In the Room Where it Happened

Dec 20, 2021 | Humans of RCM | 0 comments

In The Room Where It Happened

A glimpse into the inner workings of the
K-12 Content Map Design Studio, with participant Roshaunda Cade.





“I would find myself asking questions about what we’re learning and who we’re being, rather than just what are we here to do.

What are the things we need to work on in ourselves before we can come up with an end product here?”

In a year that brought K-12 education to the forefront of many Americans’ minds, a revolutionary event took place quietly in the background, away from the commotion around mask-mandates and vaccines. By all appearances, it was a breath of fresh air (no pun intended), different from anything before. Its focus? Reimagining the K-12 Content Map

As you might imagine, a Design Studio with such a radical goal demanded a radically new process. The semi-structured event put on by reDesign supported self-organizing disciplinary teams and an open-ended collaborative approach that maximized agency and creative imagination. Roshaunda Cade, a participant on the Language Arts team, reflected on her own experience in the Design Studio, and shared some insights into what it was like to be in the (virtual) room where it happened. 

Identifying high-level concepts

For Roshaunda and the other Design Studio participants, the work began even before the event.  In the lead up to the launch, each participant was asked to consider the organizing framework through which they understood their discipline, and how they might use it to create an overarching frame for their team’s content map. This would form the basis for their teams’ work during the week ahead.

As the launch event got underway, the task became clear: draft a content map that identifies essential cross-disciplinary concepts and topics within their discipline, in ways that are explicitly multicultural and anti-racist. They were given a full week of time, partly self-organized and partly structured, to create, iterate, and collaborate with that goal in mind. As they got started, Roshaunda noted that the event’s focus on organizing each map around “concepts” was a particular challenge for her and the Language Arts team because they felt their content was very “skills-focused.” “We struggled a little bit to come up with large overarching concepts that we could use to not only teach the skills of our discipline, but to teach the mindset of our discipline,” she said.

reDesign offered every team a set of resources to guide them (including a set of rigorous criteria for “concepts” and “topics,” various design tools, and a multicultural, anti-racist framework), but groups still approached the design of their content map in different ways. The Language Arts team noticed that “themes,” a familiar construct from their discipline, offered a close counterpart to the “concepts” being  requested at the Design Studio. This helped them settle on a set of three concepts around which to organize their map—one of those being knowledge. “We discussed the processes that make knowing happen” Roshaunda said, “[and] how we decide what knowledge is necessary.” 

The groups then identified a list of topics through which the organizing concepts could be explored. As an example, Roshaunda’s team ​​identified expression as fitting under knowledge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was messy work with lots of ambiguity. Organizing curricula around essential concepts and topics, instead of predetermined standards, demands different ways of thinking about content. Roshaunda admitted, “It took a little while to get there. But it was a good struggle. It was a good talking-through and thinking process, looking at pros and cons, listing out all sorts of other things.”

Feedback: Challenging, but “awesome”

With a working set of concepts and topics, as well as rationales for each, teams were then given an opportunity to share feedback mid-way through the Design Studio. Distinct approaches to creating parallel products across disciplines created a sort of “cross-pollination” between groups that was rich and evocative. Roshaunda recounted her team’s session with the Life Sciences team with characteristic candor and enthusiasm: “We were presenting the topics that we had come up with, and they challenged us, and it was awesome! They were like, ‘okay, so expression, but what about it? Couldn’t someone look at this and teach expression in a way that’s racist, in a way that is not inclusive?’ And we were like, ‘You are absolutely right! Let’s go back to the drawing board and see what we can do.’” 

As was common across Design Studio groups, Roshaunda’s team came away from their feedback session with new questions and quandaries. The insights they gathered from the Life Sciences team prompted them to iterate on their topics, and how to frame them. Returning to expression, they renamed it expression as freedom to capture “what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling, to express our outrage, to express our joy.” Roshaunda felt that their changes more clearly reflected their foundational commitment to inclusiveness and anti-racism, clarified and deeply influenced by the fresh perspectives of her colleagues in the Life Sciences.  

Understanding ourselves

The culture of collaboration on display at the Design Studio pushed participants to challenge inequities everywhere they showed up—both externally, in traditional content maps and curricula, and internally, in the mindsets and dispositions educators often internalize as a result of working in a profoundly inequitable system for so long. Real change, they collectively agreed, begins in our hearts and minds as much as in our content and curriculum. Roshaunda acknowledged that her coaching mindset and training influenced her approach to these conversations. “I would find myself asking questions about what we’re learning and who we’re being, rather than just what are we here to do. What are the things we need to work on in ourselves before we can come up with an end product here?”

The distressing and terrifying truth is that many educators, including those committed enough to educational equity to participate in a Design Studio like this one, find themselves hesitant and fearful to apply this work in their own classrooms. “We found that in our day jobs, we spent a lot of time hedging our bets, and not necessarily naming the work that we’re doing,” Roshaunda told me. “We may be in our classrooms teaching expression as freedom, but not necessarily naming it as that. And so that was a bit of a hurdle that we had to jump past, like, what’s keeping us from naming this?”

For some participants, the answer was clear: “I couldn’t put that on a lesson plan for fear of reprisal,” some of them said, “[though] I would totally teach it.” Sadly, such a sentiment is becoming more and more relatable to educators. As an increasing number of states pass laws to regulate how schools teach about race, equity-minded teachers are finding themselves under threat of enormous backlash and even legal consequences for mentioning race, identity, or oppression in the classroom.

Real world challenges, authentic learning experiences, and role models

Diana feels that one of the primary ways to address all of these hurdles is to apply content concepts to interdisciplinary, real-world challenges. When given the choice to address challenges that matter to them and their communities, students suddenly feel the relevance of the content and a meaningful connection to it. 

At this point Diana is naturally segueing from reimagining content to reimagining how the content gets delivered. “Why aren’t we exposed to core science concepts from a number of the different disciplines in an integrated way?” Project- and inquiry-based learning can provide such integration while also enabling learners to come into contact with a diverse range of working engineers who could act as role models and expand learners’ views of who belongs in STEM. reDesign’s Designers in Residence will be folding the outputs from the content-focused Design Studio into just such a reimagining of learning experiences.

Looking forward: Process and Product

With concepts like expression as freedom on their minds, Roshaunda and her team began asking different questions. “Do we need to tell ourselves different stories to get to the point where we can name these things the way we want to? So we can live more authentically as the educators we are, and the whole education environment will benefit?” In many ways, the process exemplified by the Design Studio had something to say about this. How educators experience their own learning is likely to have a deep influence on the kinds of learning experiences educators are able to offer their students. reDesign’s longstanding expertise with competency-based education has made them keenly aware of the need for educators to engage in learning that is authentic, agency-filled, and equity-minded if they are to offer the same kind of learning to their own students. 

And they didn’t need to look far for their model. The foundational principles for the design of this week-long event can be found in reDesign’s vision for the future of education: the Learner-Centered Community, in which learners of any age develop competency, nurture connectedness, and foster critical consciousness through shared experience. Just as the drafted content maps emerging from the Design Studio serve less as a finished product than as a foundation for future work, Roshaunda’s reflections on the Design Studio reveal the foundations of a new approach to collaborative curriculum design that can be iterated on moving forward

Roshaunda Cade is a writing teacher and 19th c literature enthusiast who also brought to the Design Studio her lived experience as an executive/life coach and creator of LELA House – a virtual education enrichment community. 

Got your own ideas about how we should reimagine the K-12 Content Map? Feel free to share them by using our Community Input Form!

To read more about our Big, Hairy, Audacious 5-year plan, head over to our website, .

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