In a quest to teach graphic design to elementary students, Ann Dickinson stumbled into a program that has slowly taken over her classrooms in the six years since.
Now there is evidence of it across Sandpoint, too—but Dickinson isn’t the one steering the change. Her students are the ones doing that.
“The adults don’t drive the project, kids do,” Dickinson said.
Dickinson teaches health at Sandpoint Middle School, but before that she taught at Washington Elementary. That was where she first heard about Design For Change: a K-12 program that can be adapted to just about any educational setting.
The program uses the tagline “Young People Changing the World,” and the idea is that Design For Change “equips young people to transform empathy into social action” using four steps: feel, imagine, do and share. “What makes this program so powerful is, with any adult and a group of kids, you can do this program,” Dickinson said. “It’s meant to fit any situation.”
Previous groups of students she advised went on to make global connections, specifically one group of sixth graders, teachers, parents and administrators who traveled to Spain for the Design For Change global summit in 2017. “I can tell you, that whole experience was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. Just to see what other kids were doing around the world was amazing,” Dickinson said. “Everybody came back changed.”
That year, Dickinson’s sixth graders were chosen as the United States’ ambassador group due to their work with a suicide prevention program.
“We’d had this rash of teen suicides, and they took it on,” Dickinson said. “What they did was pretty amazing, and their level of understanding and maturity was pretty amazing.”
Design For Change, which has a presence in more than 50 countries worldwide, pushes students to design local solutions that align with United Nations Global Goals, using the Design For Change framework.
That framework asks students first to feel the problem: What are the challenges in the community? They practice interviewing and researching skills during this phase. Then they are asked to imagine: What might solve or address this issue in the community?
In the third phase, they are asked to “do”: They develop and implement a plan that results in lasting change in the community. And finally, they share their work locally and, if possible, globally.
For their visit to the Global Summit, Sandpoint students created a video that explained how they used the four-step process. In the “Feel” stage, they met with principals, teachers, kids and experts from the community to better understand the situation. In a span of a little more than two years, eight teenagers in the community had committed suicide.
As they imagined possibilities, they did team building activities of their own and brainstormed solutions. They then taught other students about resilience, something they had identified as important in suicide prevention. They conducted assemblies and two Random Acts of Kindness challenges. Finally, they shared what they learned and did with their parents, teachers and community members during a presentation of their work.
This year the Design For Change Sandpoint board had hoped to send representatives from multiple DFC teams in town to the I CAN Children’s Global Summit in Rome at the end of November. For example, second graders at Washington Elementary created a “Stop School Food Waste” project to align with UN Goal No. 12 of “Responsible Consumption and Production.” Another group at the school focused on minimizing consumption of plastics in the community. But for various reasons they weren’t able to make the trip work out.
“It was really unfortunate,” Dickinson said, “but one thing I really want to emphasize is we don’t do this for trips. This is for our community.”
Countries participating in November’s Global Summit included five from South America, eight from Africa, 18 from Asia, 13 from Europe, plus the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and the United States.
Ambassador Design For Change teams from the United States are addressing a variety of issues: elderly isolation, stress and anxiety associated with school, the plight of bees, sexual assault awareness, gun violence, and food insecurity.
Currently the Design For Change club at Sandpoint Middle School is trying to stock every school in the district with automated external defibrillators, Dickinson said.
“I love it. I think it’s absolutely awesome,” Sandpoint Middle School principal Casey McLaughlin said of the program. “It’s super powerful, and what we’re already seeing is kids are applying it.”
Earlier in November students brought in an AED as an example and have contacted several people in town to raise awareness—and hopefully funds. Already people have called and are willing to donate money, McLaughlin said.
Their goal is to eventually get AEDs in public places across the community and, eventually, statewide, Dickinson said. The importance of the AED project came to light when a student at a district school collapsed on the playground. While the boy was OK, it drew attention to the fact that there are defibrillators at very few schools in the district.
After the incident, one of the four phone calls the child’s parents made was to Dickinson.
“This (Design For Change) group of kids have been phenomenal with their passion to bring life-saving devices into their schools and keep their classmates safe from future incidents that might be similar, but potentially much worse, than what we experienced,” Dana Albanese Bowen wrote in an email, referring to the incident with her child.
The Design For Change program endures at Washington Elementary, Dickinson said, and she has hosted trainings on how to implement it in other community groups and churches. There is interest in establishing a Design For Change club at the high school, possibly as an elective.
From an educational standpoint, Dickinson said she likes to utilize Design For Change as a framework because it’s not so much a curriculum as it is a way of approaching a subject from a problem-solving perspective.
Students are practicing all sorts of academic skills, nestled into whatever project they are pursuing. They are reading, writing and, especially, speaking, she said.
“Every year I’ll hit reading, research, presentations. Those standards will be covered in depth,” she said. “The kids become such great speakers every year. … When they speak to an audience, when they see the work they do, it speaks for itself.”
The global nature of Design For Change is one aspect that McLaughlin appreciates.
“It’s cool to see students with more understanding of other cultures,” he said. “Even more valuable than the project itself is meeting people, other groups around the world, seeing people are people and humanity is humanity. In a small town I think you lose that perspective sometimes.”
The authentic purpose behind their work is certainly there, Dickinson said, as they look at real problems and use design thinking to imagine and implement solutions. They are developing, she said, as leaders and problem-solvers. “The kids are looking at real problems and using design thinking to imagine, get creative, think of solutions and work with people in the community to implement them,” Dickinson said. “They’re really doing something meaningful for their community and for themselves.”