Creating an Elementary Curriculum that Works for You (Ep. 049)

Curriculum is way less “what” we teach, and more of “how” we teach it. Andrew brings on AOE’s Johanna Russell to talk about our own systems and routines, and making sure they can work at any level. There are a lot of different approaches to curriculum, of course, but it’s important to make sure we are still meeting the standards no matter the approach. Andrew talks about mindset vs. skillset, and Johanna starts a discussion on how it’s not about what facts they remember, it’s about developing confidence as artists and learners (11:30). They also discuss the difference between “covering” material and actually TEACHING that material (15:00), and why we need both kids and colleagues in the correct mindset to find success (19:00). Johanna finishes the show by giving her best advice for writing or rewriting your own curriculum and the best approach for you and your students (26:00). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education. I’m your host, Andrew McCormick. Tim and I have been doing this podcast for almost a full year now, which is pretty crazy that we’re approaching that milestone. By the way, thank you to all of the listeners out there supporting us. We’ve noticed that some of the biggest buzz that we get is when we dig into some of those more specific topics, especially curriculum type episodes. We realized that while we can, Tim and I sometimes wax philosophic about the nature of education, people still need and want thoughts on just how to make all this crazy awesomeness work. How do we teach the National Core Arts Standards with a huge class size in a junky budget? Seriously, if anyone knows how to do that, let me know.

We’re going to start today, a two-part look at curriculum and how art teachers design and pays our curriculum. Today, I’m really happy to bring on AOE’s very own Johanna Russell.

Johanna: I teach at Northwest Elementary School in Ankeny, Iowa. This is my take on art elementary curriculum where the focus is not on what you are teaching but what students are able to take away.

Andrew: Now, this is going to be a unique talk on curriculum development. If you’re looking for a talk that’s going to tell you exactly when you should run your fourth grade landscape painting project or your second grade weaving project. This, really, isn’t that type of talk. Instead, Johanna and I are going to dig into a zen way of no way path of dealing with curriculum. I know Johanna well enough to know that she’s not a big fan of being told that everyone should be doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. I’m not a fan of that either. With curriculum development, instead, I think it’s a question that we ask ourselves, “What do we really want our students to learn?” From there, we start working backwards and then we think of the best way to get our kids to that point.

Now, for some of us, this is going to be a TAB or choice route. For others, maybe, the big piece is going to be wrestling with and then flushing out the National Core Arts Standards. Or maybe, there’s people out there who have the ability in ourselves to link all of this stuff together; the skills you want them to learn, giving them choices, a mindset we want them to adopt, using the standards and also creating great assessments. Now, I don’t think it’s going to be easy to tie all of that stuff together. I really think that it’s up to each teacher to figure out how to do that on our own or it comes across us unauthentic. Who hasn’t taught a lesson that we’ve seen out there on social media or Pinterest just to see that sucker die flat on its face. I do think that tying all that stuff together; the skills, the mindsets, the standards, the assessments. It’s totally possible.

I think we just need to keep in mind that curriculum is way less what we teach and it’s way more how we teach. While this whole episode is focused on curriculum design, Johanna and I get pretty deep into TAB and all the practicals, in and outs of running a TAB room. For those listeners out there that are wondering about how to pull off a TAB classroom or maybe just ways to offer up more choice and student directed lessons, I want to recommend that you guys check out AOE’s course, Choice-Based Art Education. Now, I have choice-based before and I know that students always get a bunch of great tools and tricks to think about adding choice to their normal repertoire. Choice-based is a three credit course and it begins at the first of every month. Head on over to the and check out this course and all the other great classes under the courses TAB.

I can’t wait to get into this interview with Johanna, but I also want to mention, you all need to hang around and make sure that you listen to the very end of this podcast as Tim and I have an exciting offer for all the Art Ed Radio listeners out there. Now, let’s buckle in and open our minds to the great Johanna Russell and all the creative ways that she thinks about curriculum. I think you guys are really going to enjoy this talk. Okay. Johanna, thanks for joining me today. I’m really excited to talk to you.

