Building Curriculum the Right Way: Grand Center Arts Academy

For the last two years I have had the opportunity to work with the outstanding teachers and administrators at Grand Center Arts Academy, a young 6-12 charter school in the city of St Louis. Grand is a wonderful success story, attracting a diverse student body from across the metro area and outstanding teachers drawn to the mission of the Academy. Situated in a transformed parking garage, the school is located in the city’s arts district, and the staff has become skillful in partnering with organizations such as the Fox Theatre and the Symphony. Grand students get first hand interaction with professional artists from many fields.

Creating a first class curriculum was a critical step in the school’s development, and it was at this point I joined the school as a consultant. We used Understanding by Design to build robust units that engaged students in authentic exploration of big ideas and generative questions. From the beginning, we looked to integrate the arts into the other disciplines, and the arts staff did an amazing job of finding ways to accomplish that. Every time I visited, I found a beautiful performance or installation that grew from study in one or more of the academic disciplines.

The first year, I visited Grand 15 days, helping teachers learn the skillful application of Understanding by Design as each teacher developed one unit. Usually my visits occurred in two-day sets, one day devoted to large group learning and a second day conferencing with individuals and small groups on unit design. At the end of each of the three stages of UBD, teachers participated in critique groups using a protocol specifically designed for the stage. I wrote personal responses to each of the stages for all of the teachers.

During that first year, we also focused on building leadership capacity so that all teachers felt comfortable assuming leadership when needed. We learned to develop and follow group norms, to use the ladder of inference and the iceberg model for systems thinking, to build quality agendas, and to support authentic dialogue and discussion. This kind of professional development dramatically improved the quality of department and critique group meetings. I created a small ebook for the staff where all the leadership materials were organized and accessible to them.

In order to stay in touch, answer questions, and provide support materials and useful websites, I developed a blog personalized to the Grand Center work. It was an easy way to communicate, and teachers knew where resources were when they got stuck as they were working with their units. By May of the first year, teachers were comfortable with the format of Understanding by Design and this first set of units were some of the best I had ever read.

Over the summer, each department spent a week together creating a curricular infrastructure document that included a philosophy, graduate outcomes, overarching enduring understandings, a list of courses, and an outline of the units in each course. I supported the teams in this work by providing a sample agenda for the week’s work, training team leaders in the process and the design of the infrastructure, offering samples of each of the items they were to develop along with suggested reading materials; and helping problem-solve when groups got stuck. Common Core, State, and National Standards where appropriate were part of the materials that all departments accessed.

On our return in the fall, we spent a day as a faculty examining other departments’ infrastructures and finding ways to collaborate across disciplines. This resulted in shifting the order of some units, doing some refocusing of units, and tightening interdisciplinary agreements. With this foundation structure in place, we were ready to settle into the development of new units.

The best professional development engages teachers in working with curriculum and instruction and creating course work that is tailored to their students and their environment. The second year at Grand, all professional development was devoted to unit design and critique, with time for teachers to collaborate across disciplines as well as within their departments. By the end of the second year, teachers had each designed two more outstanding UbD units.

This kind of curriculum development process takes time; but once teachers embrace Understanding by Design, their teaching changes in important ways. Outcomes become clearer, assessment packages include performance events, and the learning plan is focused on deep understanding rather than superficial coverage. This is why I find this approach to offer great leverage for schools searching for curriculum development strategies.

A critical part of the success of this kind of curriculum initiative that aims to deprivatize practice is a system for easy storage and access of the units by staff members. If, for example, a social studies teacher is searching for ways to connect with his English colleague’s course work, he can easily find the units he needs. Grand Center chose to use Sharepoint as their system. The program works beautifully and inexpensively to accomplish what the school needs. The principal created a folder for each of the departments, and within this folder, additional folders for each course and the infrastructure document. With a brief training, teachers were able to upload their units and access others’ units easily.

Another advantage of Sharepoint is that it preserves all links that teachers put into their units. This linkage is something I encourage teachers to do—linking all study guides, labs, descriptions of assignments, rubrics, etc. In this way, the unit stands ready to teach, and there’s no searching for materials they were sure they had store…somewhere.

Year three of the curriculum initiative will be led by Grand administrators and teachers. The department chairs will continue supporting the unit development and critique work on professional development days and a series of book studies about learning will enhance teachers’ practice. Teachers will identify books that they feel will be most useful to answering their current questions and choose which of four or five they would like to study. Teachers are currently considering Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools by Mara Krechevsky, Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards, the Envision Schools’ provocative book on project-based learning by Bob Lenz, et.al.and Ron Berger’s book on student self assessment, Leaders of Their Own Learning.  All great choices.


This thorough, thoughtful approach to curriculum design has a multitude of benefits; perhaps, most importantly it creates a professional culture where teachers freely collaborate and critique and see their work as continuously improving. Grand Center demonstrates this. I am delighted with what this fine staff has created, and honored to have been a part of it.

David BristolBuilding Curriculum the Right Way: Grand Center Arts Academy