This post builds on earlier articles about the curriculum I believe students need to thrive into the future. There is simply not enough room here to describe the stunning units teacher colleagues are designing, so please contact me if you’d like to learn more about this inspiring work and the achievement results. Or, check out our case studies.


To thrive in the 21st (and 22nd) Century, students will need to solve many “grand challenges” ranging from global climate change to local food security. Turning these complex topics into effective learning experiences is daunting at best. How can educators design units and courses that make content accessible and relevant–while also meeting standards?

Creative Change has developed a method that uses the concept of story as a powerful metaphor for designing instruction. In this approach (which we call “Inquiry as Narrative”), learning unfolds as a story about real world issues. In the narrative, learners (and other stakeholders) are characters, communities are the setting, and interdisciplinary topics form multiple plot lines. Learners move through the story through a process of engagement, inquiry, decision-making, and action. Through this process, students discover what’s at stake and gain the skills to become “authors” of positive solutions.

Here’s how an upper elementary unit on food and health might unfold:

Stage 1: The story begins

Opening lessons situate learners in the plot and setting. Sample lessons:

  • Through interviews and journaling, students identify foods they eat, like, and have access to. (This opens up questions about food security and social justice.)
  • Students assess the foods they eat based on health and nutritional value.
  • Students use poetry and creative writing to express the food traditions important to their families and cultures.

The writing, discussion, and speaking and listening skills developed in these activities meet multiple Common Core standards. (Assessment strategies are not detailed here).

Stage 2: The plot thickens

Students are now ready to dive deeper into the scientific, economic, and geographic “subplots” of the food system. Examples:

  • Students tour their neighborhood to map and assess elements of the local food system, i.e., places where food is grown, produced, processed, sold/bartered/shared, etc.
  • Using this data, students use math skills to create graphs, measure distances to stores to assess walkability, or identify the number of restaurants per capita.
  • Students create a timeline to uncover how an everyday food item is produced. Through close reading, mapping, and math, students trace the steps from growth to disposal. This activity integrates geological time, sequencing, materials use, energy transformations, labor issues, and the impacts of resource and energy use.

Stages 3 and 4) The Climax and the Positive Ending (decision-making and action)

With a deeper understanding of the food system and its implications, students are at the crossroad and must now consider possible “endings.” Students evaluate strategies to improve access to healthy food, and/or assess policies and their impacts. For example, students might make plans for a school garden or investigate if local zoning codes prohibit community gardens. In communities where food options are limited to gas stations or “party stores,” students could work with shop owners to identify ways to offer healthier foods.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Stay tuned for future posts with more examples!

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