To Solve a Mockingbird: Designing for Literary Solutions with Little Bits

Dan Ryder
Dan Ryder
May 27, 2017 · 3 min read

“ . . . challenge students to bias toward action, focusing their energies on function and intention. . .”

Over the space of three weeks, my ninth grade students tackled a film study of To Kill a Mockingbird. (Full disclosure: my classes don’t read the complete novel because of its length. Were the film not a piece of art in its own right, I would not be so completely comfortable with this. Plus, in an act of true English teacher heresy, I love teaching my students’ film analysis too much to sacrifice that opportunity for the novel. #unapologeticmisguidededucator)

After unpacking the film, exploring the symbolism in the opening credits, and performing some scene analysis with regards to composition, theme and production design, we turned our attention to a design challenge:

How might we design a solution to the challenges the characters of To Kill a Mockingbird face?

For this challenge they were given the creative constraint of using Little Bits electronics in conjunction with the low-res building materials on our maker cart. The intent? The more the prototype solution reflects reality, the more authentic and the deeper the understanding.

Besides a strong familiarity with the film, most important to our problem solving process was starting with Ela Ben-Ur’s Innovator’s Compass. This design thinking tool allowed us to dig into a character’s problems, brainstorm solutions, align those solutions to the character’s values, and develop a course of action.

Sample Innovator’s Compass for Dill from “To Kill a Mockingbird”

After some time experimenting with Little Bits in general — discovering how they can work with one another, how they integrate with other materials, and how they can achieve more than one effect depending upon how they implemented — students were given forty-five minutes to design and create.

This is fairly typical in my classes. Time constraints challenge students to bias toward action, focusing their energies on function and intention rather than aesthetics and . . . looks.

Having completed their prototypes, students were asked to complete an Intention Map, a design tool I developed to assess student intentionality and understanding, and then provide a walkthrough of their design on Flipgrid.

Had we more time, we would have read more excerpts from the source novel and employed that text evidence in the service of deeper empathy with the characters. It would also be wonderful to have time to elicit feedback and complete second iterations. Still, I’m quite happy with the results for a three-week unit in a 70-minute alternating block schedule.

Perhaps most remarkable was the greeting I received in the hallway the morning I write these words.

“Mr. Ryder! Mr. Ryder!”

“What, Mol?”

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh! I was thinking about our design for To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus and how it is supposed to keep bad guys and monsters away from his kids and everything and I realized the lights that are on our design? That’s JUST like how the kids in the movie are in the light and represent innocence and Atticus is the greater good and RIGHT?!”

Mockingbird solved — for the moment.

See more on design thinking, critical creativity, and evolving education at And contact me on Twitter & Instagram@wickeddecent or by visiting And check out my book with Amy Burvall, Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom from EdTechTeam.

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