Thursday, September 26, 2013

Taking On a New Curriculum

Buzz Word: Collaboration. It reminds me of the nursery rhyme: When it is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid. Recently, our elementary music team had a day of very, very good collaboration.

I teach in David Douglas School District in Portland, Oregon. Our district is a high-poverty multicultural district with eleven general music teachers. This year, all the grade-level classes in our district are test-driving a completely new integrated curriculum that is entirely web-based. It is probably coming your way in the next couple years, too.

The goal of our collaboration time was to find ways to align our curriculum with the regular education curriculum, as well as to support their curriculum in ways that will be meaningful in both the music and the regular classroom. This was a huge task and, as a team, we were not entirely certain if we should even be going in this direction. After all, our curriculum has taken us many years to develop and we have settled into a groove with it. We know what we need to teach when and have developed strategies for implementing our lessons.

Despite our hesitations, we decided to look into the new curriculum and see what we could find. By the end of the day, we found many ways in which we can both strengthen our own curriculum and support our colleagues in their classrooms.

The Curriculum: The new curriculum is completely online. It dictates what should be taught in reading, math, social studies, science, and writing week-by-week, grade-by-grade. Particularly at the lower grades, there are quite a few songs included. In most cases, these are “piggyback” songs in which the lyrics of a children’s song are replaced by new lyrics with the intention of helping kids remember facts. There are also traditional folk songs or patriotic songs that classroom teachers are expected to teach. While most of the traditional songs were already in our curriculum, very few of them matched with the grade level we previously taught them.

Our Process: We divided into three teams and assigned two grade levels to each team. Within each team, we then assigned each person to one quarter of the year. Each person looked through the curriculum overview for all subjects (for example, I reviewed curriculum from the third quarter of kindergarten and third quarter of fourth grade) and extracted any topic for which we might find a music connection, as well as noting any songs that were included in the unit. If the song was a piggyback song, we also noted the original melody.

After we finished our review, we shared our findings with our small group and brainstormed ways in which we could connect with the subjects we extracted. As an example, I noticed that the kindergartners had a unit called, “What Are You Wearing?” and my group then suggested that in music, we might teach the songs Mary Wore Her Red Dress and Hello, How Do You Do? during the same time frame.

Next, the full team came back together and each person shared their findings and their group’s suggestions for how to tie in to the regular curriculum. To keep track of all the information and suggestions, we used a shared Google doc to create a spreadsheet for grade level, topics, suggestions, and songs.

Next Steps: As each of us works through the school year, we will update the shared document to include lessons, songs, or activities that we used to support the curriculum. This will be a working document that is added to throughout the year by each of us.

Over time, as we establish which lessons were most effective, we will adjust our music curriculum to correspond to the changes.

Our Conclusions: Our team has worked together collaboratively over the last five years to develop, implement, and adjust our curriculum. We have common songs, instrumental assessments, and orchestral works that we all teach at the same grade level. We do this, in part, because our students are very transient within our district and they frequently move between our schools. We wanted to have some consistency for them. It has also helped us to be more focused in our teaching.

Furthermore, our district has used Professional Learning Teams for the last three years. Our teams meet weekly to set goals, create lessons and units, design assessments, and share data. Collaboration is an expectation in our district and we have had lots of practice.

While we initially had some reservations about whether or not we should try to align with our grade-level teachers and their curriculum, ultimately, we all came to a shared conclusion that if we can support both our colleagues and our students while strengthening our music curriculum, then it is time well spent.

I’ll look forward to updating you with our progress as time goes by.


Mari Schay teaches K–5 general music, choir, beginning band, and marimba band at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. She has also taught middle school general music and band as well as private percussion lessons. Mari received her B.M. in percussion performance and her M.A. in teaching from Willamette University. She also holds a M.M. in percussion performance, which she earned at the University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music. While at the conservatory, she worked with Percussion Group Cincinnati. Mari has performed and recorded with a variety of orchestras, new music ensembles, and pop music groups, and is a former member of Boka Marimba, a Zimbabwean-style band in Portland.

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