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Why develop a curriculum?
Amazing dance classes are the foundation to build excited and energized students. Good classes empower students to build and practice new skills, enhancing their understanding and appreciation for the topic at hand. But if students attend regular classes for a month, three months, a year, will they grow? Will students be able to connect skills from different classes in meaningful ways? There are many different ways to structure a good class, but not all of these ways mesh well with each other. Most local dance venues rotate instructors regularly; different teachers may employ different teaching methods, terminology, or mental frameworks. While each technique may be perfectly valid, it can be confusing for new dance students to reconcile drastically different viewpoints.
Without some degree of coordination, regular classes can fall victim to two problems. First, classes could be exactly the same every time. This quickly teaches students that they no longer need to attend class. Second, classes could be so drastically different that students cannot connect the concepts and skills they learn from one class to another. To facilitate long-term student growth, consistency and structure across multiple classes at a single venue is key.
A great strategy to achieve coordination across different instructors and different topics is to develop a curriculum for a regular class venue.
Curriculum development is the art of intentional material selection and structure to design a series of linked classes with a common arc.
Class consistency through curriculum development has several benefits:
- Student growth. Explicitly coordinating material over a set of classes will allow repeat students to build on their knowledge, class by class, by enabling students to draw connections between ideas and topics amongst different classes and different instructors.
- Event identity. Consistency can help showcase your event values. Familiarity with common values and exercises will help students smoothly integrate within your community.
- Reduce extraneous instructor communication. A common curriculum lays out what should be taught when, allowing instructors to have a general idea of the topics other teachers are teaching which may inform their own lesson planning. While it would be great if instructors would always be chatting with each other about what they are teaching, most modern social partner dances scenes are made up of volunteers or near-volunteers (i.e. dramatically underpaid), where people don’t have the time for long back-and-forths with other instructors.
- Instructor training. A clear curriculum provides a clear foundation for how to bring up and train new instructors.
The goal of this guide is to give you several tools for how to create or revise a curriculum, and demonstrate that there are multiple solutions for how to build a curriculum. I hope this process and the examples below will help you build the curriculum that is best for your scene. This was written specifically for developing a curriculum for blues social partner dancing, but the principles and process should be easily applicable both to other social dances and educational contexts.
If you prefer the tl;dr experience, check out the Curriculum Development PowerPoint which contains similar information in a much-condensed format.
When developing a curriculum, I ask myself several questions to investigate my values and what I have to work with. I find starting with a values-first model allows me to look at the big picture and incorporate ideas I might not have thought of otherwise.
- What do I value? It’s important to know what your values are, even if you can’t achieve all of them at first.
- What are my resources? Know what you have to work with!
- What are my limitations? Clearly articulating your limitations can help you be more creative in working around them.
Below, I work through each question and give examples based off of my personal values and the realities of the New York City blues scene 2016-2018. I used this process to develop, implement, and modify a weekly beginner level blues curriculum for Friday Night Blues NYC. Your scene may be quite different; I hope these examples will help you envision how you can use this process to build something for your own scene. If you like, follow along by using the Curriculum Development Worksheet designed to assist you in this process.
What do I value?
Start with your values. This is your time to dream big, and think about the best possible classes you could create for your event. Though it is unlikely to always be able to achieve all of your values, this is a great process to investigate what you do value so you can better prioritize your actions when balancing your resources and limitations. These values will act as your guiding principles when creating and auditing your curriculum.
As there are many different aspects of any event, let’s break our values down into several distinct chunks.
It is important to first consider the schedule for your classes, since your schedule will guide many downstream decisions. This will involve working with other organizers to make sure you can have a consistent venue, and market your classes in clear, easy-to-find ways. If you are working with an existing event, many of these decisions and structures may be already made. If you are starting an event from scratch, make sure to weigh different schedule options to find the best fit for your current scene. Weekly and monthly venues will necessitate vastly different curriculum decisions.
- High quality classes on a consistent, easy-to-find schedule.
- Learning opportunities for brand new dancers and students who have taken several beginner lessons.
- Avoid conflict with regular classes of adjacent dance styles such as swing dances.
The most important thing to consider for any curriculum is the student experience. What do you want students to leave with every class?
- Consistent student experience every week.
- Students feel encouraged to:
- Express themselves through the music.
- Return to class next week.
- Participate in the community.
- Students leave each class feeling more confident and practiced.
- Classes progress in a common arc and suggest a clear path of learning for students.
A close second to the student experience, you want to make sure your instructors agree with and enjoy teaching your curriculum. Happy instructors make for better classes and happier students!
- Freedom for instructors to teach their own style and use their own exercises.
- Flexibility that accommodates for range in instructor skills.
