Empathy Mapping, Brain Writing, and Teachers Who Tell Their Learning Stories

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This spring, I had the opportunity to work with teachers from southern Erie and Cattaraugus Counties. Our initial sessions challenged teachers to define writers’ craft, the process, and the values and habits of masterful writers. Then, we considered how the progression of these skills and dispositions builds and evolves as experience is gained. Teachers returned to their classrooms with new ideas to consider and test. As I prepared to see them again last week, I hoped that they would have interesting stories to share.

They didn’t disappoint.

When teachers make an account of their learning and document the details that matter most, they often become increasingly sensitive to the strengths and needs of their students. I find that this takes time, though. It also requires us to establish certain habits, make space for reflection, and invite diverse perspectives. Those who are new to this work often find it a bit uncomfortable, especially as they become aware of how confidently they’ve always positioned themselves as teachers rather than learners. Their initiation into documentation and story telling can be as humbling as it is enlightening.

The fact is that our students have many lessons to teach us, and when we show up to learn from them, what we discover often challenges our assumptions and some of the beliefs that we hold most dear. I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t willing to tolerate this discomfort long enough to reap the rewards, though. I attribute this to the use of varied protocols.

As we returned to the table last week, teachers used a combination of empathy mapping and brain writing to consider the following details about their experiences:

  • Main, secondary, and tertiary characters
  • The setting
  • The challenges or conflicts in their stories
  • The themes, messages, and ideas that emerged from the learning
  • What they were inspired to wonder, as a result of it

They were encouraged to explore each element of their stories with depth, crafting charts like these to contain their thinking:

PicMonkey Collage

Once this reflection was complete, they drafted their stories by hand and hung their charts in the hall, where their colleagues could review and ruminate on them. As they did, they added feedback intended to push deeper or different thinking. They also shared potential solutions and ideas:

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Once this preview and opportunity to reflect was over, we shared our stories teach-meet style. Everyone had a chunk of time to tell their stories and talk about their learning. Everyone was able to choose who they learned from as well. This is the same structure I use for exhibitions in writing workshop.

This approach enabled me to document each teacher’s story and the finer details of their learning quickly and efficiently, despite the larger size of the group. This helped me understand and meet their unique needs with far greater precision.

As this was my first shot at documentation and story writing with this particular group, I worried about how well it would be received. Would they find it useful? Would it be worth the time it took to reflect and write and share? Would they resent how hard I was pushing them to lead their own learning? Were they hoping for a bit of sit and get learning and a bunch of quick or cute strategies to try?

Nope.

“This was like therapy,” one teacher told me as she made her way into the hall to hang her chart. “I needed this.” And she wasn’t alone. When asked what the most valuable part of the day was during our mid and end of session reflections, the majority of the teachers that I worked with said that it was this.

I’m interested to know how documentation is helping you tell your own learning stories. I’m wondering what you’re noticing about the characters, settings, and challenges in your own work. How do you position yourself as a learner? What are you discovering as a result? Jump into the comments or connect with me on Twitter or Facebook.

 

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