Expect Unexpected Engagement When you try Hexagonal Thinking in ELA


288: A Lesser-Known Amanda Gorman Gem
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Empowering Students during Coronavirus

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My husband and I were just talking about student leadership, and all the amazing things kids are capable of when they have a chance to take action. When we show them we know they are capable. That we know they see things we sometimes don’t, and have ideas far beyond what they learn from us. This strikes me as particularly important right now, as our world reels.

Last week I interviewed Trace Pickering, the head of Iowa Big, a program that connects students to community organizations and businesses for collaborative projects. The work functions as part of their core course load. The video below captures how Big is trying to grow a new way for kids and teachers to see high school, and it really captures the idea I want to share today as a concept for learning during these strange times. (Though I think high school classrooms can ALSO be incredible and engaged places to learn, of course).

The truth is that high school desks won’t be an option for the next few weeks in most places, and it seems to me it may be more like a month or six weeks. Maybe the rest of the year.

As I listen to my usual news podcasts and comb The New York Times, it’s easy to get pretty anxious about what’s going on – seniors unable to have visitors in assisted living and nursing homes, young children away from the community and safety of their schools, adults overwhelmed as they try to work from home and care for parents and children, local businesses losing money for reasons they can’t control. Then there’s the whole recession issue.

And yet. I also see so much supporting and helping happening. Mo Willems broadcasting daily doodling time for young children from the Kennedy Center. Angela Stockman opening two free digital young writers courses (middle school and high school). Teachers sharing lesson plans every which way. Book clubs going online. Grandchildren calling grandparents. Friends checking in and sharing funny photos of days at home.

What if in this strange time in education, we use this moment to empower our students in a new form of learning? Iowa Big was created after Cedar Rapids, Iowa essentially went under twelve feet of water in one of the biggest natural disasters to ever hit an American city. As people began to rebuild, they decided to remake and re-envision their town for a new era. A crisis on a similar level is now affecting us all, and I think our high school students could be instrumental in helping us deal with coronavirus.

Let’s ask students to come up with projects they can do from home to make a difference. Design thinking projects with the goal of helping their community somehow.

Click here for an editable version of a curriculum base for this. 

Design thinking sounds hard, but it’s really just a process of creating through empathy. I find John Spencer’s video about design thinking for students super helpful in cutting through the hype and understanding the core of design thinking.

First, students would need to think about who is struggling in their community that they’d like to reach. Young children? The elderly? Local business owners? Those feeling sick and scared? Those who cannot go to work and don’t have enough money to stretch through this time? Those who are always anxious and are now teetering toward depression?

Once they decide who they want to serve, they can begin to learn more. Researching, asking, reading whatever they can about the people they hope to help.

Next, they would begin to brainstorm and prototype solutions, keeping the people they want to serve directly in mind. This is a time for them to be in contact with you or a class partner, creating and improving, talking and tweaking.

As they begin to complete their work, it’s time to launch it into the world. Can you imagine how a community might be transformed by ten thousand high school students completing a project that helps? Or one hundred thousand high school students?

Imagine the possibilities…

A musical tenth grader launches a daily youtube singing class for elementary students missing music at school.

A pair of book-loving tenth graders host a virtual book club for a senior care center.

An eleventh grader who loves web design works with local business owners to create a space online where people stuck at home can buy gift cards to their businesses to spend after the shut down, so the businesses can stay afloat during a time of no revenue.

A twelfth grader missing restaurant food and worrying about his friend who works at a restaurant works with three local restaurants to provide a pop-up takeout night in his neighborhood.

A student organizes a community connection food bank, where a family can post a request for food and another family can sign up to deliver it to their steps.

A student organizes a blog called “Being a kid in the time of pandemic” and invites guest posts from students worldwide, creating a space for reflection, humor, and connection online for kids.

A student organizes a virtual meeting with the mayor to talk about how the pandemic is affecting kids and pitch an idea for a program to help.

A student organizes the creation of a community message wall, painting a big chunk of wall downtown in chalkboard paint and leaving out hundreds of pieces of chalk, inviting people out on a walk to write something kind or inspiring to the next person (and then take their piece of chalk home, so no one shares germs).

You get the idea. These are just my brainstorms, from an adult perspective, not having been in your community (unless you happen to live in my tiny town!). Your students will no doubt come up with things I can’t even imagine. Ideas that can change how people are feeling right now. Ideas to inspire and connect us.

I’m so excited about what our kids could do. I would love to see them empowered to rise up and channel what they’ve learned into our world. What better time than now?

(Painting by a high school senior currently working with me)

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I'm Betsy

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  • Love this, Betsy! I was just talking with my husband about this yesterday–we should all forget focusing on the specific content and focus on helping kids actually use their reading, writing, thinking, listening, speaking skills! Thanks for pulling this all together!

    • Thank you so much! I feel so hopeful when I think about all the ways we can empower our students to bring positive change to this crisis.

  • This is great. I used it as a roadmap for my Changemakers elective yesterday and the kids were excited.


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