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Why Integrate?: A Case for Collating the Curriculum

| Elena Aguilar

There is a strong case to be made for integrating curriculum. It strengthens skills that students encounter in one content area but also practice in another, and it can lead to the mastery of those skills. It is also a more authentic way of learning because it reflects what we experience, both professionally and personally, in the world. And it can be a way to engage students who might otherwise check out when we introduce them to a challenging subject or to one they don't feel is relevant.

Sometimes, if you're really lucky, integrating curriculum can create the conditions in which students discover their passions. They find something they love doing so much that it compels them to persevere through all kinds of personal and academic challenges, to graduate from high school, and to go to college to pursue their dreams. And in the part of Oakland, California, where I work, this achievement often constitutes saving a life.

So when I think about making a case for interdisciplinary studies, I think immediately of George. (All student names in this post are pseudonyms.) I wonder what would have happened to him had Keiko Suda not put a video camera in his hands in seventh grade.

The Curriculum

Keiko Suda was George's seventh-grade math and science teacher. She was charged with teaching cell biology as part of California's seventh-grade standards. At the ASCEND School, where Suda and I taught together, teachers were encouraged to develop curricular units that emphasized depth over breadth and to teach our students how to transfer their acquired knowledge to other contexts. (See this Edutopia.org article and this Edutopia video about the school.)

Suda designed a semester-long study of HIV/AIDS with the guiding question "How does HIV/AIDS affect us physically and socially?" Students learned about the immune system and cell biology and explored what it means to live with HIV/AIDS.

As a culminating project, students wrote, directed, produced, edited, and starred in a movie that answered their guiding question. One class focused on the social implications of living with HIV, while the other class depicted what happens to the immune system.

Evidence of Learning

A skillful teacher must assess an instructional unit while it is under way and afterward, and the evaluation must be based on evidence of learning. Suda's formative and summative assessments provided overwhelming evidence that students had mastered the science standards. This finding, however, was just the beginning.

During that semester, I witnessed students transferring their knowledge of HIV. In the portable classroom next to Suda's, I taught history and English to the same group of students. Our content for that semester was the bubonic plague, and students explored how the plague transformed the social, economic, political, and religious structures of medieval Europe.

When we began the study, a few weeks or so after they'd started studying HIV, one of the first questions from a student was, "Who was scapegoated during the plague?" Based on her understanding of what some HIV-positive people have faced, she predicted that the same experience might have occurred during another epidemic -- and she was right. This was powerful evidence of deep learning.

The culminating project in my class was a dramatic performance. As students applied the concepts they'd learned with Suda to their understanding of the plague, they also practiced and perfected scriptwriting and acting skills for this project.

I credit my own deeper understanding of viruses to the movies students created with Suda. It took Nestor's frightening portrayal of an HIV cell to permanently etch into my mind how HIV operates. In One Strike, he hovers menacingly over the bound and immobilized immune system cell and declares, "You're going to be my host. I will enter you and hijack your nucleus." This statement permanently stuck to some receptor in my brain, whereas before, I had never been able to retain the same information when it was delivered in print.

More evidence of deep learning became apparent once our students had graduated from the ASCEND School and had gone off to high school. In ninth grade, Maria wrote a poem about a young woman who contracts HIV. Her moving poem, one of thousands of entries, won an award in a contest sponsored by author Alice Walker.

Finding One's Footing Through Film

But it is George who comes to mind as overwhelmingly compelling evidence of the power of integrating curriculum. For George, the experience of making a movie for Keiko Suda's class was his first taste of filmmaking. From that moment, he was hooked. Fortunately, he attended an Oakland high school where he received tremendous support to pursue his passion. Over his four years there, he made three movies, taught other students in a filmmaking class, and wrote a guide to filmmaking.

During those years, George also experienced a series of traumatic personal losses. There were numerous times when he told me he just wanted to give up, particularly as he watched many of his cousins and peers drop out of school, join gangs, and have babies. What kept him going, he said, was his desire to be a filmmaker.

In June 2008, George graduated from high school. This fall, he is attending the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he will study filmmaking. At his high school graduation, he spoke of his intention to become a director. His father, an immigrant, wept while watching his only son graduate.

"How do you feel about his decision to study film?" I asked George's father.

He shrugged and responded, "He's discovered his passion. I'm happy for him. What more could a father want?"

As a result of Keiko Suda's brilliant interdisciplinary study, George, who didn't like science, mastered seventh-grade cell-biology standards, strengthened his writing, developed social and interpersonal skills, and discovered a lifelong passion that propelled him through high school and on to higher education.

And that's just one story. Stick around. There will be more.

