27 Million Dots (or Why Design Thinking Is Worth the Extra Effort)

27 Oct

As I sat in line waiting to buy some blue paint and Goo-b-gone, the time creeping past 8:00 p.m., I thought, “Does any of this really have anything to do with English class?” This year I began my sophomore English classes with a project on modern slavery, and even though we moved on to topics like Gatsby’s impossible dream and the nuances of parallel structure, the Modern Slavery Project is still going, taking more and more of my time.

This re-occurring unit is one of which I am very proud. I have written about our work in the past, and every year I attempt to reboot this project, I start by showing past work and asking, “Now…what do YOU want to do?”

For the past two years this has meant tweaking the basic pattern from previous years: students research an aspect of modern slavery, create a video PSA, and write letters to various organizations and individuals, all the while making connections to Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This work is always engaging, interesting, and original, but this year I pushed my students to think about ways to amplify their voices and increase their impact.

I utilized some design thinking training that is part of Beaver’s in-house professional development. I built in more time to INSPIRE (a research stage of the design process), and we took our ideas through a longer process of iteration. My students were particularly keen to take our work beyond the classroom walls, and they devised some novel ideas to do so:

27 Million Dots: Make Your Mark

One section transformed a three story hallway in the building by painting 27 million dots to represent the total number of slaves in the world today. This idea is inspired by Paper Clips, the documentary about children at a Whitwell, TN middle school collecting six million paper clips to represent the six million lives lost in the Holocaust.  The students generated many ideas about how to best create a physical representation of such a large number, but the plan that emerged as most “doable” and having the most impact was the dots.

The morning of the dots experiment, I winked awake at four a.m., my brain crackling. I wasn’t falling back to sleep any time soon. I was second-guessing our decision to paint a public wall. I have seen my students’ handwriting, how could they possibly create an art installation that was professional? Also, I’m a teacher, which means I have control issues.

I was quick to calm myself. I began thinking about a Daniel Pink mantra we hear often at Beaver, “Make excellent mistakes.” If this idea turned out to be a failure, it would be an excellent one. We would mess up while implementing an idea that the students created, organized, and executed. I have been a true “guide on the side” during this process, and I just needed to have a little faith.

Of course, I needn’t have worried. We spent two hours painting dots and a significant transformation occurred. There were spills; there were drips; there were imperfections and smudges (some by me). Yet, there was beauty and learning, too. 16 students were able to create 54,440 dots in two hours, and they were engaged the entire time.

They worked out systems to streamline their work, they had fun, and they found moments of quiet reflection. The monotonous motion of applying dots gave them an echo-of-a-notion of the work slaves perform every day. They also prepared facts, quotes, and anecdotes about slaves’ lives. At various times we stood back, silently reflected, and then listened to one voice filling the quiet space with a sliver of truth about modern slavery.

In future posts I’ll share the students’ reflections on our 27 Million Dots work. Also, I took my other section to the start of the Freedom Trail in the Boston Common, where we created a flash mob, bombing a public space with paper airplanes for freedom. I promise more on this idea, too.

I am convinced such moments shape my students in ways that an essay, test, or presentation never could. My students still engage in more traditional modes of learning in class. I’m always grading piles of essays in my spare time, but I am most excited to chase more moments like these. For me, these ideas are exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Teaching this way takes more effort, but I know the ideas that students generate, develop, and execute are the ones that really matter.

BCDS Students Fight Slavery: Visit our class wiki to see more student work

5 Responses to “27 Million Dots (or Why Design Thinking Is Worth the Extra Effort)”

  1. Jane Batham October 27, 2012 at 8:29 am #

    Truly inspirational! Learning that your students will never forget and hopefully their message will get out and they can make a real difference.
    The dots look simple but beautiful.
    Well done for letting go. (I have control issues too. Lol)

  2. Malkire October 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Wow! Your work is fantastic and your honesty is powerful.

  3. Catherine Wei November 1, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    These two projects raise a good question as to whether or not the classes actually made any change. For me, my class participated in the “27 Million Dots” project. In class, you asked us if we felt as though these blue dots on the wall made any difference? Did we really help end modern slavery or was it just a fun project to get out of having an actual English class? Truth is, we didn’t actually go to India and rescue children who worked in sweatshops; instead we just stayed here in a private school in Chestnut Hill, MA. Yet, I believe our two-hour work did accomplish one thing which was to spread awareness. Before you introduced us to this Modern Slavery Project, I was completely oblivious to the fact that slavery was still existent today. After these past two months, I truly believe I became educated on this important issue and as a maturing young adult, learned more about the real world society. We were only a class of 16 individuals, yet everyone of us indulged into a topic we may have or may not have known about and self-educated ourselves on different aspects of slavery-blood diamonds, sex trafficking, or the chocolate industry. A few weeks earlier, Ishmael Baeh, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, came to Beaver to talk to us on his childhood experience. As he wrapped up his speech, he said, “I would rather have 1,000 well-informed supporters than millions of misinformed ones.” Our project didn’t involved a tremendous amount of people, but the 16 of us became well-educated and thought of ways we could embark on to ending modern slavery. So back to the question, did we make any change by placing dots on a wall? Yes, I believe we did. The number of people enslaved today still continues to rise, but we were a “sprout”. We took the first step in abolishing any movement by learning about the issue and now it is up to us the future generations to combat modern slavery.

  4. Mark Rotner November 2, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    When I first stepped into American Literature 10, I had no idea what to expect. I quickly came to realize that our class, was based on action. And that you wanted us to focus on action, as well as the problems at hand.
    We were asked if the work we did made an impact-full difference, and I have to say that it did. We tried to make one million dots, but we barely scratched the surface, with only fifty four thousand four hundred and forty dots on the three walls. In my opinion, this proves how many slaves that are currently living today, go unnoticed. And how ignorant that we really are to the plight of the people that we previously had no idea existed.
    While we may think that we failed on the surface, deeper down, what we did, proved that all efforts that have been done to this day have barely scratched the surface. If we can get past what we perceive, and think, what could the nemesis of our expectations be and see farther on into what we did. Then maybe, we could see that we put a small hole into a big issue, but when you keep poking and jabbing away, everybody can become educated and understanding of what is happening in the world. Even though we did not end slavery, maybe, just maybe we educated somebody who didn’t know, and is now every bit better for it. //_^


  1. Video Reboots | Robin Neal - November 23, 2014

    […] 27 Million Dots (or Why Design Thinking Is Worth the Extra Effort) […]

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