Each new year in the writing workshop begins with relationship building. We establish routines and rituals that establish predictability and trust. We sink into conversations and writing experiences that help us come to know one another better. We invite writers to share their interests and needs. We let them see us, too.

These are essential conversations. But I have to ask:

What are the unintended consequences of inviting our students to reveal themselves at the start of the year and then imposing a curriculum on them that disregards the resulting discoveries?

No one does this with intention, but it’s happening nonetheless. When teachers control not only the forms but the purposes, the topics, the processes, and and even the prompts that drive each writing experience, there is little room for writers to control their own learning or create work that is truly their own.

Many of the teachers that I’m supporting have a newfound and deep appreciation for this, and it’s driving our design sessions. So, in addition to practicing empathy at the start of the year and using what we learn about writers to add nuance to our units, we’re asking ourselves other questions as well.

For instance: How might we sustain the empathy practices that we valued so much during our launch? And, how might we make students our curriculum co-designers? Taking the time to create and work better feedback loops is helpful, and what we’ve learned from doing so inspired us to embrace a process that is uncommon in our corner of the world: Emergent curriculum design.

If you’ve come here by way of my digital course platform or you’re just catching up on my posts for the first time in a long while, here are a few of my most recent reflections on emergent curriculum design. Most includes tools and protocols, for those who might be interested in iterating on the work. Feel free to wander for a while, or bookmark this post and return to read deeply later. After all, there is a larger topic to pursue beyond this list of links.

These posts prepare us to use emergent curriculum, but none of them get at the greatest challenge: Ensuring that writers are consistently impacting the curriculum as we are teaching it.

How might we accomplish this without disrupting learning or removing writers from the workshop to meet with curriculum design teams in a separate setting? And how might we ensure that we are hearing ALL student voices, not only those that are loudest, those that belong to writers who are most comfortable sharing, or those belonging to writers we like best?

These are the five strategies that are helping the teachers that I support work their feedback loops to their fullest potential:

Assessing and reassessing wishes and worries, as they evolve: In addition to asking writers to post up their wishes and worries about the year, unit, or lesson ahead, teachers ask them to return to the chart frequently, adjusting their wishes and worries over time, as needed. They use what emerges to inform their curriculum and instruction. They also talk with their classes about what everyone should take care to do and not do, in order to make wishes come true and worries decrease. Here’s the plan, if you’d like it.

The daily plus/delta: As teachers introduce the day’s learning targets and plan, they challenge writers to name and share what they will need in order for the lesson to be successful. At the end, they invite writers to share how their needs were met and what could change, as well as any ideas that they might have for making the next learning experience successful.

Lesson-embedded polls: This isn’t a sponsored post, but I am happy to recommend Mentimeter for these purposes. This tool enables teachers to poll students and receive answers in real time.

Shared journals and post-ups: Many of the teachers that I support love the idea of shared journals, and they use them for a variety of purposes in their classrooms. They are powerful tools for accessing student voice. Consider the questions you’d like your students to respond to. Place one question on the cover of each notebook. Then, leave them in an easily accessible spot in the room, and invite your students to add their own responses to each one. I like the idea of keeping these anonymous, but your needs and mileage may vary here. Similarly, teachers also invite students to post their responses to important questions on graffiti or bulletin boards during their free moments or on their way in and out the door.

Filling the frame: Some teachers provide learners the “frame” of the unit they are about to teach, defining the load bearing walls that they are responsible for constructing and then, inviting writers to rough them in. Metaphor is helpful here. In the example below, teachers spend some time introducing a new writing unit by defining the mini-lessons that will establish the foundation, load bearing walls, and roof. Writers are invited to document their curiosities and questions as they listen and then, add them to the blue areas of the frame. Teachers collect them, using what they learn to refine their unit plans and mini-lessons.

In the example below, a high school teacher used a picture frame for her metaphor. She brainstormed the specific lessons she intended to teach in the white space bordering each side. Then, she shared her thinking and plans with her students, ahead of the unit.


They documented their curiosities, worries, and wishes and added them inside:

Together, they decided where each note lived within the frame. Some of their interests were relevant to how the form itself was created. Others were specific to craft. A few focused on the process. The teacher will use the notes to refine some of her lessons and add others, in order to meet students’ needs and satisfy their interests. Most importantly, the frame will remain accessible to students throughout the unit, and they will be welcome to add new thoughts as needed and prompted to do so every few days:

Each of these strategies inspires teachers to make what they are controlling for clear to students, as well as where they have control over themselves. These approaches can be used in class, results can be gathered in real time, and most importantly: Teachers can return to the documentation and the data gathered from kids as they model exactly how they are responding to it. These aren’t the only approaches teachers can use to put kids in control of the curriculum, though.

I’m wondering what you might contribute to our learning. Do you have ideas that support emergent curriculum design? Thoughts about building better feedback loops?

How might we help learners impact what we’re teaching……while we’re teaching it……without disrupting the learning?

What do you think?


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