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First Day at Pathways

This post covers the first day of orientation in the new Pathways Program at Warhill High School, in Williamsburg, VA. 

The Warhill High School commons is abuzz with the chatter of 100 excited fourteen year-olds, nervously clumped around tables, ready to embark on their first experience as freshmen in this new program.

Mrs. Anderson’s voice rings out above the clamor, “ I’m going to ask you to do something really awkward…I know, I’m really loud….” She doesn’t have a microphone.  She doesn’t need one.  Her infectious energy permeates the room. “Get up and introduce yourselves to people you don’t know. Make a new best friend today!


As Mrs. Anderson circulates, introducing people as she goes, her bubbly demeanor infects the crowd.  She then asks pairs to share unique qualities about themselves.  Each time, the larger group acknowledges them.  At one point they’re not enthusiastic enough, which elicits from her, “That was weak!” She repeats, “This is Trevor and Brandon, say hi!”

The responding “HI!!!” is deafening.

Their Principal, Dr. Carroll, then speaks about what we all hope for students to experience in the program.  He cites research done by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which shows that many students in mainstream high school have expressed feeling “tired, bored, and stressed”.  The more time kids spend in high school, the less engaged they become.  One way Pathways aims to change this is by fostering deeper learning and engagement through using Design Thinkingpractices.


Dr. Mark Hofer takes the microphone to lead students through Stanford’s Backpack Redesign.  He first asks them to design their own ideal backpack.  The ideas flow: A backpack with eyes so you don’t bump into other students during the passing period, one with wings that can fly you from class to class to alleviate tardiness, a jet pack…


Hofer explains that, though this is “problem solving”, it is not Design Thinking.  He leads students in a paired activity where they try to really understand what their peers need in a backpack.  They interview their peers to make a list of desired backpack qualities and create needs statements like, “my partner needs a way to charge his phone in his pack”.

Here’s where the pandemonium of PBL really starts to ensue.  Students create prototypes.  The monkey print fabric flies, scissors race across butcher paper, and there is a constant flurry of duct tape, string, buttons, and pipe cleaners.  Resourceful groups even use the blue plastic supply buckets themselves as materials to create backpacks.

When Mrs. Anderson calls time, the students line up to runway strut their prototypes for the entire cohort.  The results are amazing. My favorite is still, of course, the jetpack!

Practitioner takeaways:

  • Keep it energized and chunk it into easily digestible, engaging segments.
  • Organize the pairings beforehand to avoid confusion.
  • Bring more supplies than you think might be necessary and have items like scissors, glue, and tape already available at each table.