Saturday, October 25, 2014

Square Peg of a Student in the Round Hole of Middle School

 “If they can't learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn” ― O. Ivar Lovaas

Over the past two years at Union Middle School, we introduced a flood of elective opportunities for our students. It was just a perfect storm of opportunities within the schedule to be creative and allow teacher and student input into what we wanted our students to participate in during the school day.

So we added:
MINECRAFT (of course)

MouseSquad (as a class!)

And lots of other electives like Project Lead The Way, Journalism, Keyboarding, Blogging, Jazz Band, Google Tech, and others. Students have repeatedly commented on how hard it is to choose their electives because of how many choices they now have. I think this is a good thing.

There has been one elective, however, that has even surprised me with the positive feedback from our students. It's called Design Thinking.

I've discussed Design Thinking in a previous blog post. On paper, it makes a lot of sense. In action, it's something else entirely*. Perhaps the best way to summarize how successful the class has been is with two conversations I've had, one with a UMS parent and one with a Design Thinking UMS teacher.

To the parent, I sent the below email. This is a student, new to us in 6th grade, who has had an amazing 7th grade year, much improved from the transitional time that 6th grade seemed to be. Design Thinking gave me a new insight into this student and helped build the principal-teacher-parent-student relationship.


I hope you both have had a great start of the school year. I am writing you to let you know that I've been visiting (teacher's) classroom a bit this year, specifically during her Design Thinking elective. (Your student) is in this class.

I'm not sure what (your student) has shared about Design Thinking, but I think it confirms our conversation from last year: (Your student) has a gift. 

He is one of the most amazingly gifted, incredibly creative, and overly empathetic students i've had the pleasure of watching in this Design Thinking class. Simply put, he "gets it" and is incredibly supportive of his peers. In fact, one of his classmates happens to be a new student to UMS and someone who has moved around a lot in their educational career. (Your student), during class, showed some uncanny compassion toward this student that was so "higher level" that most likely only the teacher understood the context of it all.

You have an amazing son. We are very lucky to have him at Union Middle. 

All the best,


What I love about this elective is that it allows students who don't always fit the standard measure of what a middle school student is to be celebrated. Design Thinking allows for all students to share, emphasize, and build. At Union Middle School, we have two amazing teachers each teaching a section of Design Thinking. A recent conversation with one of these teachers** was quite interesting.

I entered their class and took an empty seat. As I observed the class, I started to realize that I recognized many of the students. A common joke when I meet a parent and I don't know their student by name is that I say it's a good thing as I sadly only get to meet the struggling or misbehaving students during my school day. This class, however, I recognized at least six of my frequent fliers from the previous year. These were students who struggled with fitting in, raising their hand, turning in their work... basically everything a middle school asks of a standardized student. 

After observing the class for a short while, I got up to leave. The classroom teacher had moved toward the exit at this moment to have a quick check-in. I felt horrible as I began the conversation that was filled with apologies; I'm sorry, I said, about the make-up of the students in the class. I don't know what happened, I empathized; I can look at moving one of the six students in your class to a different elective. I don't know how they all ended up in your class. It must be very challenging to teach.

The teacher looked at me. She paused. She then said, "Actually, Todd, those are my best students. They are the ones driving the discussion, showing empathy, and participating. Don't move any of them."

And that is a middle school Design Thinking class in a nutshell. 

*If any teachers or administrators would like to come visit, just ask. Something special is happening in our Design Thinking classes. Yes, we have challenging days and yes, we have tons of failures. These are good things. Email me at

**Two essential parts of having a Design Thinking class: (1) get the right teacher(s) to teach it and (2) give them whatever they want to make the class successful.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Featured Post

A long road to travel, often alone but never by yourself...

If you asked any Union Middle School staff member what my three favorite things were, I suspect they would respond with the following answer...