Design Thinking At Darlington School – Interview with Jennifer Sikes

Meg Cureton of MVIFI met-up with Jennifer Sikes of Darlington School at the Innovation in Teaching Conference at UGA in Athens, GA to discuss creating, implementing, and maintaining Design Thinking processes both in the classroom level and within the faculty/administration at Darlington School (Rome, GA).


Meg: Tell me a little about you and what led you to begin exploring design thinking?

Jennifer: About three years ago, I sort of had a mid-life career crisis and considered leaving teaching to accept a position as marketing director of a small advertising firm in Alabama. I had grown frustrated with teaching and at the time, was having a hard time identifying where the frustration was coming from. Just before a holiday break, a team of teachers introduced the entire faculty to the design thinking process, and during the training session, I realized exactly why I had grown frustrated with teaching. I had been teaching for years exactly the way I had been taught: lectures, worksheets, pop quizzes, reading comprehension questions. It was time to kick the podium and the quizzes to the curb and look for new ways to engage and assess my students, and design thinking offered just the spark I needed to push me into a redesign of myself as a teacher.

Molly Jordan, our 2nd-grade teacher at Darlington, and I decided to apply for an in-house fellowship to redesign our classrooms and ourselves as teachers. Part of our proposal included design thinking: we wanted to attend MVIFI’s Fuse conference and then work with a team of students to use design thinking to redesign our classrooms to suit all types of learners. In Spring 2016 we received a substantial grant through the Carla and Leonard Wood Faculty Distinguished Fellowship and attended MVIFI’s Fuse Conference in the summer of 2016. We are currently in the last phase of our redesign process.


Meg: What were some of the most impactful moments from Fuse that you feel like continue to inform your work?

Jennifer: During FUSE, we watched a video of a student talking about seeing herself beyond a numerical grade. Giving students one grade to reflect the complex work they’ve completed throughout the semester is really difficult for me and was, as I have now learned, part of the issues I was having with teaching. I felt like my students were doing so much more and being so much more than one letter grade reflected. While I haven’t completely resolved my issues with grading, I have found another way to determine what my students are learning in a meaningful, real-world-applicable way.


Meg: Share with readers some of the design thinking work you’ve done so far in your classes…

Jennifer: In AP Literature, we completed a design thinking challenge that involved empathizing with characters in Frankenstein in order to solve one of their problems. One student design team, for example, created an ambition watch for Victor Frankenstein so that he could remain connected to his family while also working on a big design project himself. By the way, several of my students concluded that Victor could have really benefited from the design thinking process, particularly the prototype, test, and feedback stage.

In my English 1 class, students completed a proposal for building a tiny house. They worked through the design thinking process to create a mock-up of a house that they’d like to build on campus.

In all of my English classes, we use the design thinking process to emulate the writing process. We ideate during prewriting; we share-out for peer feedback; we prototype and test during the drafting phase.


Meg: Do you feel like you have a “DT tribe” – who are they? Who are your influencers?

Jennifer: Absolutely. Our Associate Headmaster, Stefan Eady, first brought DT to Darlington after attending an AAT (Atlanta Area Technology Educators) meeting at Mount Vernon. From there, he recommended that our Professional Development Coordinator, Rebekah Kinney, attend MVIFI’s summer program. She led the training session at Darlington that changed my entire approach to teaching. In addition to Rebekah and Stefan, I’ve found quite a number of teachers on Twitter, like Maine English teacher Dan Ryder, who use design thinking in their classrooms. But my tribe is still growing, and I am constantly looking for connections to teachers who are using design thinking often in their classrooms and who are adept at creating design thinking projects that go along with skills they are teaching.


Meg: What have been some of the challenges to implementing design thinking into your classes?

Jennifer: Last year when I used design thinking in my AP Literature class, I had quite a bit of push-back from the students. They worried constantly that the project wasn’t preparing them to take the AP Lit exam. What I realized is that even though I could see many ways the project was helping them develop skills for the exam, I hadn’t clearly communicated that to the students. This year when we do the project, I’m going to spend time on the front end of the project talking to them about how each step of the DT process reinforces specific skills they’ll need on the exam.

While I wish the exam didn’t loom so heavily over their heads all year, as their teacher, I must acknowledge their concerns. Most of my students have already begun to specialize in a discipline, and for that reason, are ready to move on to major classes and away from core classes, like English. A solid score on the AP exam will give them that opportunity. Finding a way to bring together design thinking and skills needed to perform well on the exam, however, will give the class a broader meaning beyond an exam score. This is something that on which I continuously work. As more of our lower school teachers implement design thinking in their classrooms, I imagine that the students worry about how design thinking reinforces skills will decrease.


Meg: In what ways are design thinking infused into the Darlington community?

Jennifer: We’ve completed several projects using design thinking, and Rebekah also teaches a design thinking class. Her class just packed 100 birthday bags for local school students and used DT to determine what should go into the bags; in our lower school, students used DT to build catapults to see whose catapult could launch a candy pumpkin the greatest distance; our middle schoolers recently used DT to create chairs for specific users.  Darlington’s first major design thinking project was to redesign a room in our library. On a faculty level, we’ve used design thinking to complete several projects: a team used DT to create an Individual Student Portfolio System; another team, led by Associate Headmaster Stefan Eady, used DT to redesign the entire Darlington website.

Meg: What do you hope to learn at the next Fuse?

Jennifer: Ideally, I’d love to structure an entire academic class around the design thinking process. In all honesty, doing this without a larger tribe of academic teachers working toward the same goal is hard. I’d love to make connections with people who can help me use DT in a skills-based curriculum.

Related articles and links:

Information on Fuse 19

2019 Innovation in Teaching Conference

Design Thinking

Agenda from AAT Conference at Mount Vernon


Jennifer Sikes
English Teacher, Upper School – Darlington School, Rome, GA

Jennifer joined the English department faculty in 2010. She holds a B.A. in English Education from Shorter College and an M.A. in English from Clemson University. While working on her M.A. at Clemson, she also studied for a semester at Oxford University before completing work toward her Ph.D. in English at the University of Georgia. Before coming to Darlington, Jennifer was an assistant professor of English and the Writing Center founder and director at Shorter College. She was also named Junior Faculty Teacher of the Year at Shorter in 2009. Since her time at Darlington, Jennifer has presented at several conferences throughout the Southeast on her work with design thinking in the classroom and was named STAR Teacher for Darlington School, the Rome/Floyd County School Districts, and for Region I.

Leave a reply

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