Practice Empathy and Develop a Curriculum Just Right for Your Writers

Angela Stockman on emergent writing curriculum. 

Standardized programs and curriculum maps initially appear to have several great advantages. First they provide common, coherent, and comfortably linear pathways through learning experiences. They also emphasize outcomes, which helps teachers prioritize instruction and align their assessments accordingly. 

The problem with prefabricated programs and curriculum maps is that they’re typically focused on the mastery of content and discrete skills rather than the study of learning. And what’s engaging about that? Not much. Too many curriculum documents merely reference standards rather than achieving true alignment, and little attention is paid to the learner and the needs that emerge in real time.

Curriculum writers often rely on weak evidence, outdated and even irrelevant data, and popular practices to predict what might work for students. They dedicate significant time to data entry as well, and this prevents them from studying learners and learning with real depth.

Finally, our tendency to accumulate frameworks of all shapes and sizes at every level of our systems creates a kind of noise that distracts us from deeper and more meaningful work. When the framework we use to design a writing curriculum doesn’t play well with other frameworks, including mandated programs, we struggle to deliver on our promises to kids.

Emergent curriculum is responsive curriculum, and it can be the just-right curriculum for your students. It’s evolving rather than prefabricated, and it ensures equity and the achievement of standards by putting the learner and the learning first.

This type of curriculum is framed by teachers, but the details surface from the needs and interests of the writers in the room, and it is socially constructed. Teachers do not design emergent curriculum in isolation, ahead of meeting the writers they support; instead, they design it beside them and in dialogue with them, as their shared learning unfolds.

Emergent curriculum is not directed or controlled by students, but rather, it emerges from the teacher-guided experiences they have in class. We create the context after crafting a shared vision for the learning and the way in which the learning will happen over the course of the year. We define the essential questions and the big ideas for each unit, and we also define the shared learning targets to meet.

These decisions are not a result of mandated standards and test scores alone, but they are informed by immersing ourselves in our students’ lives, observing them at work and play inside of it, and interviewing them about their experiences and the theories that emerge. The design process is driven by empathy.

Allowing the curriculum to emerge from learners’ interests and needs expresses our commitment to a vision far greater than the curriculum itself: the creation of learning experiences that prepare all writers to be of influence in the world.

Emergent curriculum is a vehicle for helping us achieve this vision because it brings writers’ strengths to the surface so they can be recognized and leveraged. It engages learners in inquiry, problem-seeking, and problem-solving. It’s collaborative, it inspires divergence, and it cultivates empathy and interdependence. It also provides writers with the tools needed to become increasingly metacognitive, reflective, and discerning. These are the skills that writers in every field need.

Here’s how you can begin: Try empathy mapping—a process by which writers explore and then reveal how their thoughts and feelings influence their interests, goals, and behaviors. When writers design empathy maps, I gain great insights about what matters most to them. For example, shortly after white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the summer of 2017, I thought deeply about the difference that writing teachers could make in the lives of children who were living through such challenging times. 

I coached some to empathy map with their students, and this allowed them to think about what worried them most, what they were hearing, what they were seeing, what was influencing their thoughts and actions, and what their ultimate goals were as Americans who longed to make positive contributions to the conversations unfolding around them.

Rather than requiring students to write in responses to narrow prompts that were predetermined by teachers, empathy mapping inspired us to provide more options and divergent pathways through the process. This enabled students to pursue their specific interests about the topic and create diverse claims about a current event that confused them.

The curriculum was negotiated with students day by day and one target at a time, as teachers leaned in, listened, and learned from their students’ experiences. They didn’t abandon the targets they prioritized at the outset of the unit, but rather, they refined and aligned them in ways that enabled students to pursue the standards, their interests, and their personal writing goals at the same time.

Read more on emergent writing curriculum, empathy mapping, and more writing hacks in Hacking The Writing Workshop

Know that your initial efforts will be imperfect. It takes time, practice, and problem-seeking and solving to fully embrace emergent curriculum design. Set your own learning targets, document your learning, and share your stories along the way as you and your students grow as writers.

Main post image by Charlotte May from Pexels

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