Schools have become increasingly skilled at gathering data about learners–particularly quantitative data in the form of standardized and local test scores. But these data often fail to communicate the most essential information that teachers need in order to serve students well. These data help us develop hunches about what students struggle with. They don’t really help us understand why, though.

This is why story matters.

More than tools to engage listeners, story teaches all of us important things about ourselves and the people we need to better understand.

People like our students. 

I spent today with a group of K-8 teachers who consistently work hard to understand their students. Together, we’ve examined student work, redesigned units, and explored promising and progressive approaches for teaching and assessing writing. They’re about to launch a new year with a brand new curriculum, and they’re eager to work their plans to their fullest potential. This inspired us to try journey mapping, a design thinking protocol developed by Stanford’s

Journey maps tell learners’ stories from the first point of contact inside a new environment and through the learning process. They often take the form of an infographic. I like to use long strips of chart paper, markers, and sticky notes myself. They make for dynamic work.

Journey maps typically suggest what writers wish to achieve and what their greater intentions might be, if known. Thinking about how writers move through the process helps teachers identify opportunities to enrich the experience. It also helps them anticipate stretches of rough road. These include gaps in necessary knowledge or skills and moments within the process where writers may experience overwhelm, frustration, and even breakdown. When teachers map the emotional journey that their students might take through a process, critical insights are gained.

This was our process: 

  1. First, teachers conceptualized the first writing unit that their students would experience. They represented the unit by creating a path. 
  2. Next, teachers mapped specific moments, including moments in the process where specific content and skills strengths would serve writers and moments where gaps in specific content and skills would hurt them. 
  3. Teachers also mapped the emotional journey of the writer through the unit.
  4. Then, they reviewed the maps in order to identify where they felt least confident about supporting writers. This helped me understand where and how I might support them better. They added these needs to a different board. This month, my blog posts will attend to many of these topics: 
  5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teachers identified one struggle that their students might have that they wish to crack open, explore, and remedy. They determined how they would document learning during this phase of the process with their students, and we agreed to bring these data and the greater stories that will surround them back to the table the next time that we meet, in order to analyze our findings and refine our hunches about students’ needs.

I’m looking forward to bringing this first documentation cycle full circle. I’m also looking forward to engaging students in their own journey mapping as we begin the next cycle. How might journey mapping help students tell their own learning stories? Why might that be a very good thing?

Wanna see a few more maps? Thank the teachers at King Center Charter School for their willingness to share.


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