Art Curriculum Planning
Last Spring I was asked to design a curriculum for an honors level advanced studio art class. The class would be one semester long and require a portfolio review to be accepted into the class. The idea would be that the class would prepare students who are interested in creating a college art portfolio. The class itself is too short for students to create a whole portfolio but it would serve as a jumping off point for students and teach them strategies for artistic investigation so they could find themes and concepts that they want to explore in a portfolio. The class would also need to include elements of Art History and Contemporary art as well as research and interpretation of artworks.
This is the kind of class that is a DREAM to teach so I immediately said yes and began the planning process.
Having previously taught International Baccalaureate Visual Art for 8 years, I immediately thought of this class as a “mini IB Art” class and went back to my IB Art curriculum as a jumping off point. Since IB Art is a two year course and I taught it for nearly a decade I had a lot to work with and it became overwhelming to look through these lesson materials and to condense them down to a semester long course. Also the block periods in my current school site are 20 minutes shorter than at my previous school so there is less class time overall.
I knew I needed a better way to sift through these lessons and organize my ideas…my previous system of writing on post-it notes and in random pages in different notebooks was not going to cut it. I wanted to create a template that allowed me to create a mind map, lists and charts of possible units and see the themes, skills/techniques and concepts each unit explores as well as how I would assess the activities and projects in each unit. I got to work sketching out the templates I wanted to create and then used Canva to make the final draft. I know myself and I wouldn’t want to use the template if it wasn’t pretty so I used aesthetic fonts and my favorite pink hues.
Free Art Syllabus Planner
The final Syllabus Planner includes a variety of pages to guide the curriculum planning process from the early stage of mind mapping and brainstorming to deeper thinking with journaling prompts and finally laying out the timeline and actual unit plans. I also included the US National Core Art Standards so that I could make sure my plans were hitting key standards at the advanced level. As a final page I included a page where I could refine my classroom policies/procedures as much has changed in the past few years after returning from online/remote learning. The entire printable (pdf) Syllabus Planner is *free* to download.
Mind Mapping and Brainstorming for Curriculum Design
I found that starting with mind mapping really helped me get my ideas down without committing to any of them. The idea of a mind map is that one idea leads into another, so the bubbles on this page connect and branch out from a central bubble which is the class itself. I personally struggle with ambiguity in the planning process and want to get things set as soon as possible, but for this I really wanted to do the opposite to let myself really explore a variety of ideas before creating the unit plans. I even found myself writing question marks at the end of each idea to further highlight that these ideas were just possibilities. There is also a place to reflect at the bottom of the mind map page where I wrote down my priorities for the class and an idea of the structure of the units that came to me while mind mapping. I decided I really wanted to focus on only 4 units or projects and for each unit there would be at least two smaller investigation or skill building assignments before the final project.
The Syllabus Brainstorming Page is designed to help organize ideas from the mind-mapping page by breaking ideas up into five categories: skills, mediums, themes, artists/cultures and sub plans/early finisher activities. I used this to help solidify the ideas I had on my mind map into clear categories and it helped me figure out my course guiding goal or through-line. I came up with the goal of “How can I use artistic investigation strategies/practices (studies, sketches, research, material tests) to develop my artistic voice?” Having this guiding question helped me narrow down the unit/project ideas by first asking if they serve that learning goal for students.
The guided reflection pages have several questions to help consider all the different aspects of the curriculum and student experience of the class. I based some of the questions on the indicators in the National Core Art Standards (USA) as well as my own goals for the class. One of my big goals this year for all of my classes was to include more collaborative and community building activities so I included the question “What collaborative art experiences can be included in the syllabus to promote teamwork and engagement?” Through these reflection questions I came up with some ideas that carried into the course including planning a visit to a local figure drawing studio for a life drawing session with a clothed model, which I researched at this time and had the information ready to go for planning the experience once school began. Doing this reflection gave me time to pause and pull together all the ideas I had brewing in my mind. I think the most helpful part was that this reflection gave me a place to consider the curriculum as a whole and narrow my ideas down to themes/projects that would build on one another and lead my students to the core learning goal of learning how to use an art journal / artistic investigation to develop their ideas and artistic voice.