Johanna: Absolutely. I’m excited to chat.

Andrew: I’ve always really enjoyed seeing what you’re up to because I’ve always thought of you as my sister in arms as being a fellow, zany, wacky middle school teacher. There must be something wrong with us, a screw loose or something, but recently, you just transitioned to teaching elementary school for the first time ever. I’m wondering how that’s going and how that’s treating you.

Johanna: Yeah. I loved middle school, but I wanted to see if I could take the systems and routines that I had at the middle school level and could I get that to work in an elementary setting where the students have some similarities but on the other hand provide a whole new set of unique challenges. It was funny the other day, I had a kindergarten student and it lasted like 15 minutes, I could not get him to understand that putting his clay project in the kiln was not the same as killing his clay project.

Andrew: Yeah. It’s a whole different set of issues that we have to grapple with when we’re elementary teachers and then middle school teachers. I did that many, many years ago. I’m having flashbacks to some of the bizarre conversations that you’ll get into as an elementary teacher. We get into bizarre conversations as middle school teachers as well. Sometimes it’s not so different, their needs and their abilities, middle school kids to elementary school kids.

Johanna: Yeah. Absolutely.

Andrew: Hey, I know this is your first year of doing elementary. One of the things I’m really impressed about, because I stumbled across some of your videos recently, was that you are jumping right into it with TAB. I know you’ve been doing TAB for a little bit. The thing with TAB that always strikes me as interesting is, secondary people will say, “Well, I can never do that. Only elementary people can do that.” I hear elementary people say, “I can’t do that. Only secondary people could do that.” You’re like really pulling it off and you’ve pulled it off now at two different levels. I know this is a big setup, but I want you to talk about why do you do TAB, what do you get out of it, and then how do you do it? How do you pull that off with kindergartners and first grades? Because I’m really impressed by that.

Johanna: I think the first thing to realize is, I did a lot of reading and a lot of research. Also, I did have that experience of doing this at the middle school/high school level. I think that allowed me to hit the ball or ground rolling just a little bit faster. One of the biggest things I did as I read this book called, “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg. Essentially, there’s a huge core part of our brain that keeps and records habits. At the elementary level, it’s almost easier to do TAB because that hasn’t been founded yet. For those kindergartners, I am their first art teacher experience. I get to build those habits starting day one. I have a consistent routine to my day every single day with every single class even though it is in a TAB structure. A minute twelve of every class is exactly the same, but what they are experiencing and what they choose to do during those minutes is completely unique to the student. That’s the biggest key to making it work.

Andrew: I like thinking about it that way. It hadn’t donned on me before. What I like so much about some of your videos and we’ll get into those in a second is, it does seem both simultaneously loose and that there is freedom but then also tight. I know that thinking about loose and tight and loose versus tight is definitely like the language of PLCs, Professional Learning Communities. I really like that. It seems like you’re able to structure your classroom so that you have your cake and you can eat it too. Would you agree with that?

Johanna: Well, I would because I’m living it. On the other hand, day two of kindergarten, I had clay, paint, print making, architecture and mix media all out at the same time and it was no big deal. Really, if you create those structures and routines from moment one and then always have the same structures and routines, it does just get a really great flow.

Andrew: That’s awesome. I know people listening out there are probably not going to believe you or believe us, but I want to put a plug in for some of your videos and we’ll have a link in the end of the podcast. I believe if our listeners just did a Google search for Ms. Russ art tutorials, is that would get to some of your instructions on how you do that?

Johanna: Yeah. Then they would be able to click into my channel. Because it’s a brand new channel, some of my individual video show up first, but if they scroll down a teeny bit, they can get access to the channel or they can click into a video and then they can go from there into the actual channel just like my students do.

