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English Teacher Lynn Mittler Introduces New Pedagogical Innovations to Educators

Upper School English Teacher and JK-12 English Department Chair Lynn Mittler spent some time in Atlanta last August, presenting at the STLinATL conference at Woodward Academy. Much like the Summit for Transformative Learning in St. Louis (STLinSTL) conference each year, educators from across the country gather in one place to share their experiences, findings and best practices.

With over 20 years of experience in the classroom, Mittler has had the opportunity to create and implement numerous pedagogical initiatives. She has presented on a variety of topics from “Coaching in the Classroom” to “Taking Empathy to Action” to “Engaging 21st Century English” to “Nonfiction Blogging.” Her current project has been the creation of an English class that uniquely combines the study of nonfiction, documentary filmmaking, social enterprise and global issues. The Global Action Project (GAP) class allows her the opportunity to implement the use of the Design Thinking process with students both in the writing process as well as in the creation of larger projects. She hopes that working through this process allows students to engage with their own creative and innovative ideas.

This past August, Mittler taught three workshops: Design Thinking, Spider Web Discussions and Entrepreneurship as an Instructional Model.

Design Thinking

Design thinking gives students the ability to tackle big problems with a process that can handle a variety of situations. Used both in the humanities and in STEM fields, Design Thinking allows individuals to employ creativity and innovation with purpose. Mittler introduced STLinATL participants to the Design Thinking process, offered examples from a variety of classrooms and provided materials for teachers to continue their study on their own. She shared tools and resources from a wide variety of design thinking initiatives that can be used to help manage brainstorming, divergent and convergent thinking, and can be implemented in a variety of contexts in the classroom.

At MICDS, we use Design Thinking in the Global Action Project classroom to create social enterprises, but we also use it as an extension of the writing process in our regular classrooms. The process, created by IDEO and the Stanford dSchool, allows for information processing and innovative thinking.

Spider Web Discussions

Using Alexis Wiggins’ book The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussions Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders, Mittler demonstrated how the Spider Web Discussion strategy gets 4th through 12th grade students to engage in a student-driven, higher-level discourse.

To start a Spider Web Discussion, students sit in a circle. On a whiteboard or poster board, draw each student’s name in a circle according to how they’re sitting. After the second student speaks, draw a line from the first speaker to the second, and so on, tracking the discussion student to student, line by line. The students guide the discussion themselves, with the teacher monitoring. Students set goals for themselves, give everyone space to talk and self-monitor. It’s a collaborative exercise where students are collectively creating and finding ideas together. Mittler said, “It’s all based on research that shows that thinking on something together is going to expand your ability to think beyond what you can achieve by yourself.” The teaching comes in the preparation and the debriefing; during the discussion itself, students are responsible.

Participants at STLinATL engaged in a Spider Web discussion themselves, then moved through the creation of their own expectations for their students. From pre-discussion routines to discussion to post-discussion evaluation and reflection, teachers left armed with the tools to walk into class and start this process with students on the first day. Mittler also introduced tools to help monitor student participation, like Equity Maps.

Entrepreneurship as an Instructional Model

An entrepreneur is someone who turns ideas into action. That’s exactly what we want for all of our students, so what, Mittler asks, are the ways we can make learning more meaningful so they can feel empowered with that skill?

The study of entrepreneurship should extend far beyond business classes given the 21st-century skills that are at its core. The workshop started by defining what an entrepreneur is, including the mindset, creativity and innovation, and introduced research about what 21st Century students need. Mittler then guided STLinATL teachers through an exploration of the ways entrepreneurship can be incorporated into a variety of disciplines, specifically focusing on the use of social enterprise as a way to address social justice issues. Using such things as the Business Model Canvas, systems thinking and design thinking, she introduced entrepreneurial processes that teachers can incorporate into their classrooms, processes that provide opportunities for students to engage in more authentic problem-finding and solving and that provide alternate ways to assess students’ understanding. Teachers began to identify ways to build student capacity to think beyond problem assessment to sustainable solution creation.

Mittler said she gets as much out of her workshops as the teachers who attend them. “It is such a great opportunity to collect my own thoughts on these topics and then learn from the collective wisdom in the room each time I present,” she said.

In addition to teaching at STLinATL, Mittler has consulted at St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island, where she helped move the school’s English curriculum towards digital literacies. She has also consulted at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, on using Design Thinking to move their curriculum to laptops.