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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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Amy Conlon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Integrating curriculum is essential in building stronger pathways in the brain. Imagine having to go to nine different countries in one day.It's ludicrous to assume that you would be able to recall all those experiences the next day! However,if there is more consistency in a student's educational travel the brain is provided opportunities to make more connections,allowing true learning to take place.

Joanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently a third grade teacher. At my school, we focus on a Core Knowledge curriculum. We mainly focus on integrating social studies throughout our entire curriculum. I actually enjoy it. Although I always hated socials studies as a child, I find that the children are really grasping the concepts and it just help the flow of the day. This month we focused on geography and we are beginning to focus on rivers. It is sometimes difficult to find books on these topics. Once you find the books, the children just love it. In mathematics we discuss the lengths of river and compare the values. In reading and writing we dicsuss the importance of these rivers and in science we are focusing on matter and volume which is another very important concept to discuss when it comes to several bodies of water. I can't explain it so well but I can say that I find it very easy to plan for my lessons and everything just seems to flow into each other.

Shawn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could not agree more that thematic units allow for better learning. It only makes since with brain based learning theories by providing more "paths" to the same information inside the brain. Here is something we tried this year to integrate curriculum to help standardized test scores.
I teach in a high school in Georgia, every spring we have a persuasive state writing test for juniors. While the Language Arts classes did a unit on persuasive writing, all other subject areas were asked to contribute. In U.S. History (my content area) we payed special attention to Thomas Paine and the Federalists Paper which were both persuasive essays from the time period we were studying. At first the students were reluctant to bring their "LA work" to history class, but soon they realized that they understood the history papers and were willing to show off their persuasive vocabulary knowledge they gained from their Language Arts class. Hopefully this integrated approach will show on their standardized test scores come back this winter.

Stephanie Golden's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that it is somewhat easier in the elementary years than high school/college to integrate curriculum. We teach in guided reading groups also. Due to my grade levels poor science scores over the past 2 years I have begun trying to integrate science into nearly every lesson. Making graphs of data, reading non-fiction books, journal entries, and art activities are some of the ways that my grade level has been working to improve the scores. I think this makes learning more meaningful and thought provoking. I have been amazed at the number of standards that can be met and mastered throughout the day using this style of teaching.

Teresa Larios's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Terri, I used to teach 8th grade language arts and social studies, and I always did my best to integrate the two by aligning the curriculum in the way you described in your post. I agree that this type of integration really helps the students immerse themselves in the time period in a way that makes both subjects more meaningful and memorable. I was required to teach some novels that did not fit into our social studies curriculum and although I did as much as I could to present the historical setting, time was always short so the depth just wasn't there and the students seldom seemed as interested as they did in our integrated studies.

At my son's high school, only the honors English and history classes are integrated. I think all students would benefit by having the same opportunity.

Kendra Golden's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching lower elementary students, I find that integrating curriculum is essential and relatively easy to do. Students who are able to practice skills and content across subject areas are more likely to internalize the information. I also think that teachers need to be creative when integrating curriculum. Elena Aguilar talked about making video presentations and performing plays to motivate student learning. My high school history teacher assigned me three different video reports during his classes. I can remember all the videos very clearly, thus remember the information I was presenting in them . I hope Elena Aguilar inspires more teachers to provide students with choices besides the traditional essay.

susan corralez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am still a fairly new teacher but I totally related to your comment about your whole group lessons for individual lessons not being very fun for you as a teacher. That is exactly the situation I find myself in now. You have inspired me that this way of teaching is a possibility, and that I can achieve integrated curriculum in my classroom. I've been thinking about how to get started lately. My school switches classes for 90 minutes at a time to teach leveled reading. I could definitely start with writing and social studies. Those are the subjects I have the least fun teaching right now. =)

Katie Grant's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a high school special education resource room English teacher. My students all have reading and writing disabilities so severe that they can not possibly keep up with the pace of a general education English class. In my classroom, they are taught basic and functional English skills. I feel very strongly about integrating curriculum in my classroom. Most of my students are lacking basic skills in all content areas, not just their language arts skills. Finding opportunities to incorporate other subject areas into my curriculum only benefits my students. My students are expected to take and pass the Ohio Graduation Test in order to be eligible for graduation. This test, which is written on the tenth grade level(most of my students are currently reading on 4th- 7th grade levels) and covers content from kindergarten through 12th grade in all subject areas, is a giant hurdle for most of my students. Any time any teacher can offer cross-curricular lessons in their classroom it is a benefit to all. I am currently teaching the formal five paragraph essay to my students. I spoke with their history teacher and decided to make this essay about the civil rights movement. I was shocked at how little prior knowledge my students had over this topic. This essay has offered my students a double dose of academics and learning opportunities and will hopefully be an experience that sticks with them, along with some of the facts about history that they are learning in English class!

Jinnie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 4th grade and I think that integrating curriculum is an awesome way to teach. We are currently integrating our reading and social studies. The kids really seem to like it. They get to practice the reading skills while they are learning the social studies content. I also have the students practice various reading skills during science instruction. I believe it makes the reading skills easier because the students are truly interested in what they are reading. They are so immersed in the content that it makes practicing the reading skills less apparent and therefore less painful!

Shila Heeter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel my school is also in that transition period where we haven't completely integrated our curriculum but are moving away from the traditional block scheduling for teaching.
My guided reading time is by far my favorite time of day. Occasionally, I take skills in the social studies and science curriculum and introduce them through the books I use in guided reading. It is a nice change from the fiction stories we typically read and it also improves their skills in reading nonfiction. Also, if there is any time we can also integrate math I try to incorporate it into the work stations. My students can use the knowledge they gained from the guided reading lesson and use it during a short math work session. This is not something practiced by my entire grade level, but it works rather well in my classroom.

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