Sixth graders tackle suicide awareness

Washington Elementary students win national competition by studying suicide prevention

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff Writer

A handful of Ann Dickinson’s sixth grade class came to school last Thursday to find a note written in Spanish outside their classroom. The curious students called over a classmate who spoke a little Spanish, and the girl could decipher only a few words: “Congratulations,” “Spain,” and “November.”

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Students in the Design for Change course from left to right: Arika Alward, Ayiana Prevost, Sean Gallaher, Breckin Nevarez, Gage Ramsay, Josh Read, Evan Dickinson, and teacher, Mrs. Ann Dickinson

After putting the pieces together, excitement erupted. Ann’s Design for Change elective class, made up of nine sixth graders, had won a national competition and would be headed to Madrid, Spain, in November.

The Design for Change course, offered as an elective at Washington Elementary, is centered around teaching kids about design thinking. Ann said design thinking is a problem solving strategy used in businesses around the world, and that many fields are adopting the concept. Design for Change is a global organization and competition that puts design thinking into “kid-friendly terms” and encourages students to solve problems in their community, Ann said.

She said the Design for Change curriculum breaks design thinking down into four stages: feel, imagine, do and share. During the “feel” stage, students practiced empathy in considering how they could help their community.

“We brainstormed community problems from off-leash dogs to bullying,” sixth grader Ayiana Prevost said.

Though bullying was something the kids initially wanted to combat with their Design for Change project, they changed course after taking a hard look at the recent events in the area.

“We kind of found (studying) bullying and sportsmanship all led up to the same thing, which was suicide,” said Evan Dickinson, Ann’s sixth-grade son.

At the time the class was working through the “feel” stage, five teen suicides had already occurred in the area over the previous two years. When another local high school student took their life in October, Ann said the class knew they had to find a way to help.

“You could tell it was weighing on them — they knew it had happened again,” she said.

So just under a dozen 11- and 12-year-olds began studying the causes of teen suicide and brainstorming ways to combat it in their own community. The students said they found childhood trauma, toxic stress and lack of a trusted adult to talk to were all factors that could lead to suicide.

“When we started taking it more serious we started finding out stuff,” said student Breckin Nevarez, who discovered an interview on Youtube with a mother who had lost her son to suicide. One of the mother’s messages was to “give people their 15 minutes and validate them,” Prevost said. She said that line stuck with her and classmates moving forward with the project, and they started to consider ways to educate their peers on “resilience” — something sixth grader Gage Ramsay said people aren’t born with, but have to learn.

The Design for Change class visited Washington Elementary kindergarteners and taught them that even though they are little, no one has the right to put them down. They targeted kindergarteners because children don’t realize they’re being traumatized until about fourth grade, Evan said.

“As they researched they became more empathetic, and every time they found something new about suicide prevention you could see that empathy just become even more,” Ann said.

This empathy and dedication apparently came through in the video Ann submitted to the Design for Change USA competition, because her students were invited to represent the United States on an international stage in November. She said they’ll be fundraising through the summer and into the fall in hopes of sending herself, all of the students and a few helpful community members to the Madrid conference.

But outside of the competition, the students said they want to see their suicide prevention efforts — which they’ve named H.O.P.E (Have Only Positive Expectations) — continued at the elementary school. They also want to keep educating their peers next school year when they move onto middle school.

Ann said she will work with teachers at the middle school to see if her students can keep spreading H.O.P.E. as seventh graders.

“They’re kind of thinking their work’s not done,” she said.

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