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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.

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