It was empathy that drew me to design thinking. The notion that creative people might best begin their work by seeking to understand the needs of their audiences was compelling.

And it got me thinking, once again: Why aren’t all young writers creating real stuff for real audiences about things that really matter?

Some are, I know. Too many aren’t though, and I can’t help but wonder if the way we introduce the writing process has something to do with it. For instance, teachers typically use the words rehearsal or prewriting to define the first phase of the process, and while master teachers might speak to the importance of audience at this time, most students are taught to invest most of their energy in brainstorming ideas that are of interest to them or aligned to the prompts that their teachers provide. We can do better than this.

Design Thinking Elevates Prewriting by Rooting Writers in Empathy

Young writers practice empathy when they begin new projects by considering questions like these:

  • Which stories need to be told right now? Who needs to hear them? How will you reach them?
  • Which arguments need to be made right now? Who needs to be called to action? How will you invite them?
  • What do people need to learn more about right now? How will build and share your expertise?

I’ve found that when the process is rooted in empathy, writers are far more likely to produce and share meaningful work with real audiences.

These approaches have been most helpful:

  • Assume Nothing: In order to practice empathy well, writers must be coached to clear their minds of all underlying assumptions. This is challenging, so explicit efforts must be made. Encouraging writers to brainstorm what they think they already know about their intended audiences, their interests, experiences, and needs is a good way to begin. Once complete, challenge writers to accept these understandings for what they often are: Assumptions.
  • Observation: Invite writers to observe their audiences in environments that will deepen their understanding about their true interests, experiences, and needs. Where might they find them on the ground? Online? In print? How might they use the evidence gained from observation to gain a better perspective of the audiences they hope to serve?
  • Immersion: Immersion invites a level of engagement that is often a bit more intimate than observation. When writers immerse themselves in the world they intend to write about with audiences that they intend to write for, the work that emerges is often far more authentic and genuinely informed. Would it be rewarding for your students to immerse themselves in the reality they intend to write about? How can you help them accomplish this?
  • Interviews: Writers learn much by interviewing their audiences and those who have first-hand experiences with the subjects they intend to write about. Who could your students interview? When? How?
  • Documentation: Whether writers capture their observations using their cell phone cameras, record their interviews using audio or video apps, or reflect on their immersive experiences in diaries or journals or logs, documentation enables them to curate and revisit important details.
  • Empathy Mapping: This sort of knowledge work invites writers to consider what they’ve seen and heard and experienced as they’ve engaged with potential readers or those who have expertise in their chosen subject.

If you’re eager to learn more about these approaches or scoop up practical strategies, take a peek at this incredible resource: Stanford’s d.School Bootcamp Bootleg.

Design Thinking Also Elevates Writing Workshop Unit Writing

Earlier this week, a shared this single slide from a full deck that I’ve been using in several school districts over the last several weeks. It was used for illustrative purposes only, with teachers who are just beginning to conceptualize what a year of writing workshop might look like on the surface.



I never intended to design or share these units. I never assumed that teachers would, either. They’re always given choice, and they tend to work that option to its fullest potential.

But Charlottesville changed everything, including my intentions for that work and this post.

So, here’s the Unit 1 framework from the sketch above: Small Moments that Call for Social Justice. It’s not a curriculum map, and it’s not a fully articulated unit of study. It’s a framework that teachers can make their own. I’ve created alignment, articulated learning targets, and created a coherent pathway through the process……but left enough room for you to customize instruction.

This framework was designed for 8th graders, but I think it’s easily adaptable. Let me know if and how you use it. Want an editable copy? Drop me an email. I’ll send it to you. Make it better. Share it back.

And stop by this space on Thursday, if you’d like. I plan to share my design process, and I’d love your feedback.

We’ll get under the surface of the slide above and dig deeper into unit and lesson design with making in mind, too:











  1. I would love to know more about how you get the kids to choose their topic of interest. Do you give them suggestions or a bank of articles to read? Do you send them out on news sites to look for problems they think are important?

    • Hi Amy,
      I’m sorry that I didn’t see this comment sooner. Apparently, my site has stopped sending me notifications. I’ll be looking into this shortly. Apologies to you. Typically, when I am working with young writers, we begin this kind of writing by empathy mapping. Are you familiar with this? It’s an approach worth investigating. Empathy mapping invites writers to think and write deeply about what their audiences are seeing, saying, doing, feeling, and thinking, among other things. This enables them to choose topics that will be relevant and meaningful for their readers. I might begin this work by asking writers to think about issues that are worrying their friends right now. And then, what are their friends seeing that is causing their worry? What are they saying? Doing? Feeling? Thinking? I could change my frame and ask them what their friends are frustrated by, where their friends are struggling with injustice, or which issues are most controversial. I could also use frames that invite writers to explore more positive experiences. What is making your friends hopeful? How are they feeling empowered? Which important struggles have they overcome? Which big problems have they solved. Again….what are they seeing? Saying? Feeling? Thinking? Doing? Empathy mapping is a rich idea generation approach that grounds writers in empathy work ahead of writing. I hope this helps!

  2. That is awesome! Thanks so much!

    By the way, I just wrote my comment yesterday. You replied pretty quickly, I’d say. =) I am really enjoying your blog and getting so many good ideas from you and from Gamestorming. I am even finding some ideas that would go really well with reading instruction. Really intriguing and it is working my brain in new ways. I really appreciate the shake-up!

    • Yes! If you hit up the search box, you’ll find a post called Gamestorming to Infer, and it is all about reading. I’m glad you find this approach helpful, Amy. It’s amazing what can be learned by leaving the field of education for a bit. I have a deep appreciation for those who facilitate knowledge work.

  3. I am curious if you would share some of what you did for your other units for this social justice focus. Especially as part of Unit 4. How did you encourage them to widen their sphere of influence? By having them look at other similar issues? Considering other perspectives from other stakeholders? How did you guide them in this? I would love to just come sit in your studio and watch all of this unfold for a day! Unfortunately, you are in upstate New York, and I am in upstate SC. =)

    • The fourth unit challenges students to publish their work inside of a network that will give them greater reach. Whether they choose to blog, use their Insta/Snap/Twitter account for advocacy purposes, or write letters to leaders, the point of that fourth unit was to make sure their messages were heard by audiences who could help them create change. These were not taught in my Studio, though. While many units or pieces of them showed up there at different points, I actually spend my weekdays designing curriculum beside teachers in schools. I’m an international literacy consultant. These units, or adapted versions of them, have been taught in those schools. 🙂

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