Learning Goals for Art Curriculum
To distill the ideas that came out of the Guided Reflection, I included a page to record the Learning Goals for the class. At our school we create our learning goals or outcomes based on the National Core Art Standards (USA) but we also use the Studio Habits of Mind (Project Zero Harvard) to guide the language of our goals and indicators. It is impossible to cover every standard/goal in every class especially when teaching a semester long course but the Studio Habits of Mind can be incorporated into every project as they follow the creative process closely (Develop Craft, Engage & Persist, Envision, Express, Observe, Reflect, Stretch & Explore, Understand Art Worlds).
This Learning Goals planning grid includes three levels of proficiency along the top and six categories along the side: vocabulary/concepts, techniques/skills, mediums/materials, genres/art styles/themes, mediums/materials, community building/collaboration, and personal voice/self expression. When using this grid it is helpful to pick one unit to focus on to fill in the full grid, for example I chose to focus on my unit on Gesture/Figure Drawing. You can print more copies of this and fill in your goals for the other units or even just use this for units that are new to your curriculum.
Timeline and Syllabus Units
My school uses Google Calendar to record all the school wide events and classes. I find this helpful in the day to day but I can’t visualize the whole year with the month by month format. So to help myself get a sense of the flow of the entire year I created a timeline page where I could mark the start/ end of the semester, grading periods, breaks, and special events. This idea isn’t totally original, this is something my union used to provide at my former (public) school and I always made two copies hung one the bulletin board in front of my desk and glued the other in the inside cover of my planner. I took this new timeline, placed it in a sheet protector and put it on the corner of my desk to reference when working in my planner.
Probably the most important part of this Syllabus Planner is the Syllabus Units page. For me as a teacher a unit is a set of lessons that culminate in a larger art project. The unit has a theme, artists/art movements/art history examples, techniques, skill building activities and then finally the project where students can employ the content from all of these lessons in a more creative/individualized form. This planner has blanks to fill in the title of the unit, the themes explored, the media/materials, the number of weeks, the skill building activities planned, and a space to briefly describe what will happen each week of the unit. My units don’t typically last longer than 6 weeks of instruction so I limited it to 6 weeks but there is space to fit a few more weeks at the bottom for teachers who have longer units, I would imagine in classes like ceramics the units might stretch to 8 weeks. This unit planner is not meant to be a place where you flesh out every lesson plan but a brief overview that you can refer back to and adjust as you make your weekly lesson plans.
Managing Back to School Stress
The start of the school year is always marked with a flurry of activity. I found that my only strategy the past (15) years was to have a random collection of post-it notes and scraps of paper with scribbled lists. This was not ideal to say the least and only added to my back to school anxiety. So I made this Back to School To-Do List page. I kept the to-do list on my desk from the beginning of August (my school starts the first week of September) and everytime I thought of something I needed to do before the start of the school year I jotted it down. For me, materials ordering usually happens mid-August to ensure everything will arrive by September so that is always set as an alarm in my Google Calendar. But there are always the small tasks like cutting paper sheets for the first day drawing activity or buying repositionable labels so students can write their names on the drawer where they will store their work. Even just simple things like making sure I have comfortable shoes to wear at school for teaching. This page becomes a catch all for the random thoughts that can contribute to pre-school year anxiety. I also made a Weekly Planner for the first two weeks of school but it could also be copied and used for the entire school year. This is a place just to write the schedule and a brief description of the plan for each class. I found that it takes me about two weeks to settle into my new class schedule each year so having a look at the first two weeks at a glance really helped me feel more grounded in the new school year.
Additional Resources for Curriculum Planning
I included some additional pages in the planner to collect my favorite websites to get inspiration for curriculum design including: Artful Thinking (Harvard Project Zero), Annenberg Learner Art Through Time: A Global View, InThinking IB Visual Arts, Google Arts and Culture, and Tate: Art Terms. I also included a page with each National Core Art Anchor Standard where I could make quick notes about which projects/activities fulfill the standard (generally) as well as a link to the full standards guide at a glance.
One of my goals this year was also to organize and align my classroom policies with my school’s revised policies (after returning fully from remote learning.) Some of the main areas that changed were the late work and tardy policies which were much more flexible during the pandemic. I made note of these new policies on this page so that I remembered to add to my new syllabus at the start of the year!
