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Curriculum Planning with a Purpose: Begin with the End

Think of what your students will be required to know at the start of their next school year, then plan backward and set goals and milestones to ensure that they make proper progress throughout this academic year.

How can music educators guarantee that musical growth and learning really takes place in their classroom throughout the year? A great way to plan your curriculum before the year starts is to know where you want your students to end the year. Plus, creating habits of planning can greatly help relieve stress.

Click on the links below to learn how I plan my year backward:

Each of the spreadsheet examples below can be found here.

The End

To determine where I want my students at Lexington Junior High School in California to end, I first must consider what they will be required to know next year. What musical knowledge — theory and the technical skillset — will be their starting point in the 8th grade or as a high school freshman? An additional consideration is how they will need to develop as members of a team, so our band culture grows with them.

The Year

With all that in mind, I look at the physical calendar and roughly sketch out where my students should be in their progress throughout the year, noting the musical milestones necessary for them to achieve our target goals. These goals may be hard targets like mastery of specific scales or rhythms and demonstration of theoretical knowledge (such as dictation or composition). There are also soft targets like performing certain styles or genres of music. You can break this down by semesters to make it easier. For this I usually just scratch the plan out on paper (see example 1).

rough calendar sketch
Example 1

Next, I look at how our academic year and event schedule aligns with those milestones. This timeline will largely determine the repertoire we’ll cover during the year because the selected works must match our learning targets, including allowing time for musical and technical growth during the study of repertoire. In addition, the repertoire often will need to fit specific needs — time of year (seasonal music, specific events, etc.), performance venue or a specific audience (concert hall, football game, theme park, etc.). At this point, my literature selection doesn’t need to be specific, although I’ll often have some titles in mind. For this stage, I use a year-long map that I created on a spreadsheet (see example 2).

3-month empty plan
Example 2

Month to Month

Now I can start to fit details into the schedule, usually from event to event, starting with the final concert performance. I usually allow a week before a performance for new concepts and material to have been absorbed, and then start planning structural rehearsals (introduction of concepts, reading and discovering new pieces, etc.) backward from there. This would include structured blocks of time to introduce new fundamentals. If done properly, by the time I have worked back to the start of the year, we’ll have arrived at the point where the students were in their learning just before the end of the previous year. My year-long spreadsheet is usually filled in with weekly goals at this point (see example 3).

completed 3-month plan
Example 3

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Week by Week

blank weekly planning page for all classes
Example 4

I can then use this month-to-month guide to create more specific weekly planning. I’ll often only rough out each week, indicating milestones, events and major concepts to cover at first, and then as each week approaches, I can fill in more details (what line in the book, what measures of a piece, etc.) of what we’ll cover. This allows me flexibility to adjust for difference in leaning speed and the ever-present weekly interruptions to our schedule that are the norm for middle school (or any school, really). No matter what, I make it a habit to always have the next week specifically mapped out before I leave school on Friday. I use a simple weekly grid for my weekly mapping (see example 4).

Doing so can provide you with the freedom to get out of “school mode” for the weekend, helping you to be more refreshed and ready for the following week.

Day by Day

daily planning grid
Example 5

For those new to a course, or perhaps working with a new daily schedule, I recommend roughing out (even putting in some details) a daily plan that includes time for fundamentals, learning new concepts and discovering literature. A simple daily planning grid can be used for this (see example 5) or even just an outline on notebook paper (I fill in about three notebooks a year).

Even your day-to-day stress can be lower knowing that when you leave school your next day is already planned!

The Benefits

Over time this type of planning schedule can help you select literature well before you plan on putting it in the students’ hands, and even adjust your selections prior to that to best fit your students’ learning needs. Do we reach every goal every year? Not always, but sometimes we’ll be able to do even more.

Moreover, when we start the following year, I have a clear idea of where my students will be. Preparing for the start of each year, I can now look back through my past year’s planning and see where the time crunches where and make adjustments for the following year. Within just a few years, you’ll find you can literally recite your yearly curriculum, and mapping and adjusting becomes almost automatic!

Your students will benefit from experiencing better sequenced learning, meeting goals, and feeling prepared and motivated to continue in music. You’ll benefit by developing a consistent year-to-year curriculum that provides the structure for you to create the best learning path for your students, and most importantly, you’ll experience less stress because you’re better prepared to start the new day, week, semester or year!

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