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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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Holly Ingram Smith Elem. 3rd grade Chattanooga's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Integrating the curriculum has been a professional goal that I have been working toward for the last two years. I teach at an upper middle class suburban school in the 3rd grade. In the nine years that I have taught, the majority of our day has been broken into chunks of 30 to 45 minute subject area lessons. Most of this time was spent in whole group teaching, and I must admit it was not fun for me as a teacher. Two years ago, my school began focusing on guided reading groups and work station rotations. It was at this point that we came together as a faculty and decided to integrate the curriculum based on what we were teaching in reading. It has been a slow process, but we are making headway, and I see vast improvements in how my students stretch their thinking. Students are starting to make bigger connections and ask better questions about what we are learning. I enjoy teaching much more as a result.

Stephanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great point on bringing the fun back into learning! I agree with you on that! Last year our school focused on writing. We decided and committed as a school to write, write and write some more. With this in mind, we wrote during every subject. Our students seemed to enjoy writing, because we were writing for many purposes and reasons, whether it was explaining a math problem, an observation we saw during science or a venn diagram. Every teacher this year has said they have noticed a difference in our kids and our state test scores went up in writing for every grade level! I think when students are doing multiple subjects throughout the day it shows them that we do use the things we're learning and practicing all the time.

Terri Devlin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. I integrate my curriculum with the social studies curriculum. This is something I started last year when I started teaching 8th grade language arts. I aligned my curriculum with the social studies curriculum by sitting down with both pacing charts and matching stories and novels with the time period they are studying in US History. For example, when they are learning about WWII, we are reading WWII novels in my class. I also pull out any stories in the anthology that align with the social studies curriculum. The students really seem to make connections when they are learning about a certain time period in both classes. It is exciting not only for the students, but for me as well. I love seeing those light bulbs come on!

Danielle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a math teacher, and heard nothing good about integrated math classes. Students end up in college seriously lacking basic arithmetic skills. I agree that it could and does work with other courses but I have YET to hear of an integrated math class that has helped students with college level work. I wish there is a way to make it work. But personally I think that if the students are going to learn all the concepts and standards that are put in front of us as teachers, integrated math is not the way to go.

Terri Devlin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you Rachel that students are more excited and engaged when they are learning about the same topic in more than one class. At my school we have something called cuminating projects. There is a different project for each grade level - 6, 7, and 8. For example, in 8th grade, our culminating project is Harlem Renaissance. During the third quarter all teachers teach about the Harlem Renaissance era. We also have an artist in residence come in and teach dances to the students. The students put on a big production for parents with singing, dancing, poetry, etc., all from the Harlem Renaissance time period. The students, parents, and teachers all love it. We've had many students come back after they are in high school and tell us this was their favorite part of 8th grade.

Terri Devlin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand what you are saying Kristen. Years ago our school also used to integrate curriculum through quarterly themes that every subject area based their lessons around. At that time we were a 5th and 6th grade center. Now we are a middle school with grades 6, 7, and 8. We only integrate our curriculum with one unit for each grade level which includes a culminating project. Last year I went out on a limb and decided to do a little integrating on my own. I teach 8th grade Language Arts. I took the Social Studies pacing chart and went through my anthology and pulled out stories that go along with what they are studying in Social Studies each quarter. I still use the anthology, I just don't teach the stories in order. I also teach using novels that supplement what is being taught in Social Studies. For example, when they learn about immigration in Social Studies, my students read novels about immigration in Language Arts. The students really like seeing the connection, and the test scores last year were awesome!

Kevin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chris - I agree that individual teachers can be effective at integrating the curriculum through projects. I think the impact can be even greater if several teachers work together so that students can examine a topic in depth, guided by subject experts from different areas with different perspectives. In order to spur on this collaboration at the high school level, I have worked with some colleagues at developing a course titled "21st Century Learning through Collaboration" In this course we are engaging groups of educators at the school level, in a collaborative environment to develop project based learning modules which utilize technology. Each school team must have between 2 and 4 teachers, the information specialist, the educational technologist and an administrator. We have gotten approval so that all the teachers will be able to use 3 substitute days (6 half-days) for meeting and planning with this group. The course does offer graduate credit but it is not required. The teams at the various schools will also collaborate with groups at other schools. I am hopeful that this professional development activity will encourage a new level of integration at the schools in my district.

Danielle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a high school math teacher. Its great to hear that students are being reached though integrated curriculum. I have only heard whispers and little discussions on integrated curriculum. Most of it has been negative. I have curriculum that is call "integrated Mathematics" and cringe every time I try to look through it to understand it. There isn't enough "meat" behind the concepts. The students don't get the practice needed to gain understanding of the concepts that is trying to be portrayed. One also gets the feeling of trying to "reinvent the wheel" type of math. For example when dealing with Pythagoreans theorem, the students have to look at a triangle and then try to discover a formula that somebody else discovered a long time ago. I understand that students gain somewhat of a better understanding of concepts doing things that way. But we are trying to have middle school and high school students "discover" formulas and concepts that took another person many years to find. I believe that integrated classes work for subjects like history, English and such. But I cannot see how it could work with math. There is just too much that the state (WA) requires and I can't see an integrated math class covering it all. If anybody has a system that works, please let me know about it because I am truly interested in it.

Ollyce's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have the same question you have? Where does a teacher start with their students to get the critical thinking aspect? I recently read that it is good to ask the students what they want to know (this was not to be done all the time, just to see what their interests were and gear your lessons around them). I have used the KWL (What you know, What you want to know, and What you learned) charts in my classroom and many times what the students wanted to know was on target with what you had to teach or was not. Also the part about what they already knew pretty much took care of the whole lesson or unit. It was my job to find other areas of interest, but sometimes it is easier to say than to do. Knowing how to apply things to a child's life and make connections is, I think, one of the keys to this, but again I'm not sure. Does anyone have any ideas?

Rachael Coates's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely support integrating curriculums. I teach elementary (4th grade) ELA and Social Studies and the students seem to really see the value in the different topics when I integrate the curriculum. It is easy for me to integrate my subjects because reading and writing can be pulled into almost any lesson. I understand that it is hard to integrate into other subject areas, but I believe teachers should attempt to do this. From my experience, the children become more engaged and curious about what they are learning when I integrate subjects. I also feel that I "get more bang for my buck," so to speak. When I am able to integrate my lessons, I can devote more time to that area and help the students develop a deeper understanding of the materials.

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