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A tool to help you track what you teach

By Karen Husted

Searching for ways to support the value of theatre education is a passion for me. In this era of accountability, schools and their teachers are expected to provide proof that the content and skills being taught are producing learning in all subject areas, including the arts. As an overworked theatre teacher, you may see such a demand as simply one more task that requires even more of your already stretched time and energy. But what if you had a tool that not only efficiently and effectively documented your curriculum, but also explained your assessment strategies and offered a powerful statement about the life skills students learn in a theatre program?

A pink compass that says "standards," "skills," "assessment," and "content" in the center.Curriculum mapping might be the answer you’re looking for. Essentially, a curriculum map is a blueprint in chart form of the experiences and learning that happen in a classroom. Your school or district might in fact already be using mapping in one form or another. It’s often referred to as a longitudinal or curriculum alignment study.

(For an overview of mapping in general, read Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and Assessment K-12, by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Association for Supervision & Development, 1997).

In a nutshell, curriculum mapping is intended to help teachers and school districts identify and explain their classroom curriculum, assessment techniques, and methodology. The original goal of the map was simply to identify gaps and repetitions in a student’s K-12 education. While most school districts don’t have a K-12 curricular theatre program, after developing several different workshops using curriculum mapping concepts, I have observed that this process is extremely beneficial to our field and to the individual teacher.

The value of mapping

Specifically, a curriculum map can help a theatre educator:

  • Explain, in a straightforward manner, the drama concepts and skills students are learning in the classroom and during rehearsals.
  • Present some perspective of a program’s depth.
  • Create a powerful statement about the life skills students are experiencing.
  • Indicate the need and direction in which to expand or build a program.
  • Tell a concise step-by-step story of the events, tasks, and assessment in a class or program.
  • Clarify possible subject integration with other learning disciplines, particularly during the rehearsal process.
  • Provide a formal, visual method (which can be inserted in your own portfolio) to quickly communicate to other teachers, parents, administrators, and students what a theatre teacher does.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of work, please understand that a curriculum map is not something you have to create apart from the rest of the documentation you do. The most exciting aspect about the mapping process is that it takes advantage of work we already do. The idea is to incorporate it into your regular lesson planning and rehearsal development.

A sample curriculum map

Here is a sample theatre curriculum map to give you a better idea of how it should work. My example is only intended as a starting point; you should adapt it to your own planning process. The idea is to create documentation that is useful to yourself and to others.

Most theatre curriculum maps should identify or, with analysis, indicate:

  • Theatre content taught
  • Life and thinking skills taught.
  • Assessment types, quality, and frequency.
  • Learning concepts that can be integrated with other disciplines at your school.
  • Gaps or unnecessary repetitions in your teaching.
  • Strengths of your program.
  • Essential units and productions and the questions that need to be answered about each.
  • Standards (local, state, or national) that are taught.
  • Performance tasks (a curricular assignment that allows students to be assessed in a real-world situation).
  • Sufficient artifacts for student and teacher portfolios.

The fundamental elements of a typical curriculum map are time frame, concepts (or content), skills/thinking processes, and assessments. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve limited the example map to these four categories. But it would be very easy to add columns addressing others areas of interest, such as standards. On the example map, a content element is not keyed to a single skill/thinking process nor to one assessment. For instance, the concept of theatre games included in the September segment of the map not only teaches concentration—it touches on every item listed in the skills/thinking processes category. The same is true of assessment—any, or all, of the assessment tools included in the example map might be applied to the concepts covered during the September period.

In a theatre curriculum map, the content field is discipline-based and student-centered and may or may not indicate interdisciplinary concepts. The skills/thinking processes data should be specific, assessable, and expressed in verbs. The assessment items are performance-based, a demonstration of learning expressed with nouns. Note that the assessments in the example map also include coding that shows whether they were scored against a rubric or with a checklist.

In my own experience (and as illustrated in the example map), the most common strength of theatre education revealed by curriculum mapping is the wide range of skills and thinking processes taught. Conversely, a common notable weakness is the lack of enough formal assessments. Theatre teachers usually provide oral or informal feedback more often than written reports. When formal feedback is not provided, it is difficult for students to understand their target goals or to accurately track their growth. The curriculum map I’ve created includes asterisks on all the assessment items that can be used in a student portfolio and, therefore, in the reflection aspect of their self-review for each content area.

One of the concepts that has been further developed through curriculum mapping is the use of “essential questions.” While I have not included the concept as part of our example, I think that it is important enough to warrant mentioning as a possible mapping category. An essential question is a query that helps a teacher define what a student knows about the subject or content being studied. It can help teachers determine how to focus their class or rehearsal periods, since there is not time to teach everything. A good essential question is as important to the students as it is to the teacher. It ought to hook their interest and be broad enough so as to not have a single right answer. It should also help the students clarify what they’re learning and what is important about it. Every essential question ought to center on an entire block of learning. What’s more, the question should implicitly reflect the major goals of the course and even your program. For example, the questions you ask in a theatre appreciation class and an advanced acting course would be considerably different.

Here are some example essential questions that could be developed for the blocks of learning in the sample curriculum map:

  • What do I need to know to become an actor?
  • How has acting and theatre changed over the years?
  • Why is theatre important to us? What is the role of theatre in society?
  • Which tool is most important for the actor?
  • Why is ensemble so important in a theatrical performance?

One final word about curriculum maps: I would encourage you to use them at meetings of theatre teachers (state or district conferences, for instance) to help define a body of common knowledge and indicate gaps in your own or your colleagues’ curriculum. Creating individual curriculum maps at such an event and comparing them is an invaluable way to generate documentation that can be used to boost theatre educators’ case for increased funding support. The maps can also help those who are involved in the writing of curriculum guides or standards to develop a more comprehensive and sequential curriculum.

The bottom-line question is “Can the curriculum map improve student performance?” I believe it can by helping you, the theatre teacher, define the strengths and the weaknesses of your program so you can revise your instruction and assessment to meet the needs reflected in such a document. What’s more, the map becomes one more resource when you are seeking to prove that theatre education is as important as any other subject in the school curriculum.

Karen Husted is a frequent contributor to Teaching Theatre. She wrote about performance assessment in the Spring ’99 issue. Husted has also conducted several Professional Development Institute workshops for the Educational Theatre Association.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2000 issue of Teaching Theatre.

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