Sunday, June 19, 2011

How I make a curriculum:

I'm working on a preschool music curriculum right now to post on Learning Lynx Classroom, and I thought I'd make a few notes about how I do it so other people can DIY schooling, too.

First, I always answer the question: What does learning this subject, in general and on all levels, encompass? Learning music encompasses learning how to produce music, the technology of music (both instruments and computers/recording), the theory behind how the sounds are strung together, and music in our culture (both folk and formal).

Then, considering my own child's ability level, I ask myself, "What do I want this child to ultimately be able to do/know in this subject?" Ultimately, I want Nathanael and Benji (my current preschoolers) to be comfortable with music in general; I want them to be able to make music somehow (instrument, voice, whatever), I want them to have a solid foundation in "music you should know" (folk and formal), and I want them to know enough to be able to connect with their dad on his career. If my answer to this question was, "I want them to become concert pianists, and they have the aptitude," then that would obviously direct my efforts. Since the answer is, "I want them to have broad exposure to music and know enough to know if they want to pursue it further themselves," then a broad music education is what I'm after.

I decided that the best approach for my kids is to engage them in noticing sounds, playing with "music" online, give them a brief introduction to instruments, and get them singing. Since I want my kids to learn the foundational music "literature" that will make them culturally integrated, I decided to focus the first year of preschool on nursery rhymes and the second year of preschool on children's folk songs. To be culturally literature, you really need to be familiar with the words and tunes of nursery rhymes and certain well-known folk songs. Plus, nursery rhymes and folk songs have words and melodies that are easy to remember and fun to sing--they are both catchy and "sticky," so it would be an easy way to get my own kids singing. On top of that, folk songs don't need to be sung with fancy soundtracks, syncopated drum sounds, or jazzy dance moves. (Ever try to sing one of those el. ed. music "pop songs" they teach kids in school? The melodies are "simplified" and usually both ugly and forgettable, the words are either propagandist, sterilized, or dull, and the songs sound terrible without their "rock star" synthesized tracks. That makes them useless to me.) Songs that are "designed" to teach a certain concept are not nearly as effective at getting music into kids' souls as folk songs. I could go on, but you get the idea.

The final step, then is to find materials that are age-appropriate, educationally sound, and engaging. The ideal is to have the lesson be so interesting that the child does further exploration on their own. Because I am homeschooling six kids, I really don't want to spend all day sitting with each child one-on-one teaching them their lessons. I want the computer to do that, with me there as the tutor and learning coach. So the rule for materials is I have to have a distinct URL to the individual activities (so 100% Flash-based sites like Melody Street are useless to me, despite the fact that they are engaging, colorful, musically and educationally sound), and the activities have to be child-ready (not, therefore, lesson plans). They can be interactives, videos, e-books, printables, websites to explore, etc. But they have to be child-navigable and child-ready. Unlike some educational materials libraries, I don't exclude pages with ads on them, or pages that require a log in. But I do insist that all materials are 100% free, and I have had to teach my kids NOT to click on ads.  Also, the pages have to load quickly, or the preschoolers click on to something else and miss the activity. 1 year olds aren't known for their patience! Finally, the activities have to be an appropriate length. While a 4th grader can handle a half-hour activity, preschoolers really do better with things that take 2-10 minutes--usually closer to 2.

A quick google search of "children's folk songs" gives you TONS of lyrics, and some bad midi tracks, but nothing terribly interesting--well, very little that is useful to kids "out of the box" (like this: . Great site, useless to set my preschooler free on). And most online music activities are too advanced for preschool age, so I decided to go with videos.

My first awkward steps into finding materials had me using the search box on YouTube for the words "nursery rhymes." No good. If you understand how search engines work and you understand the basics of cloud mentality, you realize people don't name their songs "nursery rhyme: Jack and Jill." Nor do they usually use the phrase "nursery rhymes" in the notes on videos.

I have since learned to do a google search for a list of songs, and then search YouTube for the individual song titles. Then I watch video after video, searching for the one that I think will be most effective at teaching my kids the songs.

If I already know the song, I am looking for the version I know or learned as a child (because I don't want to hear, "Mom! You're singing it wrong!" when I try to pass my own folk culture on to my kids). I am also looking for a good performance (nothing spoils a song faster than a bad performance) and a good recording of it (cell phone videos of live concerts don't cut it). Generally speaking, I prefer a video that is engaging visually, too: a cartoon, a puppet performance, a live performance that is filmed well and child-friendly, or even a slide show if necessary. Some of the best performances on YouTube are accompanied by a single static shot of a record cover. Not interesting to preschoolers!

Then, before I copy the link, I check the recommended videos on the side to make sure it's okay if the kids click on those videos (since they tend to while I'm in the bathroom or changing a diaper). Just today I had to eliminate most of the version of "Oh Susanna" I found because the recommended videos on the side bar included a hip-hop version with scantily clad European girls dancing and  a video whose image was of six nude women in the '40s. I didn't even click on that one, so I have no idea what it actually was, but I certainly don't want Benji to find out for me while I'm answering the phone or helping someone with long division!

