Sandy Spring Friends School



Defining a “New Normal”: Design Thinking in the SSFS Middle School

Design Thinking—an SSFS Middle School arts elective—is part science class, part research project, and part artistic discovery.  Steffany Cartellone, a member of the Middle School Science Department and the teacher for Design Thinking, described the class as utilizing the scientific method and an inquiry-based approach to solve problems with well-thought-out solutions. 

“In our Design Thinking class, we use the process of investigation: asking questions, identifying the problem, and coming up with a solution.” Steffany noted, “When a student or a group of students presents a solution, the rest of the class offers feedback, and based on that feedback students tweak their projects to come up with a final product. It's kind of like the scientific method in that you have a question, you form a hypothesis, you do some testing, you collect data, and you come to a conclusion -- one that hopefully answers the question and solves problems identified throughout the process.”

The Design Thinking class, which launched last year, was planned with in-person education in mind. But, like all classes this year at SSFS, what began as an in-person curriculum had to pivot to fit a virtual classroom.

“This summer, I thought long and hard about what projects I wanted to work on this fall, knowing that we were all going to be at home,” Steffany said. “For this semester, I thought, ‘you know, this is an important time in history.’ And I think one of the groups of people most affected by it is kids because they’re being asked to do school in a way that has never been done before. I thought of all of the times when I was a kid where I read instances of people my age sharing their interpretation of what was happening, and I thought, ‘what if we did that? What if I had students record this moment in history for them?’”

This question posed by Steffany sparked a semester-long project for her students to begin documenting their year in virtual school, the “new normal,” and all our lived experiences under the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Early in the semester, Steffany posed the concept to the students and shared that throughout the year, they would begin to answer the question, “What is the new normal?” for themselves and those around them.

The students began with photography. “At the beginning of the semester, we started with a simple question: what makes a good photograph? Students took fun photographs and came back and gave each other feedback,” said Steffany. “From there, I asked students to photograph their ‘new normal’ and share it with the group.” The students then shared their photos to the classroom, as well as documented their thoughts by journaling in an online portfolio--a tool that students use throughout the class not only as a way to turn in the work for credit but also to act as a time capsule of their personal exploration of the “new normal.”

Photos taken by Design Thinking students as representations of their "new normal."


Next on the students’ agenda was documentation through interviews. “I had the students learn the interview process, and as a class, we talked about good questions,” Steffany said. “And then I said, ‘Okay, I want you to go and interview somebody and get their story about their “new normal” and what that means to them.’” Students worked on the interview project, choosing parents, extended family, and friends to interview.

Students garnered a unique variety of perspectives on living in a “new normal” from the interviews. Grace C., an 8th-grade student in the class, interviewed her grandmother. “I got to hear a really unique perspective on Covid-19 that I probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” said Grace. “Since she has lived through many more historical events than a lot of us, she has more to compare these times to, and a lot more insight on them.” 

Another 8th-grade student, Jacob C.,  interviewed his cousin. Jacob reflected that his interview with his cousin’s experience was mixed due to personal preferences and direct experience with the virus. “He is the type of person who likes to stay at home, so he was happy about quarantine. However, his father got COVID-19 so it wasn’t a very good experience on that front.”

After the interviews were completed, Steffany reflected on how heavy the work had felt for her students.  “I just thought, ‘Man, if I was a 13-year-old, I’d kind of be done with COVID at this point, you know? I would be done talking about it.’”

Putting herself in the shoes of a 13-year-old sparked another moment of inspiration for Steffany, as she reflected on the thing she loved so much at that age. That thing? Music.

Steffany’s next project for the Design Thinking class was to consider the power music has to evoke emotions. The assignment’s goal was two-fold: to give students an escape from the heaviness of the “new normal” project and have some fun in the process. She showed her class a video from NPR, entitled “A Journey Through Musical Emotion,” where host Alison Young took four classical songs to showcase how music alters your emotional state. “In the video, she plays the music from the shower scene in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho. Very tense!” Steffany noted. Once they listened through the array of songs and identified emotions, Steffany asked the students to pick an emotion. 

“I told them to pick five songs that bring out an emotion--they could choose the emotion--and write a few sentences as to why they picked each song. And I asked them to name the song and the artist,” Steffany said. “I wanted to listen to the song because I love music!” 

Due before the beginning of winter break, the assignment was a successful reprieve from their regular classwork. It was also a perfect way to jump into the winter holiday, with Steffany using the last week of classes in December to play some of the students’ songs. “I was kind of like the DJ,” said Steffany. “I had opened up a whole bunch of tabs, and it was all music.” The selection of songs was eclectic; the playlist included Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Beatles, Claude Debussy, Yo-Yo Ma, and more. “I was blown away,” said Steffany. “Their music variety and knowledge are vast. I  was like, you have some cool parents!”

Although the musical taste was eclectic, positive emotions were the most popular. “I did have quite a few happy or excited or energetic songs,” noted Steffany, “and that was my intent. I was hoping they would pick happy things, and then it would be uplifting to them.” Steffany noted that, although the majority were uplifting, there were a handful of sad songs in the mix. “Sometimes, sad music helps students get the sadness out.” 

During the class, Steffany played a live Coldplay song, a selection from one of her students. “The video is of Chris Martin, and he’s standing on stage. And every once while it sweeps across the crowd, you know, there are thousands of people with their hands in the air and smiling,” Steffany said. “ And I asked my students, ‘Can you imagine what it would feel like to stand on that stage and know that what you created evoked that emotion in tons of people at that moment? You get lost in the song.’ And that was my hope for them, that they would, at that moment, get lost in the song. Just let go and have some fun.”

As students get closer to completing their first semester, they have begun reflecting on the class itself. “I have really enjoyed Design Thinking,” says Grace. “It’s such a unique class to be in, we’ve gotten to be really creative with our assignments, and we’ve learned about a variety of topics including photography, how to design something effectively, and interviewing.”

The Design Thinking class has also offered students a chance to find their own answers to questions such as “what is the new normal?” and “how do we get through these uncertain times?” Part of that answer—and perhaps a solution to the problem of coping in a pandemic—is to find a balance between facing the realities of a challenging year and getting lost in a song.

Find your song in the Design Thinking playlist, made up of music selected from our Middle School students, including these songs with quotes from our Design Thinking students: 

  • Billie Jean, Michael Jackson (Emotion: Energetic) | “This song is energetic because the tone is fast and exciting. And the singer's voice is fast. Also it makes me dance a little bit.”
  • The Swan by Saint-Saëns, Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott (Emotion: Calm) | “ I like this song because I think it‘s very beautiful and peaceful. It also gives me an amazing image in my mind of a swan swimming.”
  • Trololo, Eduard Khil (Emotion: Silly) “I guess the mood would be ‘feel good.’ I like [this] song and play it if I want to laugh. 
  • Come And Get Your Love, Redbone (Emotion: Happy) | I really like ‘Come and Get your Love,’ because it makes me happy and I smile. I loved “The Guardians of the Galaxy” movie.
  • Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard, Paul Simon (Emotion: High-Spirits) | “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard is awesome because it makes me want to hop on my bicycle and round up the guys in the neighborhood and hang out.”

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