Some values may be hard to reconcile, such as wanting a consistent student experience each week, classes each week that progress along a common arc, but also freedom for instructors to innovate and embody their unique teaching voice. Forcing a formulaic class plan on everyone can lead to stagnation. Teaching is an art. Finding ways to let instructors embody their own teaching voice will lead to better classes overall, and will also allow your classes to reach more students as different teaching approaches will work better for different students. One way to balance these desires is to require some aspects of class structure, while explicitly leaving space in others; the art of curriculum development lies in balancing strict requirements and flexibility.
I strongly believe in building flexibility into a local curriculum to allow for a range of instructor skills. Local events are where we build brand new instructors. It’s important to allow new instructors the space that they need to learn how to teach, while also accomplishing the goals for your curriculum.
Lastly, it is important to list your top priorities for content to include in your curriculum. Try and list as few priorities as possible—partner dance is such a rich topic, and you could choose to emphasize many different things—or at least clearly delineate your top priorities.
- Feature common blues basics and blues idiom dances.
- Historical and cultural context to music and movement.
- Fundamental techniques underlying the blues aesthetic: posture, pulse, and relaxation.
- Common vocabulary across instructors, with understanding that the nature of vernacular dances such as blues may mean there are multiple names for the same thing.
What are my resources?
It is also important to understand and catalogue your resources. Curriculum development is a daunting task! It’s easier once you can remember all of the tools you already have at your fingertips. These are things like the skills of your community members, the venues you can use, and the times of the week that are available in the local dance schedule. Don’t forget to list all of the resources available online to help develop your curriculum or to develop the talents of your staff.
When listing your resources consider skills of your community members, your available venues, your local dance schedule, and any online resources such as blogs, books, or videos that you have access to.
Examples from New York
- Lots of people.
- Relatively easy to find volunteers for regular event jobs.
- Energetic and consistent event director.
- Staff of 15+ instructors, including 4 national level blues instructors.
- Staff of 5+ DJs.
- Long-term Friday event with consistent attendance.
- Venue that allows us to have two classes at the same time.
There’s also people like me. I have been professionally involved in education for over a decade. I have taught LEGO robotics day camps, resident science camps, introductory university level biology courses, and I’ve assisted with upper-level university level biology courses. More than just teaching, I helped create or improve the curricula of several of these past programs. While my specific skill set may be unique, don’t forget to ask your community members about their day jobs. You never know, someone in your scene may have relevant professional experience that they may be willing to lend to community building!
A wider skill base of talented locals will allow you to push for higher knowledge content in each class, but don’t feel hamstrung if you don’t have top instructors available. We have all the time in the world to teach someone to dance as long as we convince them to come back! As long as you have people who are excited about how to learn and can encourage others to learn, you can build a successful local dance curriculum.
What are my limitations?
As most organizers are aware, dance organizing is really hard. There are a lot of constraints related to venues, available expertise, and making enough money to create a sustainable event. Most organizers in the modern blues dance community do this on the side and are essentially volunteering their time. While it can be discouraging to go over all of the limitations, it is helpful to clearly delineate what your limitations are so you can more clearly work around them with the resources you already identified.
Examples from New York
- Fridays suck. We are competing with the entirety of New York City on a Friday night.
- Difficult to hire the same instructor consistently.
- Students attend class inconsistently, treat classes more like drop-in lessons than progressive series.
- Cannot move event as all other nights conflict with another well-established local events.
- Venue has regular issues with the speakers.
- Everyone on staff has a day job.
- Limited time to organize, train, and quality control.
- Constantly shifting local community.
Once you have identified your values, resources, and limitations, now it is time to seriously investigate the content you want to include in your curriculum. Think about the skills you want students to learn from your classes; this may differ depending on the skill level you are aiming at. Content selection is a huge endeavor and deserves its own separate investigation. Below are some prompts to get you started in the right direction.
For beginner curricula, what are the minimum skills that make social blues dancing enjoyable? For beginners, start with the must-have skills that you want to see students develop first. For intermediate or advanced curricula, first consider the skills you think students should already have. Make sure these skills are addressed in lower-level classes at your venue and that these skills are clearly listed when marketing higher-level classes.
Think about what content you must require, and what parts you can be more flexible with to allow room for instructor innovation. What must be consistent amongst all classes? What is nice to have consistent amongst classes to create an event identity?
It is also important to make sure you do right by the community that created these dances. Explicitly include guidelines and resources for your instructors to introduce blues dance history and culture seamlessly into each class.
Don’t forget to consider non-dance content and etiquette to help students navigate our community skillfully. In our modern community, this includes the idea of consent culture, how to say and respect “no” to a dance, and discussions of role preferences.
When brainstorming possible content, I polled many friends and community members to make sure I considered ideas that I would have missed on my own. I listed ideas, grouped similar ones together, and tried different combinations until I could see common themes arise out of the myriad of ideas I collected.
This is where the magic happens. Creating the structure of your curriculum is where you take all the disparate notes you have collected, and voilà! Now you have something more than the sum of its parts.
…Maybe it’s not quite that easy.
