VAPA Standards: Friend or Foe?

Sandy Seufert, Manager of Teaching Artist Development, The Music Center: Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County



Sandy Seufert, Manager of Curriculum and Teaching Artist Development for The Music Center, blogs on Visual & Performing Arts Standards for Teaching Artists.





If you have been in a classroom in the recent past or have mingled with classroom teachers, then you have probably heard about THE STANDARDS, or “teaching to the Standards,” or perhaps even some not-so-friendly reference to them.  While classroom teachers are responsible for a whole bevy of standards in each subject, they are NOT required to teach or even be that familiar with the California Visual and Performing Arts Content Standards.  However, if you are a teaching artist, these VAPA Standards are yours to master.  Put on your seatbelt.

Teaching ArtistsIn working with teaching artists at the Music Center and through the various training programs I have been associated with, I often hear teaching artists ask the following questions when pondering the VAPA Standards.  “Why do artists have to work with Standards like classroom teachers?  Isn’t the pure art form enough?”  Or, “Won’t the VAPA Standards kill the joy of the art?”  To be honest, I think a lot of artists new to teaching artistry have a hard time wrapping their brain around the concept at first glance.  So my job is to help demystify the whole shebang.

One of the first areas that can cause stress for a teaching artist designing a lesson series is to START with the Standards, as if there is some kind of mandate to hit ALL of those outcomes.  While a thorough study and understanding is imperative, an easier place to start is from the basic skills, vocabulary, and knowledge of one’s art form.  Think about the verbs.  What are students DOING in the proposed sessions?  Visualize them doing what you plan to teach them.  See them respond to your inquiries, see them make applications to their own lives, and see them grow personally.  But start this process with visualizing your final lesson and then “backward map” how you get there, one skill at a time.  I am surprised to find out how few really visualize this final session or culmination, but the power of really “seeing” it can make a huge difference.  Remember the baseball movie with Kevin Costner – “If you build it, they will come.” 

So, once the “verbs” are mapped out, from the last lesson to the first, THEN take a look at the VAPA Standards.  Make an extra photocopy of the Standards and take a highlighter pen and just highlight anything that you either know you do in your process or you think sounds really interesting. 

Teaching ArtistsSome interesting things should start to occur at this point.  Do you notice any particular areas or Strands of the VAPA Standards that you do a lot of?  Do you see any omissions?  Does anything strike you about the developmental level you visualized for your lessons to the skills mentioned at various grade levels in the Standards?  Hmmm, is right.

The VAPA Standards, derived from a painstaking process of high level thinkers and practitioners in each art form, can be thought of as an ideal to shoot for - a kind of arts utopia, assuming that children will have sequential arts instruction from their earliest school experience.  But we know that is rare these days.  However, I like to think of the VAPA Standards as a “creative resource” and when I work with teaching artists, I try to assert the idea that the VAPA Standards are helpful and friendly.  Yes, and fun too.  I know that is crazy talk, but I have seen, time and time again, artists get inspiration and creative ideas for deeper connections, deeper reflection, and more meaningful and rich teaching of their art form FROM this process.  Give it a try.

I would love to hear your thoughts or strategies on the use of the VAPA Standards.  What has worked for you?  What are your lingering questions?  What are your thoughts about using Standards in general?


Sandy Seufert works for the Music Center: Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County as the Manager of Curriculum and Teaching Artist Development.  She blogs on teaching artistry for Arts for LA and is a fiddler.

Photos: Blogger headshot; participants from the Music Center’s Teaching Artist Training from 2009 doing an engaging arts learning activity; Master Teaching Artist and instructor, Andrew Grueschow, teaching some of the Music Center’s best practices to the group at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission’s Teaching Artist Training Program in 2009. Photos provided by the author.

VAPA Standards

Thanks, Great post Sandy.


I really like the emphasis you put on the verb you want to see from the kids. I think many of us (arts teachers) end up with less than inspiring lesson sequences when we start with the standards and create lessons to match.


In the visual arts, I've seen countless variations on lessons exploring the Elements of Art, but few that do so while supporting independent or collaborative creative thinking, or a strong element of discovery for the kids. So starting with a cognitive or "thinking" goal while also exploring the concept pointed toward in the standard can help us avoid those step-by-step teacher directed lessons that miss great opportunities to elicit truly creative thinking.



Michael Blasi

LAUSD Elementary Visual Arts Teacher