A Play-By-Play Strategy for Co-Creating Curriculum with Students

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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This month’s newsletter features Sam Nelson, a middle school teacher in Vermont who has been prototyping with his students to co-create social studies curriculum.

  • This video narrated by Sam describes how he created a design and student community that shaped units together for the class.

He is now in Year 3 of this endeavor and the play-by-play strategy is even clearer in his mind because of the feedback and results from his students. Sam and I have been going back and forth to shape this experience so that it can be launched at the start of the year. Another important part to add into the mix is his new Humanities partner Jeff who is totally on board with this approach to further the interdisciplinary connections, core content, and dispositions.

I am thrilled that Sam, Jeff, and their students will check in with us throughout the year to talk about deep engagement as they work to build a unit design as well as implement it with others. Stay tuned!

A Play-By-Play Strategy
for Co-Creating Curriculum with Students

co-creating curriculum
(above: a student brainstorm for a unit framework, which centers on the use of “tiles”)

By Sam Nelson

This post is designed to work as a detailed play-by-play on how I’m planning to engage every student in the curricular design process at the start of the year. Ideally it’s flexible enough to work in any school setting, grade level, team dynamic, or content area.

Step 1: Teacher Sets the Stage

It’s important to set the stage for students, especially for those who aren’t accustomed to designing curriculum. This can also help establish the sort of class culture and learning experiences that we covet: project-based, proficiency-based, hands-on learning activities. I don’t want students to feel like I’m tricking them into plotting out what content will go into nothing more than a multiple choice test. Heck no. I want students to determine what we’ll do with our time together that will be relevant and engaging for all of us.

So to give them a starting point, my Humanities co-teacher and I will offer an example unit from years past that’s built around the sorts of tiles that we’ll use (more on those tiles in a bit…). A basic structure for a unit design might look something like this:

Example table #1 broad unit framework with chosen tiles:

Unit Title: What’s Their Story?
Unit Description: Historic and Modern Impact-Makers from Around the World
Content: Exploring Content: Transferable Skills: Project/Activity:
Mix of historic/modern…






World Leaders

First, as a group:

Articles (Newsela/Actively Learn)

Videos (EdPuzzle)

Later, individual choice:

“Bingo Board” of choices (paper)

Resource menu (digital)

Research Notes

Big Ideas

Presentation of Information


Full class:

“Bingo Board” (practicing notes & exploring content)


Mini-documentary film festival (students choose impact-maker)

Example table #2 (same unit, with flow and embedded tiles):

Unit Title: What’s Their Story?
Unit Description: Historic and Modern Impact Makers from Around the World
Part 1: Explore Content as a Group

Read articles (Newsela/Actively Learn), watch videos (EdPuzzle) about historic/moden impact-makers

Practice Big Ideas with these examples

Part 2: Practice Research Notes – Bingo Boards

Use a Bingo Board with a mix of historic/modern impact-makers

Students choose spaces to “get Bingo”

Each space has them practice a research notes style

Part 3: Choose & Study Impact-Maker

Students choose one historic/modern impact-maker

Use resource menu to gather sources and take research notes

Determine big ideas about impact-maker (good/bad, positive/negative impact, etc.)

Part 4: Mini-Documentaries & Film Festival!

Students create a mini-documentary on their impact-maker

Use presentation of information target as criteria for videos & celebrate with film festival, self-assess on

Step 2: Students Choose Tiles to Build Framework

Get students into groups (or let them make their own), and get sets of tiles in their hands. The point of this activity is to get students thinking about how four major elements of designing a unit (content, exploring content, transferable skills, and project/activity) can work together to take learning in any direction. The tiles represent a hands-on way of doing this. We’re providing students the building blocks with which they can construct almost any learning experience.

Skills Tiles:

Making a Claim


Use information to make a statement about a topic



Support a claim with relevant, credible info.



What’s your take on the information? 

Presentation of Info


Create a poster/video/etc. that conveys meaning

Word Choice


Use academic vocabulary to sound like an expert

Craft & Structure


Writing styles & skills (figurative language)



How do ideas intersect (causes, effects, patterns)?



Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics of writing

Big Ideas


What’s the source or topic all about? 

Speaking & Presenting


Share information with public speaking skills

Research Notes


Unpack, record, and learn from a resource



Be a productive part of the process



Actively work with your group to find success



Start, and move your own learning forward

Themes Tiles:



Why do ideas, individuals, and groups clash?

Change Over Time


How ideas, individuals, and groups shift & evolve

Pioneers & Innovation


Historic & modern world impact-makers

Social Identities


How do physical & social characteristics identify us?

People & Places 


World physical & political geography

Civics & Politics


How governments form & who has the power?

The American Dream


What is it?

What is yours?

Sustainable Development 


How can we make a more sustainable world?



How myths are created & impact world cultures

Utopia & Dystopia


Best case scenario.

Worst case scenario.

SciFi & Fantasy


Science fiction, the future, and the imagined.



From classical verse to modern (hip-hop/SLAM)

Persuasive Writing


Make a statement and convince your audience

Informational Writing


Articles, biographies, “how-to’s” and more

Narrative Writing


Tell a story, and make it your own

Other Themes


What other content themes could we cover as a class?

Content Exploration Tiles:

Informational Text


Printed articles with all of the facts



…from reliable sources (not just Youtube!)



