Creating a Secondary Curriculum That Works for You (Ep. 050)

As Andrew talked about with Johanna last week, curriculum is way less “what” we teach, and more of “how” we teach it. In Part 2, Tim comes on the show to join Andrew in a discussion about curriculum at the secondary level. They hit on the big themes of autonomy and creativity, and how those themes should influence what and how you teach. Listen as they discuss how to give your students a voice in curriculum planning (9:00), how to deal with a curriculum that is dictated to you (12:30), and how to ensure consistency and quality with curriculum by utilizing the National Core Arts Standards (15:15). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed radio, the podcast for art teachers. The show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host Andrew McCormick.

Welcome to part two of looking at curriculum development and approaches to a curriculum. If you missed part one last week, definitely go check it out as I talk with the always intelligent and inspiring Johanna Russell. We talked all things elementary curriculum development.

Now, we’re going to bring on my long-time podcasting buddy Tim Bogatz to talk about the what and the how of curriculum development at the secondary level, and how we, secondary teacher, we might have slightly different concerns than elementary teachers have when it comes to curriculum development. Maybe not, I have a hunch that Tim also falls into the camp of not wanting to be told exactly what to do, despite the fact that I sometimes joke that Tim is a glitter-hating no no-funnik. I think that his overall approach will be one of flexibility and openness.

This entire episode is focused on approaches to a curriculum development and design. This really gets me thinking about coverage, which I find is a horrible word to think of. Then also, in a more positive way, variety depth versus breadth. Making choices about what we focus on with our students. Are we leaving enough space for new projects to come to life as we respond to new ideas and new materials that are out there? Are we allowing for student choice as we develop our curriculum?

I think one of the great ways to think about allowing for this space and flexibility is by checking out one of AOE’s classes, in particular Designing Your Art Curriculum. The curriculum classes are really great hands-on class that, like all AOE classes, will get you to learn alongside other, great inquisitive art teachers as you design tools to implement a curriculum that best fits your needs as a teacher. Head on over to the and check out this course and all the other great classes under the courses tab.

It’s been a surprisingly long time since Tim and I have had a chance to talk in a podcast, and I’ve got a feeling that this one might run a little bit long, so I think we should just get right into it with Tim and see what sort of great insights he has into secondary curriculum development. All right Tim. Thanks for coming on, man.

Tim: Hey, thanks for having me, it’s been a little bit. I’m excited to talk to you.

Andrew: Yeah, we haven’t talked in a couple of weeks. Last week, I actually brought on Johanna and we talked about her thoughts and her approach to curriculum, both in regards to development and execution. I want to start off by asking you do you have an overall approach to curriculum development?

Tim: First of all, let me just say probably the best approach is to listen to whatever Johanna said and just follow that, because I feel like she knows may more than I do about this. I would say for me personally, I think it really depends on the class that I’m teaching. If I’m doing an Art 1, or if you’re in middle school doing an introduction or an exploratory course or something like that. I think it’s all about just introducing kids to everything that art has to offer. If we’re doing Art 1, then materials wise, we’re doing drawing, paining, print making, sculptures, ceramics, just a little bit of everything, whatever you can fit in, whatever you can introduce to your kids and just show them what’s out there.

Then as you move into more advanced classes, kids sign up for an advanced drawing class, that shows me that they really want to learn how to draw, and so that’s when we try and start to develop those skills a little bit more and get into a lot of the finer points and be able to go a little bit more in depth with whatever area of study. I think more than anything, you just want to make sure that you’re giving your kids challenges to help them be creative, to help them solve problems, to use those higher order thinking skills. I think for me, that’s what overrides my curriculum more than anything. No matter what kind of studio projects I’m doing, that’s where my focus is, on the creativity and problem solving aspect of it.

Andrew: It sounds like we’re similar in a lot of ways, in that we start with the big picture and don’t get too bogged down with specifics, “I want to do this project, I want to do that project,” but it’s big picture and then we work backward and say, “Okay, what sort of things do I want to do to get to that end result?”

Tim: Yeah. That’s totally how I think of it. You and I have talked a lot before about how we change lessons, how we are always trying new things. I think that necessitates us working backwards like that, because you have your big goals, you have your overarching goals and there’s a million different ways to get there. You and I may be trying to get our kids to learn the same thing but we’re going to go about it in totally different ways. Yeah, I think it’s really important to figure out first what do you want your kids to learn? Then, when you have that idea, when you have that direction, as far as what you want them to learn, then you can figure out how to get there.

