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What I Should Have Done on My Summer Vacation

September 9, 2013

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

BooksWhen I was a kid, I always dreaded the last few weeks and days of summer vacation before school started. That dread was most likely linked to the transition and change involved in switching from the autonomy of summer vacation to the school year, where you suddenly had to be at specific places and do specific things...or else. But once the school year got started, school was usually tolerable or at least manageable for the most part. 

As an adult teacher, I wish I could say I don't experience the same psychological reaction at the beginning of the school year. But I have to admit that somewhere deep down in my psyche there is still the reflex to run screaming for the hills when I hear the phrase: "back to school." Now the looming terror takes the form of curriculum planning rather than math homework or who to sit with at lunch.

Curriculum planning is the most mentally taxing element for me as a teacher. It's daunting to think of a big curriculum idea that is worth doing and also satisfies that magical combination of: interesting, engaging, sequential, age appropriate, state/national standards satisfying, materials available, and humanly possible. 

But the strange thing is, if you asked me what I like best about teaching, curriculum planning would be near the top. I think it's the hope and creativity that goes along with imagining what the school year could hold and the cool things the students will end up doing. It's this bizarre mix of dread and hope that characterizes the beginning of the school year for me, both as a kid and an adult.

To deal with "teacher's block" when planning I usually employ elements of Backward Design. This is when you list the standards or final goals that you want students to achieve, then plan how they could authentically demonstrate those standards, and only then begin planning individual units and lesson plans. This way you don't get caught up in "activity land" and can eloquently address the perennial student quip "Why are we doing this?" I admit I haven't read the Wiggins/McTighe tome Understanding by Design , but I have read Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st century, which outlines and describes the main points of Backward Design. Turning Points offers a practical and rigorous vision of what schools should look like and is worth checking out. 

The other planning aid I employ is legal theft. Why try to endlessly recreate the wheel in your classroom? For instance, instead of trying to create a scintillating 4th grade general music curriculum from scratch, why not use materials that have been curated by experienced professionals who are veteran and master teachers? This is what I have only recently (past 3 or 4 years) come to grips with. I now use the Jump Right In: General Music series curriculum which is compiled by master teachers, uses excellent music, and aligns with all sorts of standards. Of course, I modify all the lesson plans to fit the students' needs in my classes, but using this curriculum frees up a ton of time which can be spent on better curriculum tasks then hunting down a triple meter song in locrian mode.

Perhaps there is so much pressure for music classrooms to somehow be more "transformational" or "innovative" than other classrooms, that often we feel pressured to invent something brand new out of thin air. Not to mention the disappointment and frustration felt when your "special snowflake" curriculum hits a wall on day 2 of school due to a switch in classroom, missing resources, or altered schedule. Whatever the case, I've learned my lesson that curriculum doesn't need to be unique to be effective.

I'd be interested to know how your process works for curriculum planning. How much do you plan out by day 1? Do you drill down to the tiny details or make lists of the big objectives? Do you procrastinate as much as me? Where do you get your best ideas?

Photo Credit: Books by Chris on Flickr CC-By SA 3.0

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