Courageous Conversations: A Teacher’s Reflection

Dec 12, 2018 | All School, Build People Up, Come to Play, courage over comfort, Design Thinking, Middle School News, Upper School News

Kristen Pisacreta: Seventh Grade Literature
Project Based Learning

A Teacher’s Reflection on Courageous Conversations

This semester students read the novel Monster, by Walter Dean Myers and explored what it feels like to be silenced in our judicial system and what rights are actually allowed by the First Amendment. Students analyzed the First Amendment and evaluated historical court cases that challenged the way we view our First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech. After analyzing the life of Steve Harmon, the protagonist, we decided to see how we could connect freedom of speech, silencing, and courageous conversations to our own community at Mount Vernon. How might we, as advocates of freedom of speech, create a safe space for MV students to have courageous conversations so our voices don’t remain silent?
To launch our design thinking challenge, students interviewed Upper School students as their users to see what types of courageous conversations these students wanted to have, but often felt like they couldn’t. We then gathered our interview data using a fact-finding protocol activity to figure out the moments of visible empathy and to categorize our findings into three major categories: What we should talk about, behaviors and feelings, and steps and actions. Students then reimagined the driving question to fit their user’s need, which sparked their ideas for solving this issue at Mount Vernon. During the prototyping phase, students delivered elevator pitches to experts who provided valuable feedback to help with final productivity.  
In the end, students created over 30 viable products and solutions encouraging students to have courageous conversations. Products included app designs, websites, support groups, posters, lesson plans, cultural markets, games, after-school clubs, and student-centered spaces. Students shared their ideas and implemented their products in an effort to promote positive change to our Mount Vernon community.
Problem-based learning and design thinking allows students to use their own voices and make their own choices when creating solutions to a problem. This process made me realize that, when we scale down our problem to something that personally impacts seventh graders, solving a real-world problem can be simple and meaningful, and they can really see the change they wish to happen. School is one of the most influential communities for this age level. We saw a need to solve real issues in our community and we ran with it!
There are definitely setbacks and challenges when creating problem-based learning opportunities for students. The first area I realized was key is the “buy-in.” I needed to design a successful launch experience to energize my students about the work we would do. Starting off with an “I See, I Think, I Wonder visible thinking routine” helped students to begin to think bigger. We watched a Ted Talk video about the dangers of silence and defined the meaning of courageous conversations. Students needed to actually believe what they were doing was going to get done! They needed to believe and understand who a real user was and who their product would be for. They needed to receive authentic feedback from someone who wasn’t their teacher. They needed to implement their ideas and reap the rewards of seeing these ideas and solutions actually come to life. Without these components, it is just project-based learning and not problem-based learning and design thinking.  
This type of work required a tremendous amount of planning, coordinating interviews, scheduling experts and designing handouts. It was scary and felt very overwhelming at first, but in the end, the results were worth it. Problem-based learning and design thinking has completely transformed my teaching. I discovered it was helpful to be flexible with the due date and worked with the needs of students by assigning individual due dates. This alleviated some of the pressure of having to get it done at an exact date. It was important to have an end goal in mind, but it was also helpful to be flexible.  Once all the pieces were set in place, my role became more of a guide and mentor as students made their own choices and found their own voice in their learning.  
Overall, this experience was incredibly meaningful to me and my students.