How co-designing with girls helps everyone collaborate, connect, and be brave

After two years of virtual everything, it was both shocking and wonderful to watch my colleagues Hénia Belalia and Cassandra Brown make magic at SXSW EDU this month for Girls Leadership’s session, Co-creating Justice-Centered SEL with Students. During this session, Hénia and Cassandra shared our curriculum development process, which is based in Liberatory Design and interrupts the power dynamic of teacher and student to empower students as designers of justice-based social and emotional learning.

Participants at SXSW EDU engaged in a version of the popular “Alphabet Relay” brainstorming activity, adapted through the co-design process by our New York Program Manager Catherine Del Castillo with girls in our Empower Club at The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx. “Alphabet Relay” is a type of group exercise designed to engage participants in a fun competitive relay to brainstorm as many ideas as possible using the structure of the alphabet. The “Emotional Alphabet Relay” Del Castillo used in the Bronx helped participants express how they are feeling, reflect on their relationship with their emotions, and consider and articulate the messages we receive about “good” versus “bad” emotions and how we are taught what we should or shouldn’t feel.

Through the co-design process, Del Castillo heard recurring themes of “I’m too emotional” or “I want to control my emotions more” or “I’m dealing with a lot of stress” from the Empower Club. It was clear that expanding emotional vocabulary and normalizing all the feelings was a necessary step. 

“An important part of developing social-emotional skills is exploring language and so my objective with the first part of the emotional relay — where you brainstorm using the alphabet — was to broaden vocabulary to get the juices flowing around the infinite number of things we can feel,” says Del Castillo. “The second step — sorting emotions into categories like easiest to manage, hardest to manage, most commonly misunderstood, and most frowned upon by those around me — activates critical thinking as participants consider how the verbal and nonverbal messages they receive from the world around them impact the way they start to internalize things.”

During the co-design process, participants most appreciated being able to bring themselves to the topics, explains Del Castillo. “My goal is to create prompts and activities that center their experience so that they can construct meaning for themselves in community with the group. The ‘making of meaning’ is where the learning and the magic happens.” .

At SXSW EDU, I witnessed how freeing the exercise was for participants due to 1) time constraints it can be a race or done in a confined amount of time, and 2) the structural constraint of the alphabet. You need one word for each letter in the alphabet, so you can’t always use the first words that come to mind. These two clear boundaries actually free the participants to improvise. This is especially important for girls physically and mentally paralyzed by fear of making mistakes and the judgment of others. Gamifying the learning process is especially important:

  • For girls focused on individual achievement: the pressure of singular performance is off! This exercise can only be done by a group working together. 
  • For girls focused on perfectionism: there isn’t the time to second guess or be self-critical in coming up with a “perfect” list; you just need to come up with a list.
  • For girls for whom school and academics is serious business: this exercise is playful and fun. There is usually a lot of laughing as participants race against time and the limits of the alphabet. 

Our program staff have made serious magic happen through Zoom via our girl and grown-up and professional development programs, and it was amazing to see this exercise unfold in person — how it brought together a group of strangers quickly through conversation and collaboration, and how people felt braver after the activity than before. 

Conversation, collaboration, and trust are key to our work to help educators co-design curriculum with girls. We are here for you every step of the way.


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Girl & Grown-up Workshops     Professional Development

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