Then I copy the URL into my spreadsheet. I actually used Google Docs Forms to make an online worksheet I fill out (it speeds things up) that lets me copy the url in, type a quick description (this is useful while I'm sorting the materials and also if I find one of the links is dead later on--I can go find a different video with the same content), and then click boxes for subject area, grade level (because I often find something that is great for my 2nd grader, or fits perfectly with what the Kindie will be learning), and the type of material it is (interactive, video, e-book, etc.)--this helps me get a variety of materials, and also helps me when I'm sorting the links later.

Once I've collected all the materials I want to include for the year, I open the spreadsheet that the form has been saving everything onto for me. I sort first by grade and copy the non-preschool materials onto other, grade-level-specific spreadsheets to deal with later. Then I sort by subject area (to eliminate things I found that belong in, say, science or art). Then I copy the music activities to a different spreadsheet to make it easier to sort and re-sort without mixing in the art or science activities.

When I type the description of each link, I try to use Tags (like "Folk song: Handclapping chant: Miss Mary Mack" or "Folk Song: Oh Susanna".  That way, when I go to sort the links into the order I want the kids to learn them, it's a lot easier. First I sort (using the spreadsheet program's sort function) by the description column. That puts all the activities with the same tags in blocks. Then I add numbers to the description box, before the tags if I want the activities scattered throughout the curriculum or after the tags if I want all activities with similar tags taught in a cluster. For example, if I want my child to do all five activities on the violin five days in a row, I would number them to show up in a cluster (either by giving them the same number before the tag or by numbering them in the order I want them done after the tag). If I want them to do one activity on the violin, then one on the cello, then one on the bass drum, etc. and then come back to the violin after they've covered all the other instruments, I would number the violin activities 1-5 before the tag, and number all the other instrument activities in the same way. Then I use the sort function.

I keep sorting, re-labeling, sorting, and fine-tuning (sometimes by copy-and-paste) until I am satisfied that every single activity is in the place in the curriculum where it will have the greatest educational impact. With music this is really easy because it doesn't really  matter what order they hear the folk songs, so it goes really fast. Science activities are painstakingly slow, as are history and math (and most subjects, actually, except art and music) because every single activity is best done in a certain single spot in the curriculum, and I have to dig through everything and make sure it's just right to maximize the learning and minimize the stress on the kids. Concepts should flow, one to the next, building upon each other with little strain on the child's brain, so that learning is natural, fun, and easy.

When I am satisfied that the lessons are in order, I copy the data from the "work" spreadsheet onto a permanent, in-order grade level spreadsheet.

Then I copy JUST the links to a google doc, keeping them in order. This makes it easier for me to cut-and-paste them into the website I've created as an interface for my kids. You could just have your kids work from a list. Or you could enter the links into "The Head of the Class" using their customize curriculum option, and then they keep records for you and also have a fantastic interface for the kids to access the lessons with no confusion--it automatically moves the kid to the next lesson on the list. The other advantage of The Head of the Class is they will distribute the topics for you, eliminating the need for the next step.

Using the spreadsheet, I then find out how many activity links I have. I have my kids on a 180-day school year, and I want the links spread evenly throughout the year.

Then I have to do the math. Since math is not a native skill for me, I just muddle through. I can't explain exactly how I do it. It has something to do with the fact that it doesn't matter if you divide the number of days by the number of activities or the other way around, as long as you look at it right, and also with discovering how many are left over and how often you need an extra day (like we have music alternating every 3rd and 4th days, or we have math every day with two activities on every sixth day). If you really need to know, I'm sure I could figure out some instructions. The easy way, though, is to use "distribute topics" under "Customize curriculum" on The Head of the Class website.

So once I figure out how often I need a particular subject, I plug the icons into the website (or delete extras from the template I made--whatever works), assign the links to the icons, and we're good to go.

It's a lot of work, actually.

Good thing I enjoy it.

Note on the math:
I ended up with 145 music activities. That means I have to skip 35 days, evenly spread over the whole year, but otherwise have music every day.  To evenly distribute the missed days, first I divided 145/180. That equaled .80, which is the same as 8/10, which is the same as 4/5. That means I put music activities on 4 of every 5 days, or, in other words, I skip every fifth day.

To check my math, I divided 35/180, which equals .19. This is almost .20, which is the same as 1/5, or one out of every five. .20 plus .80 equals 1.00, or 100%, so that means I did the numbers right. I'm never sure, though until I start plugging it all in. So far, it's worked every time!

I've worked out some hints for myself, so I don't have to muddle through every time:

36 items means 1 every 5th day; 45 items means 1 every 4th day; 60 items is one every 3rd day; 90 is one every other day; 145 is four of every five days; 260 items means one every day plus alternating 2nd and 3rd days get 2 (which also means that 72 means alternating 2nd and 3rd days get one--I figured this out by dividing 72/180, which equals .4; a little messing around and I figured out that 2/5 is also .4, but I could have reduced the fraction if I'd thought of that! 2/5 means 2 of every five days has an activity, and that is easily divided into alternating second and third days).

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