Andrew: That’s interesting. I’ve got a couple of different things I want to ask you about. A lot of us have started a new semester not that long ago. I’ve got to ask you, because I’ve done it both different ways and I feel like there’s two main ways. When you start off a new semester or a brand new year, do you have it all scripted out like, “Okay, here’s the nine, 10, eight projects I want to do,” or do you maybe have a sense of one or two and then trust that the chips are going to fall where they fall?

Tim: I don’t know if I could just go into a semester saying, “Well, I want to do this project and then we’ll see what happens.” That’s not going to cut it for me. Generally what I would do is go through and list all of the projects that I wanted to teach. Maybe there’s 15 projects, but we only have time for six of them or 10 of them. At that point, you need to maybe cut a little bit.

I think more than anything, you need to be flexible with what you’re going to do. Maybe you have this idea of what you want to accomplish, but then you notice that your kids maybe aren’t interested in that, maybe they aren’t as capable as you thought they were. Maybe those challenges need to go in a different direction, or maybe you need to do something different to play to their interests. I think it’s good to have a huge variety of projects that you can draw from, but not necessarily be set in, “I need to do A, B and C.” I think just drawing from a bigger pool and keeping yourself flexible, so that you are able to fit the needs of your students.

Andrew: I made it sounds like I’m just a fly by the seat of my pants totally kind of guy. To be honest. Well, I’m a little more than you are, but I would say every semester, I probably script out or think of like, “Okay, here’s the nine to … ” I mean I’ve done as many as like, “Okay, here’s 20 different projects,” knowing full well I’ll at best get through half of them. I’ve definitely got 10 to 20 projects on a list. I’ve even got a sequential order where it makes sense to me first we’ll do this one and then this would happen. I’ve never once, in 12 years stuck to that list 100%. I might do some of them, I might come up with all brand new ones, because something comes up or a student says, “We should do this,” so it’s like, “Oh, it’s a great idea!” I think, just to echo what you’re saying, is to be flexible is really, really important.

Tim: Okay. Can I ask you this? You just touched on this, but do you ever ask your students, just straight up ask them, “What do you guys want to do next?” With elementary, you can’t do that quite as much, but with high school, I have no problem saying, “Hey, what are you guys interested in?” Or saying, “Hey, I have three new ideas for a project, there’s this, this and this, which one would you like to do?” Or I’ll lay out all three of them and let them pick which one of the three might interest them. Do you ever go that direction with it?

Andrew: Yeah, totally. It seems like especially in the last month of the semester or of the school year, I do a lot of, “Hey guys, here’s the final three projects I wanted to do, realistically we can only get through two of them. I’ll introduce all three and you can take your pick.” I do a lot of that, I call it the two for three special or something. Yeah, just this last semester, I went to my drawing class and I just said, “What should we do next?” There was a girl who had brought up that she wanted to do a certain project and we did it, and I wasn’t going to do it before she had brought it up. It was actually really successful.

I went back to the well and said, “Okay, now what are you guys into?” To be honest, I think I probably went to the well one too many times and they came up with about another two or three projects, some of them were good, some of the weren’t good. When I say that, I will listen to what they say, I’ll take some input, but then I also tweak it and modify it and structure it and build it from their initial idea. I think it’s helpful. I’ve had, I guess, two different reactions to that. Every once in a while you’ll have a student that will look at you and say, “Hey, you’re not very prepared, you’re relying on us to come up with all these idea.”

Tim: Yes, yes. That was going to be my next question right there.

Andrew: Yeah. That doesn’t happen all the time, but when that does happen, I will just say, “Listen, I had a list of 10 to 12 projects I wanted to do, but in order to help you guys be more motivated and engaged and interested, I’m getting some feedback from you guys.” Usually, they get it. I think it’s just so new to them to have a teacher turn over some of the power of the curriculum and say, “What do we want to do next as a class?” That they’re just so baffled by it, they don’t have any framework for it.

Tim: Yeah. Can put you in a difficult spot, but again, I think that’s … I don’t know, it goes back to the problem solving thing, honestly, where kids are faced with this new situation and they have to learn how to deal with it, too. I’m assuming, if there’s some listeners out there just fuming at us right now, like, “How can you be so unprepared? That’s such a cop-out,” and things like that. I think it really is a good option for kids for a lot of reasons, like you said. It gives them a sense of empowerment, it plays to their interest, like I said, it teaches them how to deal with a new situation. I’m personally all for it.

