Typhani Harris | July 2016

A Reflection on Curriculum Design

Happy 4th of July!!

We have spent the last six months on our Curriculum Design series where we explored the why and how of curriculum design via an Arts Appreciation course created through an art collaboration.  Throughout the curriculum design series, we discussed weekly objectives, outcomes, and assessments designed for a semester-long Arts Appreciation course.  You can, technically, recreate this entire course at your site.

But wouldn’t it be nice to see how this played out?  What worked and what didn’t?  What changes should be made before you bring it to your site?

Well, you are in luck!!  Today we are going to “talk” to high school theatre teacher Martha Kelly, who tested out this entire course just for you!

1.  Describe the experience of using the Planning Like an Artist method to develop the course.

When I planned a class before using this technique it was almost like doing it with my eyes closed. I had no idea what I was building towards. I had a vague idea of what I wanted students to know but I was only planning what was next not what was final. So once it was decided what the final performance task would be, it was really easy to build all my lessons with the end in mind. I felt confident that the students could accomplish these large tasks with open questions because we had been building towards it the entire semester. It also made the class run so smoothly.
Anytime a student pulled the old “Why are we doing this?” I could pinpoint exactly why we were doing it, how it would serve them in class, and how it could be applied outside of class. I’d usually get about ten seconds into my spiel of “why we’re doing this” and they would get back to work because they could automatically hear in my voice that this was valuable and served a clear purpose. Once the students could trust that I always had a definite reason for the lesson and skill, they were never a discipline problem.

2.  During the Curriculum design process, what was easiest and what were the challenges?

During the curriculum design process, I thought the performance task would be the most difficult but it turned out to be the easiest. It was a chance to create this ideal project that used real world problems and forced students to use critical thinking and creativity.
It is basically a real world test. I simply thought about how it’s done in the adult world and broke it down a bit more. Creating the beginning of the course was also easier because I knew what really basic skills the students would need to create the final task. They needed to know the definition and qualities of a strong mission statement. They needed to analyze what was important to them in the arts. They needed to be able to defend an opinion and back it up with evidence.
What was challenging was creating lessons within each subject area that gave them a broad enough scope without seeming vague. For example, when I think about teaching theatre, I’m typically thinking about covering 5-6 specific topics within that subject over a semester. For this course, that had to be condensed to 4 weeks. Determining what to include in such a short amount of time was tough. I wanted material that caught the students attention, helped them appreciate the breadth of all that theatre contains, but also teach them how to learn more on their own. Doing the course again, I’d probably change it several more times before it feels completely right to me.

3.  As you implemented the course, what were the roadbloacks?

Teaching the arts in a more traditionally academic setting felt like a roadblock. When I’m teaching theatre, I have tons of kinesthetic activities that I can pull out of my pocket but we built this course to specifically serve students who feel self-conscious about performance. It forced me to come up with new activities that were just as engaging while also respecting who the course was meant to serve. Another roadblock was underestimating how groomed our students were about right/wrong thinking.
I believe in large part due to the focus on standardized testing, it was difficult for students to wrap their head around the idea of “there is no wrong answer only weak answers”. They’d get upset if they expressed an idea in a weak way and were graded accordingly (or if it was a class discussion, pressed for more or told they weren’t quite there) and a classmate would express the same idea but with more clarity and evidence and graded higher or praised. Reteaching students how to think about their answers was a challenge because they were always asking “Is this right?” and that just isn’t the point of art.

4.  Identify 2-3 great successes with the course.

We successfully used the course to accomplish a major goal: appreciate the arts and guide students to the arts course that suits them best. It was an underlying assumption that the Arts appreciation course would be a gateway to other art courses and we were able to get about 80% of the students to sign up voluntarily for an arts class of their choosing. Within the first weeks, we had our first “art debate” about what is and is not art. Watching the students guide their own discussion and debate ideas while also being respectfully passionate was inspiring. It was great to see them realize that they had strong opinions and could express them openly.
Finally, the last performance task was a huge success. Students were really excited about the arts programming they were choosing. It forced them to think beyond just what they like. When they presented, the students who had worked really hard on their presentation got audible “Oohs” and “aahs” from the class and their faces would light up with pride.

5.  Identify 2-3 challenges with the course.

Choosing what material to cover in such a short amount of time. Identifying activities we could use for multiple topics across three different subject areas. Teaching students how to do research. That was something we really underestimated their skills on. We assumed young people knew how to do a basic internet search but a lot of them struggled and needed serious hand holding.

6.  What would you change for the next time you offer the Arts Appreciation course?

I would include a few lessons in a curriculum design on how to do research properly. This would be helpful in having to cover so much material in each subject area. I’d probably include a few days at the end of of each unit where students had to research a specific play/dance piece/artist/ theater and share it in small groups of with the class. That would help solve two of my major challenges.

7.  What do you feel your students were able to demonstrate, and what knowledge, do you feel they walked away with. 

My students were able to demonstrate an ability to analyze theme and subtext within the performing arts (which could be applied to visual arts, literature, philosophy, politics, etc.), create a cohesive, persuasive presentation, and debate with clarity. They walked away with the knowledge of a foundational understanding of theatre, dance, and music. They understood how an arts organization creates their season and markets that season to a specific audience.

Martha Kelly is a second-year Theatre teacher who collaborated with me on building this course, and overall, the course was a great success.
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About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.