Launching a Workshop Unit by Rooting Writers in Empathy


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:









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