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Don't Panic! Curriculum Design Can Be FUN! (Part 2)

Hello my bloggy friends! This is part two of a series. If you haven’t read part one, don’t miss it! Here it is!

Hey you lovely teachers! Can you imagine a world in which organizing your curriculum can be FUN? I can! I love it so much that I made it my job.

I do this full time because I love it. And I'm positive you can love it too.

Open up your Word documents, everyone. This is where it starts to get real!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Put on Your Lab Coats

In my previous post, I mentioned that kids in a classroom are awesome at giving you data in response to a lesson plan. They’ll be really clear about the length of their attention span, how engaging they find the activities, and how they feel about you as a teacher. They are so helpful this way!

I’m here to tell you it is key to your mental and professional well-being to look at their responses as data. Your lesson planning will be different when you start looking at your classroom experience as a lab.

Identifying cause-and-effect in your classroom will help pull you out of shame and survival mode and back into creativity and connection, and as musicians and artisan-teachers, that is where we want to be.

OK, So Teaching is Really Jazz

Let me put it this way: leaving your university and coming into a real classroom is almost exactly like becoming a jazz musician after decades of classical training.

During my sophomore year, my small junior college needed a second jazz pianist. I’m a pianist of some skill and creativity and I was dependent on the favor of the faculty for my music scholarship, so I agreed when they asked me to fill in. I checked out a stack of books and recordings from the library and scurried home to start perusing my treasures. I was positive that between Jamey Aebersold, Frank Mantooth, and my extremely boring job supervising the digital piano lab, I could figure it out. (A jazz piano instructor was not available to me at this time.)

You all know where this is headed, right? MAJOR paralysis. Major. Y’all, I could spit off a lovely little blues piece on my flute without thinking but jazz piano is not unlike being a whole jazz band. There are TOMES of information and millions of hours of recordings dedicated to just this subject!

If I were to go back and re-design my own jazz curriculum, it would BEGIN with jazz transcriptions. Can’t improvise and comp at the same time yet, O sophomore self? Take a note from Kodaly and progress from the known to the unknown. START with reading music if that is what you do best.

Take notes from Edwin Gordon and listen first. Wash yourself in the sound of the jazz musician whose transcription you are reading, play the piece with the recording, notice the ways they are creating the forward-propelling-motion outlined by the chord symbols.

Take notes from Orff (and Bach!) and start with imitation before improvisation. Find those guide tones. Find those transitions. Then, try them before you tweak them!

Lead Sheets vs. Transcriptions

Transcriptions change the way you look at a lead sheet. They give you the capacity to imagine success in very fine detail.

When we look at a standard lesson plan, we are essentially looking at a lead sheet without the vision of an artful performance to imitate.

And if you’re a new teacher, or just looking to implement new structures and ideas into your teaching, you are going to need whatever level of detail is going to give you the vision of an artful performance. If it’s not already available to you, you need to find it or make it.

Veteran teachers can usually do just fine with lead-sheet style lesson plans. They’ve developed a refined teaching style and an understanding of their classroom dynamic that allows them to work with whatever everybody else is doing.

New or improving teachers might like to start with a semi- or fully-scripted lesson plan (self-written, transcribed from another teacher, or written by someone else) before they start exploring.

I know! It’s not what you envisioned as a creative professional. BUT! The greatest creative professionals we know of tended to naturally go through the Orff process: Preliminary play. Imitate. Explore. Improvise.

You are going to be collecting a lot of very useful information about what style of teaching feels good and right to you. Data! Yay!

Enter the Hybrid Lesson Plan

I like to think that I invented the hybrid lesson plan. But seriously, it’s just a good idea. Steal it! Use it! When I write out a hybrid lesson plan, it makes me ultra-prepared for wherever I need to be on the spectrum of imitation-to-improvisation. I know the what that we’re doing and I’m well-prepared to implement the how.

We begin with a Word document, or if you’re a very serious person, an Excel sheet. Here’s a suggested setup.

What you will do with your standard lesson plan is enter it in the left column under outline. Then add the level of detail you need to the suggested script column.

This seems so obvious, but for all those reasons listed above – if you need extra detail in order to perform confidently, don’t skip it! The way to confident improvisatory teaching goes through the valley of confident imitative teaching, and that’s okay.

I’ve experienced both ends of the imitative/improvisatory teaching spectrum, so I always write my lesson plans for publication with people on both ends in mind. Minimum detail on the left, maximum detail on the right (and separate demo videos for all the non-verbal stuff.)

Here’s an excerpt from one of my published curricula. You can see it’s in that hybrid lead-sheet/transcription format.

The outline on the left is the stuff you find on Pinterest, at teaching conferences, published curricula (unless it’s already hybridized like mine, wink wink), state websites, other people’s vague lesson plans, etc.

The stuff on the right is the stuff you are effectively or actually copying-and-pasting from scripts or transcriptions from actual teachers.

It’s the what right next to the how.

Choosing the What

I know that in the world of lesson planning and curriculum design, we tend to think top-down. We pick (or are designated) learning objectives, then we design units, lesson plans, and assessments. We keep the big picture in mind so that we can prepare our kids well for what’s ahead. This is a great system, I love it, and I use it every day.

However, I suggest to you (just as in last post!) that envisioning a single class, how much you can accomplish in it, and what a successful experience in a single class will be like, is key to building those bigger blocks.

Gordon, Kodaly, Orff, Suzuki, others – there are so many different structures of information, and they are fabulous. We are so lucky to teach such a broad and rich and beautiful subject!

But what your kids will experience most – and remember best – will be the connection you can have with them as you teach with confidence and energy. Find what detail and vision you need to make that happen. And then you’ll enjoy your music classes so much more, too.


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