Andrew: Johanna, one of the things I really liked about you for the last few years that I’ve known you is, you’re my go-to expert for flipped instruction. I want to ask you a little bit about that as well, but I want to stick with TAB and kind of TAB and thinking about how teachers develop curriculum a little bit more. Are you ever worried when we think about other schools across the district and having a guaranteed and viable curriculum that as a TAB teacher, do you ever worry that you haven’t covered everything or that you’ve missed something? Do you worry about questions like that?

Johanna: The curriculum that I teach is the exact same curriculum as all my other peers at the different elementary schools. It’s just my take on how I teach it is very different. I have this realization when I was learning about the new National Core Arts Standards, which is that I can’t cover it all. Even if I could, the students won’t remember it. Being a middle school/high school teacher, I have the benefit of knowing the … The students that came to me had amazing art teachers. They had an excellent curriculum. Yet, I found myself needing to reteach the basics even with that exposure to those excellent supplies and art teachers. It freed me to realize that it wasn’t what the students knew that I needed them to learn. It was teaching them to be confident artists. That was the main takeaway for my students.

If I could send students to the next level, being confident artist, artist that when they experience something new don’t become hesitant but they know how to approach it so that they can be successful, asking themselves those artistic questions that us as artists whenever we experience a new media get to ask. I wanted them confident about being able to talk about art or communicate through imagery with art. By changing the focus to what I was building inside of the student, verse, can my student spit out the answer to what this blue plus red equal would give them a better foundation. One last thing, besides the fact … Sorry to plug another book but another book that freed me from this is called, “Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly, I believe. It’s discussing what our technology will be like in about 20 years or what we might perceive it to be like. The truth of the matter is is that knowing things is going to become less and less important as working with computers and getting knowledge from computers becomes even more and more accessible.

Andrew: Okay. You got me thinking of so many different things. Maybe, I just want you to echo back my own feelings on this. It sounds like what you’re talking about with your take on curriculum is mindset over skillset. Would you say that that’s what you’ve been doing with your new take on curriculum?

Johanna: Yes. Here’s what I have learned and it’s super scary making the jump. When you switch to teaching the mindset of artists, they turn into artist that want to learn skills. This week alone, I have never taught my kindergartners what colors mix together to make another color. Yet, I overheard a kindergartner saying to another one, “How do I make orange?” The table lit up with conversation as they had self-discovered making orange just through … I didn’t provide orange. They had to color mix to find it. The joy that came from their face made me realize that because they discovered that learning on their own, I don’t think they’re going to forget it. I don’t think I’m going to reteach that child, in first grade, how to make orange. I think they had a moment that caused a deep memory to be made. When you switch to making those deep memories, the learning stays. It allows for greater skill retention.

Andrew: This has me thinking, I actually gave you a question that I actually hate asking, which is the notion of covering. If all teachers do is cover material or cover content, it’s such a surface level, sort of, “I covered it.” Did the students actually give a crap about what they learned or what you taught? Did you just go over it and talk about it? I’m having flashbacks to sitting in rooms with people, teachers from K-12 and were all curriculum mapping and we all say, “Okay. When is the best time for our students to learn this skillset or this skillset?” Everyone tries to plant their flag and say, “Well, I really wanted to be the one who teaches tertiary colors in fifth grade.” I’m thinking like, “Okay. Well, you can say that you covered it or that you taught it at that grade.” My experience for the last 10 years has been like, I have eight grade students that don’t remember what primary colors are. I know for a fact that you guys covered it in third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade but it’s not really sticking.

I wonder if your new approach to the curriculum is actually going to make the learning be meaningful to students.

Johanna: Right. In this book, Inevitable, that freed me, it talked about how they create artificial intelligence in computers. In artificial intelligence, one of the first things they did was, the Atari games, the Pong, I believe it’s called where the ball goes back and forth, you would think that how they would teach the artificial intelligence to play Pong is to program it the rules of Pong. Instead, they don’t teach it or program anything about Pong. They teach it to learn. Through weeks of play, the computer literally plays to learn the rules of Pong. That’s how it becomes unbeatable. The same is true for computers with chess. They cause it to go through play to learn. That freed me to realize my students.

