Making Meaning in Minutes

“It forces us to trust ourselves more.”

We talk a lot in my AP English Literature and Composition class. Today I wanted us to make more meaning than words. This is how we did just that.

How might we demonstrate understanding of Cunningham’s protagonists in the The Hours through the process of making physical representations?

which really boils down to . . .

How might we demonstrate understanding and meaning through making?

which in turn distills into . . .

How might we practice critical creativity?

As is the case for most problem solving in my classroom, the four-phase DEEP design thinking process provided our framework. DEEPdt, created by Mary Cantwell’s iDesign Lab and further developed at the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation, provides the sort of nimble workflow that can be applied to most any context and near every time constraint.

My Sunday night notes for a 45 minute DEEPdt flashlab experience with my AP Lit students and Cunningham’s The Hours, as well as some notes for the week to come

Discovery Phase. 10m.

Having read the first 40 pages of Cunningham’s The Hours, students came to class already engaged in the Discovery phase. They had also been assigned sketchnotes of each protagonist based on the characterization thus far.

Inventory the materials. I provided them two minutes to navigate our maker cart and let their minds wander with possibilities. Our cart is full of yarn and Jenga blocks, buttons and second-hand LEGO bricks, wire and beads, most everything arriving by way of our local repurposing and recycling center, Everyone’s Resource Depot. 2 Minutes.

Maker cart materials from UMF’s Everyone’s Resource Depot

Sketchnote share. Brilliant students. Didn’t do all of their homework. Sad trombones. 2 Minutes.

Key quotes. Identify a key quote for each of the three protagonists from the text. Along with the sketchnotes, this provided a grounding in language of the author. These are not mere exercises in whimsy — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but rather evidence-based designs. 3 Minutes.

Post-It notes and page numbers are all one needs to identify the key moments

Key words. Identify key words the creator associates with the character. Identify key words you associate with the character. I asked students to put these on alternating color sticky notes to make for visual distinctions and easy reference while circulating. It also permitted them to incorporate the words into their designs. 3 Minutes.

Yellow for the creator’s words, green for our own

Empathy Phase. 10m.

Empathy Map. Students used an empathy map, typically used to process and debrief empathy interviews with a potential users, to shape their understanding of the protagonists. At this point, I asked the students to narrow their focus from all three protagonists to the one of resonance for them as individuals.

What the Character Says and Does. Capture key moments from the text that relate the character’s words and actions. I asked students to identify page numbers and the first few words of the quote, not to spend all of their time copying. They used sticky notes to mark their places in the text. 5 minutes.

Empathy can make powerful analysis

What the Character Thinks and Feels. Interpret the words and actions into the characters thoughts, beliefs and emotions. 5 Minutes.

Experiment Phase. 10m.

Create. Using the understanding established in the first two phases, were asked students to create a physical representation of the chosen protagonist. The only constraints: 10 minutes and it must incorporate at least one, but no more than three, quotes from the text.

Unique approaches to capturing a character

Production Phase. 10m.

4 Corners Feedback. Ask meaningful questions and provide useful critique. Students used an adaptation of MVIFI’s 4 Corners feedback form to respond to one another’s designs. These individual times to process led to discussion and conversation, clarifications and further ideations as we yes/and-ed each design to prove every component and feature intentional — whether the designer was aware of it at the time of creation or not.

Forty minutes plus stoppage time and students created meaningful representations of these characters, revealing tremendous insights and nuanced takeaways from the text. Virginia’s false front, Clarissa’s aloofness, and Mrs. Brown’s struggle with a cookie cutter world all came to light. Certainly many ideas were still left on the table and not every design could be discussed in exhausting detail. Thus, students were given time to take pictures of their work, to document their process, and encouraged to blog their thinking. The dialogues may continue in those spaces and the metacognition will certainly progress.

In our debrief, we discussed the value of this experience. Students expressed frustration with time constraints and that the experience felt stressful at times. So why do it?

“It forces us to trust ourselves more.”

In a course that is preparing students for post-secondary critical thinking by way of a three-hour multiple choice and essay test, I can think of few other skills I’d want them to hone than belief in themselves and their capacity to create.


Check out more of Dan Ryder’s thinkings on teaching and learning on hisTwitter feed, website, and Wicked Decent Learning.