Planning For The Fall: First Steps to Co-Creating a Curriculum Story

Shawna Parkinson

Shawna is a Learning Experience Designer at Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio. You may follow Shawna through Twitter: @ParkinsonLearns.

Some might expect that as I head back to school this year that the only, singular thing on my mind is the worry of the Coronavirus. To acknowledge this, I would share that I am actively studying safety measures, and that I am fortunate to work in a school district that has methodically planned for our students’ safety. While I know that teaching in the time of a pandemic will feel new and perhaps, even stressful at times, I find myself also doing what teachers do: focusing on the instruction.

As I prepare, I wonder:

Will they know and see, despite my face mask and social distancing measures, that I still want the best instruction for them?  That I still want their time in my classroom to be meaningful, relevant, personalized and enjoyable?

These questions are on my mind now more than ever, but I am confident that a new normal does exist, and that as a community naturally would, we will all find our way, despite the new challenges we face. I think I can still create a class as a place of learning and instructional energy, despite our current times.

This energy of the classroom is what I consistently consider whenever I envision the upcoming year. I see teaching as energies that are constantly intertwining with each other. The environmental energy creates a welcoming space; the curriculum energy drives the learning of the room; and the relationships energy encourages students to find each others’ talents as they learn together.

The curriculum for my class has been one focus during these last few weeks because I know this preparation is the stream of thought that will guide our school year. In reading my students’ survey comments from the end of last school year, I was comforted by a passing observation that all of our units led to each other, and since then, that one comment has been an especially positive and uplifting comment for me as well as a point of focus.

As teachers we know that building a curriculum energy, a story of the content and skills that our students will learn, is hard work. It takes time and a methodical approach. For me, it’s the building of this methodical approach that allows me to play and plan innovative learning for moments during the school year. Because I know the structure and support for my curriculum, I find I can enjoy “purposeful play” as lessons are designed during the year.

Planning For The Fall: What I Am Doing To Prepare

In these weeks of preparing for school, I have been thinking more and more about my course description. Last year, in working with Allison Zmuda through my #MasonPLJourney, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with her that introduced the idea of tiles.  The premise was that by putting these tiles together, students could essentially step into the shoes of an instructional designer and work with the support of a teacher to shape and build a learning plan.

As a novice in personalized learning, I realized for me that my most natural first step would be to practice the tiles themselves.

To do this, I made the following template:


Unit 1: Title

How might we question:  

Student Choice:

**Student Driving Question:


(**To learn more about student designed driving questions, read The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement.)


Power Standard(s)



Key Concepts and Terms




**Skills & Mindsets

This idea was driven by my work in the Mason City Schools
Personalized Learning Cohort and the study of the Habits of Mind.

View the Mason City Schools Personalized Learning Educator Guide.

Visit The Institute For The Habits of Mind.

Content and Texts






Then, I began to fill in the steps of this template to build the story of the course description that students would see:


Unit 1:  Rhetoric and You

How might we prove rhetoric has a role in fields that pertain to our interests and/or future careers? 

Student Choice:  This is a career and interest unit. Students’ choice of topic will largely drive this unit as students analyze columns and conduct interviews related to their field of interest.

Student Driving Question:

Timeline:  Weeks 1 – 4


Power Standard(s)


Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text
in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how
style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

Key Concepts and Terms

  • Definition of rhetoric
  • Identification of speaker
  • Rhetorical triangle
  • Writing a purpose statement
Skills & Mindsets

Skills: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking
Mindsets:  optimism, flexibility, resilience, empathy, persistence

Am I interacting with a network of learners around me?

Am I open-minded to new learning and connections? 

Content and Texts

Texts Studied:

  • Shorter speeches in areas of interest and careers
  • Commercials
  • Student choice of columns related to interests and careers
  • Interviews


The result is an entire course description on which I can easily see the components of a class’ curriculum story: the power standards, key concepts and terms, skills and mindsets, content and texts.

And the benefit is that the students can see the story of our curriculum begin to unfold as well.  For instance, see the next template:


Unit 2: Rhetoric In History and Current Texts of our Time

How might we see rhetoric in action within historical works and current event texts? How might we evaluate these texts as effective or ineffective?

Student Choice: After reading several example works, students will choose and study several texts, based on the Student Driving Question, that exemplify the thinking in the unit during the second week.

Student Driving Question: 

Timeline: Weeks 5 and 6


Now students will see that after understanding why rhetoric matters in their own lives the next natural step is to see how rhetoric has always been present in our history and in works of our current time.

They will see that not only does rhetoric apply to their immediate interests, but rhetoric applies, and has always been considered, especially during critical moments in time.


My Reflection

  1. Utilizing this tile design for my course description helps me to see that I have prepared, not just content, but a curriculum story that I will be able to depend upon throughout the school year.
  2. Having this structure in my course description allows for purposeful play in designing instruction later in the year. In fact, someone once told me that when things are going well, we should be prepared to reach for more. Having a solid foundation helps me to reach for more in my instruction and be more reflective in my decision making.
  3. Building a strong curriculum story that traces the essential questions of each unit allows me to also create space for students’ driving questions. With so many current conversations happening around us, a goal this year is to give students the space and opportunity to find their own voice in these conversations, and to support their learning through text choices, writing piece choices and short, student-driven research opportunities.
  4. While seemingly insignificant at first, the idea of “student choice” as an unquestionable piece of a curriculum story or course description, as seen above, speaks to the instructional goal of empowering decision-makers in our rooms throughout a course’s year of instruction and represents the permanence of personalized learning in our own teaching careers.
  5. And, lastly, as educators, the course description that creates intentional space for student choice pushes us even further to model co-creation and instructional transparency with the students in our rooms. The bonus of skills and mindsets allows us to challenge our own imaginations for design— to push ourselves and to even consider the self-auditing of our own design of instructional mindsets— so that we may thoroughly nurture the learning of imaginative, collaborative learners, who speak with empathy and kindness, understanding and heart.


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