“What do you mean, there’s no textbook? What are we going to teach from?”
It was January of my first year teaching K-12 music and band. The questions came from the choir teacher, Cathy.* Cathy had been hired mid-year to replace the previous choir teacher, Victoria*, who resigned over winter break. We taught parallel sections of a music appreciation course, but we needed to write the content ourselves.
Cathy was in a state of disbelief. She simply couldn’t fathom it: how could the two of us create not just worksheets and tests, but reading assignments and projects too? How could we create an entire curriculum?
A course pilot with no curriculum
I admit it; I’d been pretty nervous myself at the beginning of the school year. I loved the opportunity to stretch the band students with some music theory and history, but wasn’t quite sure how I’d manage with no textbooks, no curriculum materials, and no budget. This was a pilot course, so I had nothing from the previous teacher to build on either. The choir teacher also taught a section of music appreciation, so at least I had someone to collaborate with. However, we needed to write everything from scratch.
First semester: Working together
Before the school year started, Victoria (the first choir teacher) purchased some materials for a unit on rock history. It was, admittedly, too basic for high school students, but it gave us a six-week head start on pulling together more appropriate content for the rest of the year.
For first semester, we alternated units, each taking responsibility for creating materials. I pulled out my jazz history notes from college and wrote an overview, timeline, and bios; Victoria built a unit around musicals from her expertise. It consumed a lot of time, especially since we were researching and writing basically everything the students read. After all, we were effectively writing our own mini-textbook. But it was also a lot of fun.
Second semester: Continuing on my own
Then, second semester came around. Victoria was gone, and Cathy started teaching. For two weeks, she asked me nearly every day where the textbooks were. I wonder if she imagined I was hiding the books from her, playing some elaborate prank.
Eventually, Cathy decided she wasn’t willing to put in the time to create content herself, even with my help. She purchased a collection of worksheets and taught from those in precise linear order for the rest of the year, never straying from the planned sequence.
I continued creating content on my own for my section of music appreciation. For one of my favorite projects from that course, students planned a virtual orchestra “concert,” including selecting music, determining the order, and writing program notes. This authentic assessment engaged the students more than any other project that year.
Doing curriculum design helped me as an instructional designer
I didn’t realize it at the time, but designing that music appreciation curriculum was one of the first steps on my journey to becoming an instructional designer. For one thing, it helped me realize how much I enjoy creating curriculum.
Curriculum design and instructional design use some of the same approaches. Identifying objectives, building knowledge over time, and aligning activities to outcomes are all skills I developed during that first year of teaching.
Being forced to create all those learning resources from scratch was part of my journey to becoming an instructional designer, even though I’d never even heard of ID at the time. I’m still researching, writing, and creating, just like I was then, trying to craft great learning experiences. That is the essence of what I do. And I still think it’s fun.
Read more about instructional design careers, including several posts on transitioning from teaching to instructional design.
*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Originally published 8/7/2014. Last updated 9/12/2019.