Expect Unexpected Engagement When you try Hexagonal Thinking in ELA


310: Rock the Reading Block
  • 00:00

091: Taking School into the City, with Laura Deisley of Lab Atlanta

pin it

While the sights, smells and lessons of a study abroad program are compelling, they’re not easy to achieve for most high school students. Yes, our kiddos would learn a lot from a semester in Paris, Santiago, or Bangkok, but wow, that’s quite the cake to frost when it comes down to the details.

What if it was possible to give them an immersive experience right in their own city? What if they could learn from the place where they live, and also learn how to use their gifts to give back?

Sounds like project-based learning at its best.

Laura Deisley thought it just might be possible. Together with a number of collaborators and donors, she started a program called Lab Atlanta a few years back, to give students from across the city a chance to dive deep into their own community.

Today on the podcast, in the second in a series on reimagining education (check out the first episode, with Trace Pickering of Iowa Big, right here), you’ll hear from Laura about why she started this program, how she did it, and what kind of results came from it. Lab Atlanta is still a work in progress, and we can all learn with them as they go.

If you’ve ever wondered how to connect your students to the richness and resources of your community, this episode is for you. If you’ve ever wondered how to empower your students to address the problems of your community, this episode is for you. Lab Atlanta doesn’t have it all figured out yet, but they are knee deep in the work, and I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful to learn from those who are painting their own paths in education, rather than reading the same old map.

Here’s a quick look at Lab Atlanta from the students in its pilot year.

You can listen to my conversation with Laura on the podcast player below or on Apple PodcastsBlubrry, Spotify, or Stitcher. And/or, you can read on for the highlights.


As Laura Deisley moved through her career and raised her children, she kept asking: how can we connect the experience of school with real meaning for students? She wanted to see education evolve away from the content and delivery model, toward a model in which students would have more support and inspiration in discovering who they are and what to do with the lives emerging within them.

While working at a K-12 independent school, Laura took special note of a summer program that connected students to an urban experience of Atlanta. These kids had a chance to learn about the city more experientially, and it got her thinking, would there be a way to create a longer program that would bring Atlanta students together in the heart of the city? Atlanta is quite segregated, with the urban schools heavily populated by black students and private schools having moved out to the periphery of the city. What Laura wanted to know was, could a new and innovative program pop the bubble? There was a leadership program for adults in Atlanta focused on mentoring a diverse group of adult leaders, Laura and her collaborators wanted to create something similar for high school students.

She began to ask, what are the problems in the city that might interest tenth graders? Would it be possible to get them engaging with people in the city who those problems affect? Could she empower them to make a difference?

The Springboard

An opportunity came along through the The Edward E. Ford foundation. They were asking for applications to create programs to disrupt the traditional high school model with public/private partnership and civic engagement.


Laura and her partners began to craft an immersive semester in the city. They used the design process to explore possibilities with the populations that would be vital to their program – students, parents, faculty, city stakeholders. What would be the constraints of satisfying 10th grade and honors level programming in a program like this?

For two years they worked to fundraise and create a new model for the Lab Atlanta experience. They needed to find a building, educate the district, and work with Laura’s independent school community to create interest and buy-in.  They created the foundation of an experience for kids from across Atlanta that ran counter to many traditional norms, and opened the doors to the graphic design studio they had rented downtown in January of 2017, with an associate director and a few faculty members. Everything about their space and plan signaled a bold move in education.

And So it Began

Kids came from public and private backgrounds to try their hand at a tenth grade curriculum delivered through a mix-n-match of experiential and classroom learning.

Right away, the small faculty of Lab Atlanta discovered that their students’ experience of high school had been very different, academically, across the board. They would need more formal classroom time than they thought to help bridge the gaps. While they had planned to be in the city 2-3 days a week, they realized they would need to go to a college model and have classes meet for solid chunks three days a week or so, weaving in time out in the city.

They had their challenges. It wasn’t simple to work through the logistics of moving the kids through the city. Eighteen weeks wasn’t long to orient them to such a different experience of high school and then orient them back for their last two years of high school. Laura and her team began to wonder, might Lab Atlanta be more effective as a high school model rather than an immersive semester?

But in the meantime, they focused on achieving what they could with what they had created. They introduced design thinking, with a strong focus on building empathy. Empathy for themselves, for the city, for the people they were meeting and the communities they lived in.  The faculty began to guide students to think about issues they might want to tackle through that lens of empathy.

Take a look at some of the issues that students connected to in this list of capstones one Lab Atlanta class worked on.


As more groups of students came through the program, the Lab Atlanta leadership continued to struggle with the way they were coupled to traditional education. They are now in the process of figuring out the next version of Lab Atlanta, exploring how they might better help and interact with the classrooms and schools kids have come from and will go back to.