Syllabus Planning Challenge Group
In late July in 2023 I hosted a Syllabus Planning Challenge. I invited teachers to join via Instagram. To join the challenge, the teacher downloaded my Free Syllabus Planner and joined a daily Zoom meeting where we went through each part of the planner and shared our ideas and questions. We met for three consecutive days. Teachers shared photos of their planning pages via a shared Google Slide presentation. I love using Google Slides for collaboration, we were able to see one another's planning pages and make comments and share links. I’ve never hosted something like this and was a little intimidated but I’m so glad that I just went for it! I met several wonderful educators and a small group of four teachers came to all three zoom meetings and we had the opportunity to really discuss one another’s syllabus plans. I also provided some additional activities and prompts on the Slides including one to make a Pinterest board for each course to save images/links and to make a “mood board” or slide with images related to the activities and projects planned for the course. It was like a mini professional development workshop but a lot more fun!
Using the Syllabus Planner Digitally
Several of the teachers in the planning group opted to use the Syllabus Planner digitally rather than printing it out and using a pen or pencil. The ability to quickly erase and zoom in and out on a tablet was an advantage. Since the planner is in PDF form it is easy to use an annotation app to write directly on the PDF pages and save changes. I am far less techie and prefer to write by hand but having it digitally has advantages like being able to share the pdf to other device to have on hand when out buying supplies.
Advanced Studio Art Syllabus Update
After all the planning, you might be curious about how the semester turned out. Did the plans work well? What did the final syllabus end up looking like? As the semester comes to an end, I'm pleased to report that it went very smoothly, and we achieved most of what I had initially planned. Some notable moments included our class field trip to a local life drawing studio, where we drew a costumed model (she was dressed as a witch, fitting the Halloween theme), engaging in gesture drawing with students posing for each other in class, and our class critique where students actively participated and provided thoughtful feedback. We also made significant progress with artistic investigation and utilizing art journals to document the creative process. By the end of the semester in two weeks, students will have completed three larger projects along with several studies and journal pages. Although I initially planned for four projects, I believe the time invested in developing artistic investigation skills was a worthwhile trade-off. If you are interested in seeing the completed syllabus the highlighted text is a google drive link to the PDF.
Art Journal Update
Learning to use the art journal took longer than anticipated as I needed to find a balance between time spent in the studio working on projects and time dedicated to the art journal. Without the IB expectation (that pages would be submitted to an outside grader), there was less pressure to delve deeper into reflection. In the early part of the semester, many of the art journal pages students submitted lacked depth in content and were somewhat superficial. Students tended to focus more on the visual appeal of the page rather than investing effort in reflection, analysis, and research.
Midway through the semester, I guided students in an activity where we compared and contrasted IB Art Journal pages from my former students. We looked at one example that was superficial and another that was rich in content. This comparison allowed students to see how the latter utilized sketches, images, research, and reflection to develop ideas and compositions more meaningfully. Providing them with a tangible example proved to be very beneficial. On the left is an example of an earlier art journal page, and on the right is the result after the compare and contrast activity with examples of IB art journal pages.
Final Thoughts on Using a Syllabus Planner
In reflecting on my experience with the syllabus planner, I believe it significantly contributed to the smooth flow of the course. While we did run out of time for the final project I initially planned, we successfully achieved all the learning goals set for the class. The students notably improved in their ability to reflect, conduct artistic research, and provide constructive feedback to each other. The pacing was effective, providing students with a solid foundation for building their college portfolios.
Our school conducts surveys for each course, and the feedback for this class was overwhelmingly positive. Teaching became more enjoyable for me as all the details were sorted out at the beginning of the year, consolidating all the necessary information in one place. Surprisingly, writing the actual syllabus document was a breeze, a process I usually find challenging.
Looking ahead, I am considering using the planner digitally and making it accessible on my phone for easy updates to my to-do list and checking off tasks on the go. For the next year, I plan to make some adjustments to the class structure, particularly in providing more structure to the figure unit project and allocating less time for the pattern project. Overall, I am very pleased with how this class unfolded this semester.
I'm hoping to run the Syllabus Challenge group again Summer 2024 so follow on Instagram for all the details!
I'm a high school/middle school art teacher with 16 years of experience. I'm here to help art teachers free up more time and space in their lives through lesson ideas and ready to go content rich, engaging curriculum.