Andrew: The funny thing is so this last semester I probably had three projects that where student-created or they took the initiative in making. They were pretty similar to some things I was going to do anyway. It’s not like they were saying just some outlandish, stupid, pointless thing. There was a lot of good stuff in there that I was going to hit on anyway, so I was fine giving them some agency and giving them some control. I want to circle back. One of the things we’re talking about really is like flexibility. That’s really one of the things that I love about being an art teacher, is being able to be creative with my curriculum and what I teach and how I teach.

I think most teachers, that’s what we like. Have you ever met teachers that are just like … I would love to be told what to teach and how to teach? I actually think that would, in some ways, be easier to be told that, “Here’s your curriculum, here’s how to do it,” but I just don’t know if that’s great. Then, also I’m debating with myself does that guarantee that the curriculum is … PLC buzzwords, guaranteed and viable if it’s passed down from on high and you have to do it this way? Have you had any experience with, “You must teach this,” sort of environment?

Tim: I personally have not and I’m thankful for that, because although a curriculum like that can ensure quality and it can ensure consistency, and there’s a place for that, I personally would just go crazy with that. I feel like art teachers in general are very creative people and we need to … just because of our personality, we need to have that flexibility to be able to change things up, to be able to do what we want to do.

I look at it this way. A lot of my teaching friends, let’s say in English, for example, every single day is laid out for them. On Tuesday you’re going to do these vocabulary words. On Wednesday you’re reading from here to here, and then having a discussion where you ask these questions. It really takes all of the autonomy out of teaching and it really sucks the personality out of what otherwise could be a really good teacher.

While I see the benefit of, like I said, that consistency and that quality, I really think it’s not as good as we can do as professionals. I feel like we have the knowledge, we have the creativity to put together things that not only play to our own strengths in teaching, but play to our students’ strengths, as well. I think we need to stay flexible as much as we can in order to incorporate those strengths into our curriculum.

Andrew: Yeah, I would agree with that. Just to play devil’s advocate here, I think there’s a lot of people out there who exist and teach in a PLC, a professional learning community, and oddly enough, I think … I’m circling back to some of the language and the ethos of those, the guaranteed and viable curriculum. How do we know what we want students to learn? How will we know when they’ve learned it?

If we have all these art teachers that are developing their own curriculum, how do we make sure then that there aren’t holes in the curriculum? In oversights? Or that there’s not duplication? How do we ensure that we’re not doing that as a district, as a vertical, like secondary K-12 even? How do we ensure that?

Tim: I don’t know. For me, I think the best way to stay consistent, but still honor that flexibility and that personality that we need to shine through, is bringing it back to the National Core Arts Standards, where no matter what you’re teaching, or no matter how you’re teaching it, bring it back to that create, produce, respond, connect. No matter what, if every teacher is connecting back to those standards and letting that drive their curriculum, then no matter, like I said, what they’re teaching or how they’re teaching, it can come back to that point. I think that’s a really good way to ensure consistency, ensure quality, but still, give us that autonomy as professionals that I think we need to be successful.

Andrew: Yeah, one of the things … I’ve been to a number of the PLC conferences that the people put on. I’ve often told people, “I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago about PLC, so I’m not getting paid by them or anything,” Solution Tree, one of the big companies that puts it on. They do talk about loose and tight, that there are certain things that as an art team, as an art district you should be loose with and some things you should be tight with.

Johanna mentioned a big C curriculum and a little C curriculum. One of the ways, I think, art teachers that we could have our cake and eat it too is how we teach and exactly what lesson plan we teach, that could be loose. Then what could come back and we say is tight, we all have this expectation that everything we teach does come back to this bigger C curriculum National Core Arts Standards. I really do think that that’s a way that we can have the best of both worlds.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree completely. I’ve heard Johanna talk about that before and I really like the idea of the big C, little C. If you need to align K-12 or if you need to work with other teachers in your district, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Here are these concepts, I would love you to cover them. You do it how you can do it best.” Again, just letting teachers play to their strengths. I think where we run into problems is when we say, “You need to cover these elements on these days and you need to go over these principles during this part of the semester.” It sucks the life out of the classroom, because there’s nothing to get excited about at that point.

Andrew: That’s pretty bad and that’s pretty extreme when someone’s saying, “On Tuesday, you will cover this.” I think more realistically is like, “We are going to cover this topic, and the way you are going to do it is by doing this product, this lesson plan.” It’s like, “Oh, boy.” I do think there are some ways that we could, as art teachers, take more ownership of that. There’s ideas of lesson planning together. Maybe as a PLC, you write a lesson plan, or even a curriculum together. I’m playing this up like it’s really, really hard to do. I think it just comes back to communication.