My kindergarten are going to be entering the workforce in 20 years. I cannot possibly predict the world that they are going to enter in 20 years, but what I do know is the more their brain can do, the more flexible their brain is, the more control and power they are going to have in our new economy. I think that that is something that us as our teachers need to harness and own. Because very few teachers get to say that they teach the brain how to think. Whereas, I think our curriculum does let us do that quite easily.

Andrew: One of the things I want to circle back to is, you’re talking about curriculum. I just want to make sure. It seems you’re talking about two separate sorts of curriculums. There’s big C curriculum which is your National Core Arts Standards that every teacher really ought to be using, and then there’s little C curriculum which is how each individual teachers doing it or how each district is doing it. Sometimes people, I think, think of that little C curriculum as, “Well, when do I do my Van Gogh lesson and when do I do my lesson on birds and when do I do this?” I think you’re taking it a little bit differently which is like, “What are those mindsets I want to teach?” Do you think it’s right? Am I looking at this the right way that you think of there being like a big C curriculum and a little C curriculum?

Johanna: Yeah. I love that analogy. I would almost say there’s three. You have the National Core Arts Standards. A lot of times, your state or your district will then rewrite those or tweak those and that becomes the language of your people that teach the same as you and your district or in your state or in your county. There’s the teacher view of, “Well, how am I going to teach that? How am I going to have students experience that?” Which is where I came to TAB in the first place because if I wanted my students to really engage in those National Core Arts Standards, they had to be able to experience failure, they had to be able to take risks and it had to be in a positive light. TAB allows that. It allows students to genuinely learn and improve from their mistakes. That’s how the art gets good. It’s very scary.

I don’t know if you experienced this, Andrew, but the first time I went into teaching for artistic behavior, that first project is a train wreck. It is an absolute train wreck because it has to be an order for the next project to be significantly better. It isn’t until that third experience for students that they have been in charge of their learning that you become shocked and us struck by what they are able to do.

Andrew: We’re talking a lot about TAB. I know that that’s a big push in a big direction with how art teachers teach, but there are other ways to do it. I do think it is a spectrum, how you run your curriculum and you’re going to be flexible. I think all teachers are going to be flexible. New students, new jobs, new schools, new districts, new expectations, you might slide or shoot forward on how you do it. You were asking me if I felt that first project was a nightmare. I know, four years ago, I would say I was just starting to flirt with choice and TAB. Every year, it got more and more and more. I recently switched school districts and I got to say I’m playing it a little safer. I’m really trying to get the pulse of my students and see when they’re ready to start thinking this. Because otherwise, I knew it really would be a whole loss semester of a train wreck of trying to really implement this mindset over skillset things.

Now, you had the opposite experience. You just jumped right into it at the elementary level with TAB or did you pull back a little bit?

Johanna: I love your point about how different students need a different experience, even the teacher. When I consider how I have taught using TAB, even last year where I taught three different classes at once, each class had a different take. Draw in one class TAB experience had to be different from eighth grade art which had to be different from Art 1. Even at the elementary level, different age groups need a different experience. The teacher, really, would need to dive in for themselves and decide what that needed to look like for them and our students to be the most successful.

Andrew: I think if you just jump into TAB with students who, like you said, have gotten into the custom, the routine of having things laid out for them and you follow this recipe, you’re speaking a whole foreign language of when you come up with this project, that’s really, really open-ended. I think to ramp up to that and build up to that is really good. Johanna, I think, we could probably talk TAB for another 40 or 50 minutes and everyone would be zoning out on us. I wanted to look at, maybe, the last piece of the puzzle of how you run your curriculum and what I think is so interesting about it is how you flipped your instruction and flipped your curriculum. Can you tell me when you started doing that? What do you think are the biggest benefits for that in your classroom?