Students were leaving Lab Atlanta having gotten off the hamster wheel and experienced learning without so many interruptions. They liked engaging with more interdisciplinary learning and having time to experience their city. They were eager to slow down, to think and reflect more deeply. The Lab Atlanta semester left them with so much more understanding for others. They learned how to look at their own work and the work of others and collaborate. They had many opportunities to create and to connect.

But what would happen to those lessons when they returned to school?

Photodocumenting: Visual Voice

As Lab Atlanta explored their options for fulfilling the tenth grade curriculum, they decided to choose photography as their visual art offering. They gave every student a DSLR and brought in a photography teacher to teach experientially, connecting photography to their English classes and their research in the city.

This turned out to be one of the most successful choices of the program. Integrating the arts in this way turned out to be very powerful for these kids, part of a visual generation. Students were fascinated by the chance to document as they went.


Laura doesn’t like to refer to the students’ capstones as “projects,” because they don’t begin and end in the way of a traditional PBL. The students’ work at Lab Atlanta culminates with the building of a prototype, and that prototype has the potential to live on within the program.

The program worked hard to teach the students about the city – weaving in novels, essays, articles, and documentation about the history of Atlanta and who it was designed for – at the same time that they empowered the kids to connect to an issue and begin to imagine change. Rather than have a design thinking course, every students participated in a kind of design thinking overlay over the program as a whole, engaging in a capstone experience of their own choosing, around an issue that they felt passionate about in the city. As they worked through the program they needed to find an issue, gain empathy around it, brainstorm possibilities for a prototype to make an impact, and then formally present back to a public audience with their prototype (which was basically what they would build if they could stay at Lab Atlanta and continue to work).

One young woman focused on the issue of affordable housing. With the help of a community partner, she learned a great deal of background about affordable housing in Atlanta. Then one day while walking around in midtown and interviewing people with her class, she met a young woman, Sam, who had moved to the city and was making $50,000 a year but couldn’t find affordable housing within a reasonable commute.

The student became passionate about the lack of resources and poor coordination of affordable housing in Atlanta, and eventually proposed a website that would provide financial literacy for families and also a greatly improved web experience for finding housing that would fit any budget. Essentially an amped up version of Zillow, on which people of all income levels would be able to see what was available in real time. This student eventually presented at a Stanford conference the following fall, and Lab Atlanta has continued conversations with the city about potential partnerships on the project.

Takeaways for Classroom Teachers

Feeling inspired? Laura shared so many wonderful ideas for bringing the lessons of Lab Atlanta to your school.

#1 See Librarians as Gateways and Connectors: A library or media center can become a connector between the school community and the wider community. As a teacher, you could work with your librarian or media specialist to help make this happen. Building connections between educators and community leaders and professionals takes time, and library professionals can help serve as facilitators to support the integration of the community and the school.

#2 Partner with other Faculty: If you can, search out partners in your faculty. Students love to draw interdisciplinary connections. Design a joint project with someone in another discipline or bring teachers from other disciplines in to talk to your students about connections between their work and what you’re doing in class. Keep building bridges.

#3 Bring the Outside World In: While you may not be able to hit the town as often as Lab Atlanta students, you can bring outside resources into class. Bring people in who do a wide variety of types of work, so students can imagine many different types of futures and see how the work of school makes an impact outside the school walls. Try to bring guests with connections to your students’ interests when you can.

#4 Use their Phone Cameras: Lab Atlanta students loved documenting visual elements of their projects. Many students now have cameras with them 24/7 in their pockets, and you can use these to help add richness to your assignments too. Let them document connections between your work and the world they live in via their phones. Find ways you can build agency and voice for students by combining what they’re seeing in the world with what they’re reading and seeing.

#5 Remember that, as Laura puts it, “in the ability to create, these kids have hope:” When student see how they can use their minds and voices to positively affect change within their school and in their community, it makes a tremendous difference in their lives.

Learn more about Lab Atlanta

The Website
E-mail Laura at Laura.deisley@labatlanta.org

Did you know you can learn about all your wish list ELA strategies on your daily commute or walk with The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast? Explore one-pagers, escape rooms, sketchnotes, creative annotation options, research projects, poetry workshops, and much more through over a hundred quick episodes waiting for you on your favorite podcast player!


hey there!

I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







Need something great for tomorrow? Head on over to the free resources section.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ethical AI PBL Unit

3 Weeks of Attendance Questions

Better Discussion Toolkit


Almost there!

Just enter your email address below to register for Camp Creative: Ignite your Choice Reading Program and updates from Spark Creativity.
Don’t worry, spam’s not my thing.
Privacy Policy.