Patrick Learns to Speak: Design Thinking for Teaching Compassion, Team-Work, and Creative Process

prototype 5The challenge: in our world, many people are unable to relate to the needs and lives of others. That said, teenagers, with limited life experiences, and with their tendency to see the world through a rather narrow scope, are paradoxically poised for some of the most powerful connections a human can know.

What does a 15 year old at a private school in San Francisco have in common with Patrick?

Patrick is a deaf 15 year old in a rural area of Uganda. He spent the first 15 years of his life cut off from others, communicating only with crude gestures…until a teacher named Raymod Okkelo taught him sign language. His story came to me via Facebook, and it moved me.

I teach a course called Mystery of Connection. It’s about the pitfalls and paradoxes of human relationships. They are both necessary and impossible, the best and most challenging things in our lives, the source of heartache and joy. Teenagers want desperately to understand and process their own relationships. Thus, the class.

I had already designed a unit, inspired by a Silicon Valley design company called IDEO. They produced something called Design Thinking For Educators, and while I have many criticisms, it lead me to design a unit in which students explore a well known Hebrew Bible story, explore the themes in their own lives, and produce a work of art in three stages: sketch, prototype 1.0, and prototype 2.0.

The students were ready to share their second prototypes, but today was the day before Thanksgiving break. Many students were missing. And I’d been struck by Patrick’s story. An idea came to me, on the spot: let’s do an exercise on empathy, art, brainstorming, creativity, and teamwork.


Phase 1: Students Watch Video.

Text, Self, Philosophy TrianglePhase 2: Students use SELF, TEXT, PHILOSOPHY/THEME triangle to design a sketch in under ten minutes. In short, the sketch must:

  1. Show the imagery, words, or phrases in the Mt. Sinai text.
  2. Demonstrate or describe one of the themes of the text, as students had already explored in the major project, a week earlier.
  3. Make the piece about Patrick – his past (as presented by the video) and his future.

(Their Anchorwork – work to be done while waiting for next steps) was a paper revision and / or a worksheet.

prototype 3Phase 3: Students are paired up to share their drawing. They had 10 minutes to create a sketch that was a hybrid of the two sketches. As I walked around, students speculated about Patrick’s life – the silence and loneliness of his past, his smiling as he connected to others in the story, and his future – and all the new possibilities.

Phase 4: Pairs are combined; groups of 4 have 5 minutes to create a hybrid of all their work.

Phase 5: The two teams of 4 then present their work to each other.

prototype 1Phase 6: The whole group of 8 debated how to create a single work, including elements and ideas from all 8 students.

Phase 7: Two students (one from each team) drew the final design on the board while the other students worked on Anchorwork.


patrickThe Final Product

The final product is a design that combines powerful emotion, with images of loneliness and connection: ears and eyes, hands and motion, fire and a mountain, and out of the top, a brave and powerful fist breaking forth.

Students seemed amazed that they had come up with this.

We spent some time talking about Patrick and the power of his new speech.


This Thanksgiving, I will be mindful of voices – the voices of people in the world, and in our own nation, silenced by oppression.

But this Thanksgiving, I will also be thankful: of the privileges and blessings in my life, for the power of words which brings me closer to the people around me, for my students, for trying something new.

And for the teacher who opened up Patrick’s hands – and his world.

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