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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.

Comments (77)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nicole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I strongly believe in integrating curriculum. I also believe that starting it in pre-k helps for future learning. I am a pre-k teacher and I would not know what to do if we did not integrate curriculum. If you walk in to my classroom the theme is tied into every center in the room. They can act out fall leaves changing color to writing about them at the writing table. This help every child become interested no matter what the learning style is for that child.

Allison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I abslutely agree with you..integrated curriculum is the way to go, when it can be done. It is easier to integrate some subjects into one another than it is to integrate others. But I do think that if you can find a way to connect two subjects it makes it more interesting to students and a lot of times you can cover more material in a class period. I am currently a substitute teacher for a school district that has 8 elementary schools. I am in a different school everyday and its easy for me to see what works in a school and what doesn't...and integrated curriculum seems to be becoming more and more popular in the classroom.

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I am not a full time teacher, I have had much experience in different classrooms. While some teachers do not integrate as much as i feel they should, many of them do. I always made it a point when I was teaching to use the integration tips that are given in the teachers addition of the textbooks. I feel it is extremely important for students to see how math is related to science and how ELA is used in every subject. This way they learn new ways to use their knowledge in different settings.

Charlotte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that having intergrated curriculum is a great idea. We rarely have time during the course of the day to get Social Studies and Science in the day. It is suppose to be 30 minutes a day. I teach 1st grade and we are suppose to have 30 minutes allotted for Science/Social Studies. Lately, I have been lucky enough to find literature that I can incorporate in my lesson. I am working on having a way to get it in through my language arts. This would make life a whole lot easier.

Angela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We also integrate by team teaching:reading and social studies on my 4th grade team, along with math and science. Fellow teachers thought this was strange because they were used to team teaching with reading and language arts together and all the other subject area with the other teacher. I feel like putting reading/social studies and math/science together helps cover all the curriculum we are supposed to teach and it lends itself to more effective learning. Furthermore, with such a push on testing nonfiction reading text, integrating social studies is perfect!

Corin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do agree that intergrating curriculum is a way for students to really connect with concepts. I have found it hard to do in the grade that I teach. In my county the timeline given to us and the the skills required do not seem to go together. There are two 9 week periods that I can intergrate LA and social studies and science. I am looking for ways to improve this because my students enjoy it so much.

Brooke Wright's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an advocate for integrating curriculum. I am a high school Spanish teacher, and I have seen my how well my students learn and retain information because they have made a connection between my class and another. I teach AP Spanish Language, and I work with an AP Language Arts teacher on a literary unit that focuses on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Our students read a Marquez novel in AP Lit, and then some of his short stories in my class. Because our students are able to read his works in two languages, they have a much greater understanding of who Marquez is as an author. I am amazed at the depth of analysis our students produce reagarding what they have read in both classes. This is just one example of how well integrated curriculum can work.

maggi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love that idea. I am a second year teacher and currently teach second grade. I am trying to integrate our curriculum, while still learning all the ropes of the things that need to be taught. The children more effectively learn the concepts and reading strategies, while integrating a variety of teaching strategies... using multiple intelligences. Your suggestions of current centers reminded me to continue my pursuit of the most effective centers in my classroom. Thanks! What else do you do in your classroom to set up curriculum?

Jasmin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an elementary school teacher and I completely support an integrated curriculum. If you are going to teach a subject or content for mastery, then it is important to understand all of the components of that subject. Also, students take ownership of their new knowledge and apply it when it is applied their reality. I find it impossible to cover everything that I need to cover without integrating. Most of them time, the skills that I am required to teach across subjects are easily integrated. For example, one of our science standards dealt with stars and constellations. One of our social studies standards dealt with slavery and the events that lead up to the Civil war. It was easy to integrate these two subjects because soldiers and runaway slaves often used the stars to navigate. I was able to create a unit of study that was interesting to the students and also gave them an application base for the science. They were able to understand the science more because they had an applicable situation rather than learning about stars and constellations in isolation. Integration also allows for multiple exposures to material. Students get information repeatedly throughout the unit of study, rather than once a day. Integration allows for immersion. If I taught each subject in isolation, I would never cover all of my standards. My teaching style is like melting pot. I throw in dashes of every subject and content area every chance I get.

Kim Searcy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Integration works. Plain and simple. When teachers integrate their curriculum, students learn more, especially integration through language arts. I have taught for many years, and after many years have fell in love with teaching all over again b/c I have began integrating. At first, it was due to a time constraint (getting everything covered). It then turned into a wonderful experience. I taught history through language arts. One way I did this was to get rid of the textbook and use historical novels. This may not be a new idea to all of you, but it is a brilliant idea if executed and planned. My students came alive and began to show true passion and curiosity.

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