I’m a middle school teacher, you’re a secondary teacher. One of the things I think about as a middle school teacher, I know this sounds very business world, but I intake students and then I also output students. I sound like a computer, but I get students from the elementary and there’s an expectation that they have some base level knowledge from their elementary art education, but then I also pass them along. I think making sure that you’re getting kids as prepared as you want, but then also passing them along, it’s just a matter of communication and communicating with all your other art teachers in the district.

Tim: Yeah, exactly. I think, again, just going back to that point, where it’s not about the products that you make. You don’t want to say, “Oh, well, they learned value scales in seventh grade, so I need to move on to more holistic shading as we move into eighth and ninth grade.” It’s about creativity, it’s about problem solving. You’ve written entire articles on how kids are not going to be artists when they grow up, so we need to start thinking about design thinking, problem solving, creativity. I think that’s far more important than deciding when we’re teaching the color wheel or how we’re going to deal with impressionism.

Andrew: I’m glad you made fun of impressionism, that’s my favorite one to make fun of. I want to get you out of here on this, like a complete 360, 720, really circle around. We’ve been talking about being flexible, keeping it fresh, innovative, asking your students for help. All that being said, do you think that there are just some cornerstone pieces of curriculum at the secondary level that we have to be teaching or were kid of like a dereliction of duty?

Tim: That’s a good question. I think it’s different for every teacher, to be honest. There are things that I teach well and therefore my kids do well. There are things that my colleagues have taught well and therefore they can pass it onto their kids. Again, I think the cornerstones are either the Core Arts Standards, or going back, like I said, to even broader, just creativity, problem solving, creative thinking and all those sorts of things.

I don’t know, for me curriculum is not about hitting these benchmarks with this type of media. It’s about a much bigger picture. Again, I don’t know that it necessarily matters how we’re teaching that, how we’re getting that point, but I think we do need to direct our students toward those higher level of thinking and those skills that are going to translate outside of the art room, too.

Andrew: Yeah, I think … I just keep giving you these easy pitches to knock out of the park, because I’m … I’m letting you debate here, because it’s like … Yeah, I think with the adoption of these new National Core Arts Standards, they’re really less about students will draw with seven values and color pencil a illusionistic … None of that’s really in there. It is the bigger picture, creative, communicating, problem solving. Then, as art teachers, we have the responsibility and the duty to implement those things and the best way we know how. That’s going to look really different from teacher to teacher, and that’s fine, and that’s good that it looks really, really different because we’re all unique, we all bring a different skillset to the table.

Tim: Exactly. This could be a whole another discussion, but I think it’s worthwhile to ask yourself why are the National Core Arts Standards written that way? We’re not determining projects, we’re all about giving teachers autonomy, giving students autonomy and working toward those larger goals, no matter how you get there.

Andrew: Man, I think … you know what? We’ve got to stop hanging out so much, because we’re starting to agree way too much, we need to call it quits here pretty soon.

Tim: Sounds good.

Andrew: All right, well, thanks Tim. I really appreciate the talk. We’ll talk to you later.

Tim: Yeah, good talking to you.

Andrew: It’s surprising how much Tim and I have rubbed off on each other. Maybe we need one of those fancy combo names that are given to high profile Hollywood couples, like Andrim or Timdrew, or no, not at all.

I think one of the big pieces of the complex puzzle that is curriculum development is that what we do is less important than how we do it. Little C curriculum is going to come and go. Projects are going to come and go as we respond to the needs and interests of our students as we grow as artists and educators, quite frankly. No one wants to be told what to do or how to do it. We want that autonomy. That autonomy to keep it broad and focus on bigger, broader topics, like the 21st century skills.

If we can just keep the big C curriculum in mind, the attitudes, mindsets and dispositions, if we can keep that at the forefront, we’re going to be fine. Even if by following this broader National Core Arts Standards first approach, we might be sacrificing some ideas, like uniformity and lockstep compliance with the principles and elements, and that all important notion of coverage. I hope you guys can tell I’m being sarcastic here. I think Tim says it really well at the end, we need a broader approach to get at some of those bigger issues. Not just what projects are we going to do next. It doesn’t really matter how we get there, it just matters that we do, in fact, get our students there.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker.

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