The Red Cups Explained

How the Red Cups Came About

The Red Cups are used to Kick-Start the Making and Displaying of an Integrated Curriculum. It took Doreen Gehry Nelson 15 years before she figured  out how to streamline having teachers  make Long-Range Planning Boards. Working with teacher leaders to prepare for training other teachers in my Design-Based Learning methodology, she remembered how easy it was to use an orange crate as a container for developing a sequential, integrated curriculum during the last course she took at UCLA before achieving her teaching degree and credential. Unofficially called “The Seeds Box,” this course was developed by Corinne Seeds, a John Dewey disciple, for whom the Seeds University Elementary School at UCLA was named, and it was taught by her disciple, Charlotte Crabtree. The requirement for the final exam, based on Dewey’s philosophical pedagogy of learning by doing, was to develop a comprehensive course of study—around such units as Early California, the Pilgrims, the Westward Movement, the United Nations, or Japan. To do this, we prepared a large box (an orange crate) containing a step-by-step, yearlong, cross-curricular teaching sequence.  The point was to learn how major concepts in the social sciences were the nucleus for hands-on activities and lessons connected to subject matter and basic skills. Each step in a sequence specified the actual reading, math, science, and language arts lessons that related to a concept and described the physical artifacts that students would build.


Adhering to the details required to make a “Seeds Box” taught Doreen to study state and district requirements and to use the textbooks to amplify subjects within a unit. The end result was a course of study that made sense to her, readied her for teaching, and has served her throughout her teaching career. With the “Seeds Box” in mind, Doreen followed her own methodology and devised an activity using the spatial domain to speed-up the long-range planning process.


Doreen kick-started the process by having teachers use a simple red plastic cup as a three-dimensional container representing a single Design Challenge. They filled the cup with Guided Lessons written on color-coded Post-It-Notes based on required Standards for a variety of subjects. The Red Cups sped up learning for teachers like crazy. Now, in the initial Design-Based Learning training, teachers prepare for their first three months of school by filling three Red Cups with color-coded Guided Lessons related to separate Design Challenges. By the end of the next training, teachers have filled five to 10 Red Cups to display their own plan for each month of an entire semester or school year. The final training, “Making Curriculum Physical,” is now devoted to refining a contextual story, studying the State Standards, and fabricating the portable, multipurpose Long-Range Planning Boards that formalize each teacher’s semester or yearlong curriculum. Experiencing this process expands teachers understanding of how to construct a sequential, integrated curriculum.

Red Cups in Action: Planning to Teach Across the Curriculum

As teachers plan their yearlong sequence, they name Design Challenges on their Red Cups, then write Guided Lessons on Post-It Notes of different colors specifying their grade level curriculum or subject matter focus and put the Post-It Notes in the appropriate Red Cup. They order the Cups into a sequential story with a context (a city, a colony, an island, a civilization, a biological system). They cut or tear off the tops of the Red Cups to show that some Design Challenges require less time. They connect the Cups with different lengths of string to indicate how much time will be spent in total on a Design Challenge and its related Guided Lessons.


The result of the Red Cup experience is a concrete representation of a comprehensive, integrated curriculum. Teachers become expertly familiar with the mandatory State Standards and, as part of their long-range planning process, they identify ways to teach higher-level thinking skills as well as the speaking and writing skills required across subjects and grade levels.


Textbooks tell teachers to present “page 7” and have students answer the questions on “page 8,” but not how to make the information on “page 7” usable and reusable in the long term. The Red Cups, when strung together, make a sequential, long-term story that is presented to students as a simulated experience that is organic and fluid. This enables teachers to easily use textbooks differently. Instead of teaching chapter by chapter, they teach across the curriculum, choosing chapters from multiple textbooks and using other source materials to teach subject matter derived from each Design Challenge. Textbooks and technology become a resource to support students’ creative and critical thinking.


Since 2001, there have been anywhere from 30 to 100 teachers from grades K-12 attending each Design-Based Learning Five-Day Summer Institute for Teachers at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA. The photos below show how teachers, during their short time at the Institute, develop a sequence of three Design Challenges by checking the State Standards via computer in order to fill three Red Cups with Guided Lessons that are color-coded to display an integrated curriculum.

* The Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning (DBL) is protected by copyright and trademark law. Do not publish or make commercial use of any DBL materials without prior written permission. For details, visit