have used the ENI Workshop to answer questions about seed germination (How will I know if my lima bean seed it germinating?  What will it look like?) and we will be heading back later this week to plant our own seeds.  We are looking forward to many discoveries in the ENI Workshop!


2nd graders finding signs of seed germination


2nd graders investigating for signs of germination


4th grade challenge observations


Mr. D and 4th graders testing and evaluating sailboat prototypes

Sharing ideas for sailboat designs

Sharing ideas for sailboat designs


Bike repair in the Mechanical Engineering room of the ENI

DT Intro: Presidio Challenge


Our students will get their first taste of design thinking this year working in cross-grade collaboration.  Working reciprocally, 7th graders and 2nd graders are designing solutions to help each other better understand native plants and birds of the Presidio.  The design thinking challenge beautifully bridges grade level curricular topics, while fostering creativity and teaching our students the design thinking process and mindsets.  We will certainly employ a bias toward action and radical collaboration: this mini-challenge is one week long!


We are delighted that you’ve come to visit!  We are at a unique crossroads in Town School’s history, as our school is not only under physical construction, but our focus on teaching and learning is being re-examined.  In doing so, the school has renewed a commitment to encouraging innovative teaching practices, one of which is design thinking.  After a few years of dabbling in design thinking, we are eager to share our work charting the new approach at Town.


Town School, before


Upper School, now


Lower School, now


Town School, next year