Co-creating Workshop-Based Units to Personalize Them

As my school district began to anchor itself in the world of personalized learning, I quickly realized that this was a nice fit for the workshop model since both valued voice and choice and both operated on a student-driven framework. One of the aspects of personalized learning that really appealed to me was the idea of students actually generating the learning topics, tasks, and assessments. It seemed like it was helping accomplish a key workshop goal, which is ownership. So as this school year began I resolved to give it a shot–I wanted to build the year in such a way that it was workshop-based but so that it also allowed for personalization through the co-creation of our units.

Getting started

To do that, I used a resource our district provided called “Orchestrating the Move to Personalized Learning” in which Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick outline 7 areas that teachers can begin the shift to student ownership. They give practical examples of what co-creating looks like at different stages with the goal of moving from teacher-driven to student-driven learning. At a workshop this summer Zmuda pointed us to a couple of other practical co-creating resources, like this play-by-play for co-creating curriculum with students by Sam Nelson (video version here). In short, the progression through the standards stays the same (this is my background work) while there is flexibility in the content or how students access the standards.

How we’re trying to do it

This is a rough outline of the process we have followed in my junior level English III classes this semester to build our workshop units together:

  • Select the semester’s topics: At the beginning of the year we took a day as a class to give input and feedback about potential topics for the school year. I narrowed our list to 10 and students voted on three first semester units. They chose Friday night lights, school shootings, and perfectionism. Below left is what they saw; below right is part of the results.
  • Build the unit’s essential questions: We began each unit by generating the essential questions–what we would study.  I used a resource from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe to help students understand the traits of good essential questions, then we used the PEM (philosophical, ethical, and moral) framework to build questions. Students did this in teams, then submitted their questions to me. I organized by combining like questions and eliminating stray or non-essential questions. We used these questions to guide our reading and writing times and to design the final tasks and discussions (including the Unit 2 Socratic seminar, comprised entirely of their questions). You can see what they built for Unit 2 and Unit 3
  • Choose a reading pathway: For the violence unit (Unit 3) I gave them a list comprised of my recs and their recs. They could choose beyond the list with prior approval. Having many reading pathways allows the unit to be personalized and allows reading workshop to keep the class discussions centered on skills rather than plot events. I also like that they can have choice but still participate in ongoing thematic discussions. Some chose books based on the unit’s essential questions, and some chose the book and then worked to determine which questions matched up to their book. Some chose academic non-fiction and some chose young adult novels. Students also set their own reading schedules based on a series of 3-4 deadlines.
  • Define the learning goals/outcomes: At this point in the year I am still doing most of this work. I envisioned students designing ways to demonstrate their learning and understanding, but there are so many moving pieces right now that I decided to find ways to give them some managed choice. They have set some independent goals for reading and writing, but I have controlled the end tasks (informal reading check-ins, design challenges, and seminars) with a goal of finding ways to bring their workshop reading into some meaningful collaborative discussion.
Unit 3 seminar discussions


As we are beginning the final push to finish this semester, I’ve been really encouraged by the learning experiences we’ve had and I think it’s because of the investment in personalizing the course’s structure. In the past my focus was on helping students to read tough material (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) that I had selected or to discuss open-ended questions I had designed. Now, students are digging into the nuances of research on gun violence in a much more organic way. Because they had generated the topic, chosen the book, and generated the questions, our Socratic seminar was really authentic and full of meaningful dialogue. It’s far from perfect, but I’m excited about the effects of the small shifts in ownership that we’re making.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s currently learning to be a good passenger while his baby girl learns to drive. Follow Nathan @MHSCoates


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One thought on “Co-creating Workshop-Based Units to Personalize Them

  1. […] district worked with Allison Zmuda to immerse ourselves in personalized learning (more on this here), one of the models we spent time with was the Stanford Design School approach to design thinking, […]


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