First, consider the class schedule that your community can support. Can you support a regular weekly event with classes? Or can you only support monthly classes? If you can host weekly classes, can you get students to treat it as a monthly series? Curriculum structure will be very different depending on how often you can host classes and your degree of student retention between classes.
Once you have an idea of the class schedule your community can support, start thinking of the best way to chunk content in sensical blocks. The two broad options are:
- Skill-based curricula (turns, connection, side passes, etc.). Centering your curriculum around skills tends to be more amenable to smaller “chunks.” This strategy is a good workaround when classes are more spread out (e.g. only monthly) or when student attendance is inconsistent.
- Dance-based curricula (struttin’, fishtail, Savoy walk, etc.). Centering your curriculum around specific idiom dances makes including historical context more natural, however it can feel disjointed unless you can build on the same dance over a concentrated period of time. This strategy works best when you can host a progressive series of classes on a weekly basis. As specific idiom dance knowledge is newer to our current modern blues scene (upon writing this post, at least), this does have the consequence of requiring increased instructor knowledge. This may require additional instructor trainings to make sure all of your local instructors can achieve these goals.
For example, Friday Night Blues in NYC has a skill-based curriculum with seven rotating topics. This works well for our constantly shifting student base, difficulty in hiring the same instructor consistently, and for inconsistent instructor knowledge of blues idiom dances across all of our staff members. This curriculum is blues idiom dance-friendly, where we encourage instructors to introduce basics of blues idiom dances in fundamental classes, but we save longer series on blues idiom dances for our extended topics classes (advanced beginner-intermediate).
Blues Union in Boston has a dance-based curriculum with six monthly themes. They are able to implement this largely because they can hire the same instructor for an entire month, and they have more resident knowledge of idiom dances within their instructor staff. Boston has also implemented instructor trainings to help disseminate idiom dance knowledge amongst all of their instructor staff.
Once you have decided on the broad structure, skill-based or dance-based, then start to fill in the details. I find it helpful to work outside-in, or starting from the big picture and gradually filling in the details until I have a workable whole. Remember, this is the hard part! Don’t be afraid to create several different versions, compare them, seek feedback, or even pilot a few different ideas and see how they sit with students and instructors.
Use learning objectives for individual lessons or topics to communicate your goals to your instructors.
Learning objectives are the demonstrable skills or knowledge you want students to gain from a class or activity. In other words, your goals for what students will learn for a given lesson.
Writing learning objectives has two main benefits. First, it makes you evaluate what you really care about from each part. Do you care that a specific turn is taught in a particular lesson? Or do you just care that instructors cover how to turn safely, regardless of the specific type of turn? Second, these learning objectives communicate the size of the box instructors have to work with for each class. This helps instructors understand where they have freedom and where they may have to toe the party line. By letting them know your underlying goals, you give your instructors more flexibility where they may find new ways to achieve your goals that you never would have thought of. This not only helps give your instructors more ownership of their classes, but it also helps enrich the student experience where different instructors may have a different, but useful, spin on a topic.
Lastly, if you communicate these learning objectives to students, they can help students better contextualize each class and take control of their learning. Sharing learning objectives with students is commonly done in traditional academic settings. In my experience, explicitly sharing learning objectives is less common in dance environments as most people treat social partner dance as a hobby.
Once you have created and implemented a curriculum, your work isn’t done! Periodically check in to see if the curriculum is working. Things may need tweaking as your scene and staff continue to change and grow. Our understanding of blues dance as a modern national community is also continuing to shift and grow, so you may want to include updates that incorporate new information.
Check in with your staff and with your students to see what is working well and what might need improvement. Consider the questions below; what changes can you make to improve the instructor and student experience through your curriculum?
- Does your staff like and understand the curriculum?
- Are your requirements clear so that your instructors understand your vision?
- Are there areas where instructors want more freedom to personalize?
- Are there areas where you need more consistency across classes or instructors?
- Can your staff achieve your requirements?
- Are you asking too much of your instructors by having too many requirements per class?
- Are students enjoying classes?
- Do you see students utilizing class material on the social floor?
- Do you see an increase in student retention?
- Over time, do you see an increase in average skill level in your scene?
Curriculum development can be daunting and time-consuming, but I find it immensely rewarding! It can help your staff better understand the dance and your goals for your venue, and it helps students by providing them a common structure with which to understand what they learn. I hope these suggestions help guide you in your own process of developing and improving a curriculum in your home scene.
Thank you to Julie Brown for developing this material with me! We originally presented this material as part of the BluesGeek track at Mo’ Better Blues 2017. I updated and presented this material at Blues with Friends 2018, and further updated it for this post. Thanks to all of the organizers who have provided me a platform to share these thoughts!
Lastly, many thanks to Jo Oshiro and Robert Jones for their many comments on this draft. This post would be much poorer without their insight. Photo by Sara Cherny.
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