Eyes on the Prize

The case for backward curriculum design

Dance students at Passaic County Technical Institute, performing at their annual concert

K–12 teachers are multitaskers. Not only do you impart foundational technique, but you also weave culture, choreographic principles, history and interdisciplinary studies into lessons. Prioritizing these demands when lesson-planning, says Karen Kuebler, who teaches pre-kindergarten through second grade in Baltimore County Public Schools, can be a constant source of stress. “It was so overwhelming, because I was always asking, ‘Where am I going? Is this gonna get me there?’” she says. Ten years ago her solution came in the form of Backward Curriculum Design (BCD), a system in which teachers begin with a set of year-end goals, and then work backward to establish shorter-term goals and daily strategies. “It’s a teacher’s GPS,” she says. “I’m not as overwhelmed, because I know where I am going.”

Since 1998, when Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins started the buzz about backward design with their book Understanding by Design, BCD has gradually gained ground in all subject areas of K–12. Many school districts currently promote it, but some teachers have been hesitant to part with familiar methods. However, with advancements in dance curriculum standards, as well as the current attention on teacher evaluation systems, BCD is finding a new relevance in the dance studio. And BCD is expected to play a key role in new national curriculum standards to be released by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) in partnership with the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) in early 2014.

A Natural Fit

Many dance teachers may already practice elements of backward design without realizing it, says Karen Kohn Bradley of the University of Maryland. Because dance is performance-oriented, BCD aligns with planning methods that dance teachers naturally use—that is, organizing units and daily goals based on a piece of repertoire students will present at the end of the year, or planning daily activities based on a phrase students will learn at the end of class. BCD simply adds a level of organization and includes clear benchmarks for ease of assessment.

To implement BCD in your own classroom, establish a starting point by pre-assessing your students. Barbara Bashaw of Rutgers University recommends asking yourself questions such as: What do the students already know? Where are they developmentally? And, what is just beyond what they can do on their own? From there, you can form clear and specific goals.

For Cassandra Roberts, who teaches grades 9–12 at Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, New Jersey, creating appropriate—and reachable—goals was a challenge at first. The key, she found, was to write goals that are specific, simple and clear enough for students to understand.

At the beginning of the year, she gives each student a rubric—a chart that outlines the categories she will use to assess them. One of her year-end goals is, “Students will increase their score on the class rubric by at least 5 points.” One side of the chart breaks down categories for improvement, such as musicality, performance quality, anatomical alignment, focus and ability to retain movement sequences. From here, she assesses the student’s proficiency in each area on a scale from novice (1 point) to distinguished (4 points). She then establishes short-term strategies based on categories in her rubric; for example, she might dedicate a series of classes to improving musicality or focus of the head and eyes.

Roberts thinks of her goals as “scaffolding,” which helps her to streamline activities so that students can understand their destination and see themselves moving forward. Millennial learners, who often need to know the “why” behind activities, respond especially well. “I always think of climbing up a ladder to get where the students need to go,” she says. “If there’s no top to the ladder and no steps, then they can’t get there.”

A Worthwhile Transition

BCD requires teachers to think strategically, since it eliminates what Bashaw calls “potpourri” teaching, or throwing in activities that don’t serve a clear purpose toward the students’ progress. It also assists teachers with efficiency—vital in a K–12 setting—by allowing them to establish parallel goals for each category of learning in a unit, such as technique, history and interdisciplinary studies. If dance teachers within a district collaborate, it can be used to facilitate a clearer progression of learning from one grade to the next, even if the students work with multiple teachers. According to Bashaw, this boosts retention of students, since they do not become bored with unnecessary repetition and drop out of classes.

Collecting and evaluating so much data does take extra time out of a teacher’s day. Bashaw and Kuebler assure, however, that it gets easier with experience. Kuebler’s biggest challenge has been learning not to overestimate what she can accomplish in one class or unit. Rather than focusing on unmet goals, teachers should periodically revise them based on a class’ development and abilities.

“At the end of the year, I can say to students, ‘This is where you started—look how much you’ve learned,’” Roberts says. “There’s a clear sense of arrival.” DT

Ashley Rivers is based in Boston.

Photo courtesy of Cassie Roberts

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

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