“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 (not her real name). Cathy had been hired mid-year to replace the previous choir teacher, who resigned over winter break. Cathy was in a state of disbelief. We taught parallel sections of a music appreciation course, but we needed to write the content ourselves. 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?
I admit it; I’d been pretty nervous about it 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 had a section of music appreciation, so at least I had someone to collaborate with. However, we needed to write everything from scratch.
Before the school year started, Betty (the first choir teacher–also not her real name) purchased some materials for a unit on rock history. It was 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 creating materials for units. I pulled out my jazz history notes from college and wrote an overview, timeline, and bios; Betty 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 came around. Betty was gone, and Cathy started teaching. For two weeks, she asked me nearly every day where the textbooks were. I suspect she imagined I was hiding them 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. The authentic assessment engaged the students more than any other project that year.
That work writing a mini-textbook helped me realize how much I enjoy creating curriculum. It’s similar to the work I do now as an instructional designer. I’m no longer the content expert as I was then; that’s what we have SMEs for. Writing for face-to-face teaching isn’t the same as writing for online, and writing content to teach yourself isn’t the same as writing content for someone else to teach or for self-paced e-learning.
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 as an instructional designer. And I still think it’s fun.