Global Leadership Summit

Design Thinking in the World Literature Classroom

Elana is a frequent traveler with EF and in recent years has been a regular participant in our Global Student Leadership Summits. Her first Summit was in Costa Rica on Environmental Sustainability, and more recently, this spring she came to Peru for the Global Citizenship Summit.  Elana is an inspirational English teacher with a passion for World Literature. It is in the context of her course on World Literature that Elana has found a fitting place to incorporate her new fascination with Design Thinking.  Design Thinking methodology has been sweeping through the educational landscape leaving many teachers in its wake wondering how they might employ this concept in their classroom. While direct application of DT in the classroom is tricky, it becomes easier to envision if you remember that at the heart of this concept is empathy for the “user,” in this case is the student– somebody we are all in the business of trying to more fully engage!

I had a chance to interview Elana and get her thoughts on using Design Thinking in the World Literature classroom. She even shared a custom lesson plan she uses in her own class.

George: Elana, how has knowing about DT changed your approach to teaching your World Literature course?

Elana: I think that when I first approached teaching World Literature, my focus was on getting the students to know the material. While I always had a passion for the stories and tried to impart that to my students, I wasn’t fully teaching the material with the students’ needs in mind. As a teacher designing lessons, I learned I could use the Design Thinking process to create experiences for my students that would better connect them to the literature. Design Thinking, in itself, focuses on solving bigger world problems.

Oh, I like this observation about how DT influenced you, as I think the process naturally forces a certain amount of re-envisioning what we do—it forces a shift in perspective or increased understanding of your “user”.  As you were better understanding your students (users), did this renewed focus on their needs ultimately inspire a “How Might We” question?

Yes, as you note, I had already done the first step, Identify. I had taught World Literature several times and could remember which lessons needed revamping based on student interest levels and comments. Teenagers are very honest about what they like and don’t like!

Yes, sometimes too honest.  From this process of Empathy mapping your students, what were some of the insights you gained?  After getting lots of feedback, my main insight was that my students want to see the connection or relevance of what we do in the classroom to their “real” lives outside of school. I have some curricular goals to achieve, but ultimately, if my students don’t see the importance of what I teach, they are not likely to remember it beyond a summative assessment. I took this insight and turned it into my “How Might We Question.” How might my students in World Literature better understand the relevance of classic international texts to their lives; while still learning about the stories themselves and the important literary elements?

So following the Define stage of DT, you’re up to the Ideation phase. This is the fun part: blue-sky thinking. I like to tell my students that this is the moment that they need to pretend that they have both a magic wand and unlimited cash. What were a few of your craziest ideas?

My Ideation phase led me to Prototype a lesson for the African story The Mali Epic of Son-Jara. My goal for this story is not for the students to read it word-for-word, but for them to understand the cultural importance of both the story itself and the form the story takes. I need them to come away with an understanding of how this myth united Muslim and tribal cultures of Africa using historical figures blended with fantasy elements. I also need them to understand the oral storytelling tradition of call-and-response.

Great. Going back to your HMW question, what are a few of your touchpoints you’re using to bring increased relevance of this story to your students?

I use The Lion King to start the conversation because most kids are familiar with the story either from the movie or the Broadway show. I ask the students to tell me the basic premise of the story, and I work through the answers until we agree that it is a tale of family, power, treachery, and triumph. I then ask them if they know where the story came from. They usually say something like, “The writers at Disney,” or Walt Disney himself. At this point, I tell them that the story of The Lion King is based on the story of a real African king, Sundiata Keita, also known as Son-Jara, who is called in The Mali Epic Simbon, Lion Born of the Cat. Of course, at the mention of Simbon, the students immediately see the correlation to Simba, the main character in The Lion King.

And thereby proving that Disney is just borrowing an archetype not inventing one!

Right, as we work through excerpts of the primary text, I have an opportunity to make comparisons of this modern day adaptation to the traditional story. The Mali Epic is written in call-and-response format: there is a line of text that advances the story, and in the right margin, there is a response word or phrase. Often, the response word is “Indeed,” and students have a lot of fun shouting “Indeed!” after every line of text. Some students compare it to their church worship service where people shout “Amen!” at various points in the service. Others see it as almost a refrain as in a piece of music. These are exactly the observations I want them to make. As we are laughing and generating ideas, I ask them why they think the story is written this way.

I guess we see popular political speeches using this call and response method to drive audience engagement all the time.

Absolutely! And if you think back a bit, you can remember that the Occupy Wall Street movement used a form of call-and-response as a way to amplify and spread their message. This is another correlation I can make between modern life and the classic text form. Pretty quickly my students come to the correct conclusion that this story, in its original form, was not written; it was sung to an audience of tribal members at important gatherings. The whole long story of the life and times of Son-Jara, Mali King, was spoken and sung by what is called a djeli or jeli.  The djeli is a historian, poet, praise singer, and musician whose job it is to remember the history of his people and to tell that history in song. In West African society, all prominent families had their own djeli. Students sometimes make the connection between the djeli and the character Rafiki from The Lion King. This is absolutely correct; Disney modeled Rafiki on the djelis of West Africa. This tradition of the djeli came to America with the slave trade, and in some places became known as the griot. I show the students examples of websites that use the term griot today which are geared toward the African American experience. There is even a documentary movie called Griot about Senegalese griot Ablaye Cissoko.

Have you used this movie in class?

Not yet because it isn’t necessary to see the whole movie to get my point across. I mention the movie to students who may want to explore the topic further, or to teachers who may have the time to show it. I generally show them YouTube clips of traditional African griots, and we talk about the power of music as a memory tool. We talk and share ideas about how music makes it easy to remember concepts and long pieces of prose or poetry. Inevitably, Schoolhouse Rock is mentioned, or if it is not, I bring it up as a teaching tool from my childhood. I may even show them a YouTube clip of Schoolhouse Rock.

I see that you’re creating a lively and fun discussion, but can you bring this 13th century piece of literature just a little closer to today? Make it bit more relatable?

At this point, I like using a YouTube video called “Brief History Preview – Call and Response” which explains the link between this ancient form of storytelling and today’s music and social justice movements.

I can see where you’re going with this as questions of Social Justice are naturally engaging to students.

Yes, and at this point class discussion really starts rolling with talk of protest songs, ballads that tell stories, and music’s effect on mood. We may not be directly talking about the Mali Epic, but we are connecting to the power of music which directly links to the call-and-response form of the literature.  Once we have this connection we continue to read excerpts from the primary text to understand the nuances of the story itself–it’s not exactly like The Lion King, after all. I then tell them about the project they will be working on which is to create their own call-and-response story of a person whom they choose.  The students get to immerse themselves in the form and become the storytellers. The project is loud and lively; I bring a collection of traditional and homemade instruments that the student groups must use to create their own unique call-and-response biography. More details are available in my lesson plan. Ultimately, students come away with everything I want them to know: the history of this part of Africa, the plot and characters of The Mali Epic, the role of the djeli and call-and-response form in ancient society, and how that call-and-response form is still used in modern times. Throughout the year, I can still hear cries of “Indeed!” in the hallways. Students often come to me with further examples of call-and-response that they discover in their outside lives, whether on TV, in the movies, or in the music they hear. They have taken their learning beyond the walls of the classroom, and that, to me, is a successful lesson.

View Elana’s full lesson plan here.

George Stewart

George is currently Head of School at EF Academy. As an educator, learner, and entrepreneur, he endeavors to bridge the gap between schools and businesses to best serve the needs of students and teachers in the modern classroom.

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