Full class book? Small groups? Individual choice? 

Interactive Video


EdPuzzle adds questions or prompts to videos

Scavenger Hunt


Explore a topic with clues & research challenges

Interactive Reading


Actively Learn adds prompts to digital text

Teacher-Led Lesson


Lecture or lesson where teacher guides full class

Online Workshop


Khan Academy or other digital guide to learning 

Artifact Analysis


Break down a relic or artifact from our topic



Listen to experts talk about a topic in depth

Dynamic Reading


Digital texts with connected links/sources



What other ways can we explore content?

Project/Experience Tiles: 



Write from a first-hand perspective



Be the expert and record an in-depth discussion



Create a trailer, short film, documentary, etc. 



Record & narrate over your digital work



Individual or teams have a structured discussion



Enlighten the community with a project/event

Blog Posts

Tell your story as you learn in a digital format



Create a map, portrait, painting, etc.



Brainstorm and build a to-scale model/machine



Put together a collection or curation of artifacts



Create a resource with information & insight



What else would be authentic & meaningful?

Print, collate, and provide each student group their own set of curriculum design tiles. I recommend color-coordinating each of the four categories. It helps with sorting and balancing what choices students make. 

Balance is important. 

For example, it wouldn’t work for a group to choose nine content tiles, six different project/activity tiles, and only one skill tile. Logistically, this would create a learning experience (overly) inundated with knowledge acquisition and application, but with very little skills development. 

Example photos* (*all photos from a previous unit-design activity with students):

Step 3: Students Research Content and Construct Unit

At this point students have used their tiles to create a framework. This is a pivotal moment where any immediate, detailed planning would be misinformed. The point of providing students with the tools to design curriculum is to allow them to attack the curious or the unknown. Therefore, to plot out which specific content (historic/current events, literature, subgenres, etc.) will make a good vehicle for learning, research is required. So this is important: intentionally have students explore the content themes they’re interested in. This may require curating some resources, book sets, or credible sites. 

And just as important: give students time. 

This is likely a much higher-stakes level of ownership we’re providing students than they’re used to. Just like with teachers, these student groups should go beyond haphazardly rustling up a handful of tiles, smashing them together, and hoping that it’s something their peers like. We’re not throwing darts here. The goal is for students to create relevant and engaging experiences where the buy-in comes up front and result in meaningful learning. 

Finally, as students go from sorting tiles to constructing a learning experience (this may require posters, chart-paper, or whiteboard tables), encourage them to tease out some of the finer elements, including:

  • Content Specifics (examples: WWII? Greek Mythology? The Hate U Give?)
  • Literacy (how will reading & writing be enmeshed in this experience?)
  • Audience (how and with whom will the results of the learning be shared?)

Step 4: Student Groups Share, Discuss & Reflect

This can get really fun. Try using a share-out format that keeps the energy high, and also ramps up the pressure a bit. I’m thinking of a Shark Tank-style feedback forum. 

A framework for the process might look something like this:

Shark Tank Feedback Forum
Student Groups Pitch Their Unit Up to 3-minutes to pitch:

-Unit/project title

-Show 4 tile types in plan

-Unit/project outcomes

Shark Tank Feedback

(Sharks = class)

Up to 5-minutes for Q&A:

-Sharks ask questions

-Be kind but very critical

-Highlight wonderings/issues

-Pitch team can respond

Student Groups Express Takeaways Up to 2-minutes:

Pitch teams express their takeaways and offer ideas on improving their unit

Feedback is important. It helps us develop our ideas, and early feedback in any design process supports ideation— an essential element of the Design Thinking Framework. In fact, if a Shark Tank-style feedback forum isn’t your thing, consider the array of other options listed here for supporting students in ideating and developing ideas. 

This will also allow student groups to determine if , across the class proposals, there are curricular overlaps, redundancies, or even opportunities to merge. That’s important, since every proposal has the potential to be implemented during the year. Variety is good. So seeing what themes and learning experiences are starting to emerge— and adjusting therefrom— is a crucial takeaway from this step. 

Step 5: Engage in Further Research & Revise

Sometimes it’s not just feedback that helps students improve. Often it’s peer inspiration that can kick students into revision overdrive. I’ve certainly seen this numerous times before: a student (or group) feels like they’ve capped their potential. It’s not until they see what a fellow student or group has done when you hear things like, “oh, that’s a cool way to do it” or “I didn’t know we could do things like that.” 

Let the Shark Tank— both their experience as pitchers and sharks— serve as an inspirational booster shot. Then, provide more time (and plenty of it) for groups to research and revise their plans.

Step 6: Student Groups Tell the Story of Their Unit

This final step can build excitement for the academic year ahead. Each group, after revising and polishing their plan, now shares out. Preparing groups for this might include pointing them back toward the example unit (particularly example #2, under “Step 1” above), which works sequentially and includes where the tiles play in. 

The goal of this step is for groups to tell the story of how they transformed a handful of tiles into a framework, and then into a learning experience. It’s no longer a Shark Tank pitch. It’s an opportunity to generate buzz, build student buy-in, and plot out a curricular roadmap for the year. 

From there, it’s up to the teachers to honor student voice. It’s not just that we’re listening to— and working with— students. That’s important. But it really builds trust when students see their own ideas and actions directly impact what we do in class.

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