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Comments (77)

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music teacher

Integration in practice

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I have written integration curriculum for new magnet programs in my area, but have not had the benefit of seeing integration in practice. Has anyone been in a school where true integration occurs? If so, for how long? What practices do you find the most helpful? Is there data to support that students achieve? Are there achievement gaps, and if so, how do you address them?

Amy M (not verified)

Integration

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I teach middle school as well. At my school it depends on what subject you teach, how long you have them for. Math, Language and Literature are 50 minute periods and Science, Social Studies, and Spelling are 40 minute periods. There are many times when I am doing a unit, I will teach it both in Language and Science because I don't have enough time to do what I want to accomplish. We attempted an integrated curriculum two years ago that incorporated all six subjects. It was hard and very time consuming, but the kids really did enjoy it and it felt like it was worth the work.

Amy Mercer (not verified)

Integrated Studies

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I started a unit this week on Crime Scene Investigations. The students love it so far, so another sixth grade teacher and I have decided to both teach this lesson. I am taking care of the actual forensic experiments in Science while she is teaching non fiction text on forensics in Literature. Has anyone else taught this topic in any other subjects?

JJ (not verified)

I agree it is hard with all

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I agree it is hard with all of the state testing mandates. We have found a couple ways to integrate curriculum.

As a 7th grade team we use our 1/2 days to do cross curriculum activities. Using the 1/2 days allows us to adjust our class lengths (I am not sure if you have this flexibility). The past two years we have chosen a year long theme. On 1/2 days we pick out skills that relate to our respective subjects and our theme. We develop an activity in which we can incorporate two subjects into the activity. Finally, on the 1/2 day we team-teach the activity. This has worked out nicely. It usually takes us only two days of team planning time to develop the activities. The kids seem to enjoy the activities, as well, because they have bigger classes (because we combine two classes) but also they have two teachers to resource.

I also try to work with the computer teacher 8 times per year for projects (2 times per quarter). The way I utilize the computer teacher is by letting her teach the technology/computer component that I will be using (she also grades this part of the project), and I guide the students to the information that they will need in the project. From years past this cuts my projects in half by not needing to teach the computer aspect of the project.

Hope some of these ideas help.

Megan (not verified)

I agree with what you said

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I agree with what you said about how an integrated curriculum allows you to cover more areas. I have been working at integrating subjects in my classroom and I am finding it beneficial in motivating my students. At first, I thought it would be challenging to implement, but I am finding it stimulating and rewarding.

Raquel (not verified)

Integration

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I have read the article, read your comments and I also believe in integration of curriculum. The real question I pose is..."Is it realistic for a middle school teacher that only has the students for 40 min. per day?" I have tried, within my team to culminate some curriculum, but with state testing at such high stakes and the differences in what we teach, it seems virtually impossible. Not to mention, of course, time consuming. Does anyone have any advice here?

Lori (not verified)

Integrating Curriculum

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Jasmin - Thanks so much for sharing your ideas. I too have struggled with the time restraints on our classroom day and needed to find some intergrated materials. I teach 4th grade. I found an ELA story that was an adventure in a canyon with creatures they find. It went along with our geography lesson of landforms and our science lesson of producers and consumers. I don't think children learn in a bubble or in a box. We all need to make sure the curriculum is more fluid. I also like to always include a project to conclude all of the components. We will create a cookie/candy map of the canyon, including producers and consumers. (Us!) Thanks Lori

Tim (not verified)

I have also used film making

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I have also used film making with fourth grade students to integrate curriculum. This was a massive project, but it involved nearly every subject that we used in school in a completely authentic and real way. It was a great end of the year project, and one that tied together many threads from the school year.

Sarah Moran (not verified)

Science Integration

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During my 5 years of teaching, I have found that the integration of science across the curriculum is very beneficial. Students who have behavior issues have, in my experience, enjoyed science. By using science across the curriculum I have gotten them excited about learning. They do not even realize that they are reading, writing and doing math, because they are focused on the science aspect.

John Smith (not verified)

Isolated Learning

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I have personally seen the effects of interdisciplinary studies. It is important to remember that no one learns things in an isolated manner. We learn best when we can associate what we are learning to our lives and to other "things". Try as we might at our school, we try to plan units around each other to make sure we can have the kids make connection between what they are learning. It doesn't always work out that way, but on the units that match, we can definately see how connections are made across the curriculum and really see true learning. Everything has become so "standardized test-centric" (that's my own word), that we often push the student learning aside to focus on the material. As much evidence as there is to support cross-curriculum learning, if states are really interested in student learning they should really consider an over haul of the current methods.

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Elena Aguilar Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California