Johanna: I started teaching with video instruction. I think about eight or nine years ago, I didn’t really keep track at the time. In fact, I didn’t even know it was called flipping. I just needed a second me and video taping myself seem to be the easiest way to get that. How many times do you repeat yourself as an art teacher. Once you have a video, you don’t have to repeat yourself anymore. It allowed me to really differentiate my teaching. That flipped instruction is what let me know that I could teach using TAB. Because essentially, my students have access to me when they are ready to learn a new skill through those video tutorials. It allows me to have one student learning one point perspective while another student is learning five point perspective within the same classroom.

There’s something about choice. The student choosing that they want to press play and learn causes them to engage with the learning in just a deeper way than when you say, “Okay, okay. Settle down. I got to do a demo.”

Andrew: I know people out there are probably listening and saying like, “So you’re going to let your kindergartners just press play on whatever video they want?” Does your flipped instruction look different at the middle school level than it does now, currently, at the elementary level? I’m assuming it has to.

Johanna: Logistically, it has to because I went into a classroom that doesn’t, yet, have the technology to support what I had at the eight, nine level. Yes, my kindergartners do not get to choose their video. They come into my room, they get to choose their center using theirs stick and then they sit down and watch a three-and-a-half minute video. Even if the actual video is, let’s say, six minutes long, I always just break it into three-and-a-half minute chunks. That is where, essentially, they’re getting their learning. Then I make a point that we always review the last three videos using a little song. It’s helping to recall some of those past lessons.

Andrew: That’s awesome. Johanna, we’ve really talked about a lot of things and I just keep thinking that this is not your normal curriculum talk which I like. I think both of us are not in the camp of like, “Do this lesson on Monday and then two Mondays from now, you’re ready for this lesson and everyone’s lockstep in the same information.” For people out there who are curious about planning curriculum, do you have any parting words or what you think was your biggest uh-huh moment when it came to big C or little C curriculum?

Johanna: I treated my curriculum experience like an artist getting a brand new media. As artist, we’re not scared when we’re introduced to something new. We become curious. We want to play with it. We want to discover what it can and can’t do. Allowing yourself that freedom even while you continue teaching, maybe, the way you’ve always taught, will allow for big change but in incremental steps. Freeing your brain is the first important step, I would say.

Andrew: I like that a lot. I like playing with it. That is the fearless approach that artist … That’s what we do. That’s awesome. Johanna, thanks so much for coming on. I really enjoyed talking with you.

Johanna: Absolutely. I enjoyed sharing.

Andrew: Well, I hope you guys enjoyed that. I know I really did. It’s not your typical curriculum talk. Johanna isn’t your typical elementary art teacher. What I love about her is, she’s a great mix of creativity and outside the box thinking. She instills that in her students, more importantly, but she’s able to do all of that because she’s very logical and very organized. It’s a yin and yang thing. If you haven’t seen some of her YouTube videos, I totally recommend checking those out. Do yourself a favor. Do a quick Google search for Ms. Russ art tutorials. I love how she pointed out that there really are two curriculums, the official set of standards that were given and then the creative and the individual way that we translate and perform those standards.

However you approach your capital C curriculum is up to you, but be authentic to your teaching style and your teaching philosophy. Even more importantly, be in service to the needs of your students. I think you’ll find that the more years that we teach and the more years we have in the game, our approach to curriculum is like a pendulum. We’re going to swing back and forth. Sometimes it’ll be more open-ended and then sometimes it’ll be more structured and tight. It’s all in service to what our students need to learn. Always remember that we teach students first and that our content, really, should be secondary to that. If we ever lose side of this and we fall head over heels in love with our awesome little C curriculum, we could very well lose our ability to reach our students’ hearts and minds.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Okay. For all you AOE fans out there, we have got a special discount code for AOE’s Art Ed Now Conference on February 18th. Art Ed Radio listeners can enter listenerssave20 and check out for 20% off registration. That will bring your $125 conference price down to just $100 which is totally awesome. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio will be released every Tuesday and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on the All right. Thanks for listening.

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