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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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Elena (not verified)

Great Idea

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Kevin,
Thank you for this comment! What a great idea -- theme days, and yes, a step in the right direction. I understand how this can be more challenging at the high school level. I don't know what region of the country you're in, but I do think there are still many schools in many areas that would welcome you and the perspective you bring.
Elena

Christina Martinez (not verified)

Integration of Curriculum

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The integration of curriculum has been the key factor in my own teaching. Up until this year, I shared a classroom assignment with another teacher. We would work together to integrate our subjects in order to provide more continuity for our students. However, the benefits were not limited to the students alone. Through collaboration, the ideas became so much richer and the learning experiences more meaningful.
This year I am assigned full-time to a fourth-grade classroom. In addition, my district's new goal is to incorporate and increase project-based learning. I am looking for any suggestions as to how to integrate my curriculum with project-based learning experiences.

Anne (not verified)

Curriculum Integration

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Curriculum Integration

It is imspiring to read about how teachers are working together to integrate curriculum. I work at a school where the 1st grades switch classes for subjects. I am passionately opposed to this. I plan to share some of these ideas presented here with the other teachers at my school in hopes of bringing the students from a disjointed learning style to a more connected way of learning.

Amy Swetits (not verified)

Integrated Curriculum

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With all state assessments that are required, it is hard to find time to let the kids “just be kids”. School is supposed to be fun and an integrated curriculum helps to bring some of that fun back. For the past three years our school has integrated language arts and social studies, as well as, math and science. The students have responded well to this and it has brought some of the fun back to learning. Furthermore, many of these topics do go together, so why not put them together and let the children see how they relate. Thank you for sharing your story of success.

Kevin (not verified)

High School Integration

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Interdisciplinary education is definitely the way to go to make school more relevant for students. In addition to attending a traditional university, I also had the good fortune of enrolling in a college whose educational model was based on interdisciplinary studies. After graduation, I taught elementary school for a few years and I utilized thematic units and project based learning approaches to make learning relevant. I then moved to a middle school position where integrating curriculum was more difficult. I was able to get my middle school teaching team to agree to do monthly theme days which was a step in the right direction. These became very popular and both students and teachers enjoyed focusing on the same topic in relation to their subject areas; even if it was only one day a month. It also helped increase teacher communication and more teachers started designing their lessons so they would compliment one another. I subsequently moved to a high school teaching position. In this age of standardized curriculum, curriculum maps, and high stakes testing, I have found even fewer educators at the high school level willing to work together on an interdisciplinary approach in order to make learning more meaningful.

Ollyce (not verified)

Education Done Right

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It is so exciting to read about how education done in the right way can cause a passion to be developed in a student. When one reads or hears about such stories it really lets teachers know that their job is not in vain. That even the smallest assignment can create such a domino effect in all aspects of a student's life.

I also noticed that the various ways of assessment that were done helped the students to not only show that they knew the information taught, but that they internalized it to the point that it had an impact on all that they were apart of in their future.

This is what I wish to accomplish as a teacher!

Brittany Temples (not verified)

Integrated Studies

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That is such a great story about the power of learning. I really feel that creating a connection to learning is important. I am in my second year of teaching, and while I was in college I learned all kinds of great ways to integrate curriculum whether to other subjects, to one’s self, or the world. However, during my first year, I became very discouraged at how difficult it was to implement what I had learned. Student's learning is measured by test that rely heavily on textbooks-any deviation was frowned upon at my school because it could reflect poorly with the state's test at the end of the year. It is very disheartening that we have almost eliminated the art of spontaneous learning.

Vickie Halfacre (not verified)

Interdisciplinary Teaching

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I agree that we need to be teaching in an interdisciplinary manner. There is too much "teaching to the tests", but teachers are worried about test scores, administrators are worried about test scores, parents are worried about test scores. What do test scores matter when a child can't think or question for himself? I have found that most of my 2nd grade students have no idea how to form a creative opinion about anything, and it is so sad. I'm not sure where I need to start with them!

Karen Tippins (not verified)

Integrating across content areas

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I am for interdisciplinary studies, too. I started the year teaching the Civil War in my social studies class. To incorporate this into my reading class, I chose a fictional story set in the same time period. My students loved reading the book, and they were able to make connections between this fictional story and the real life events. It was wonderful to see how they made the connections. It opened up discussions that probably would not have taken place if I hadn't been teaching the Civil War at the same time. I have already chosen several other books to go along with other social studies units. I agree with you on how it opens a whole new way of learning.

Charlotte Hunkele (not verified)

Integrating Curriculum

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I have always thought that integrated curriculum was essential for true learning. I found Elena Aguilar's testimony inspiring. In the past, as a high school English teacher, I have tried to integrate learning by having the students bring in their work from other classes to work during my lessons. It was my feeling that they needed to see their English lesson at work in their lives. My students left my room and left their lessons behind. When we brought the other disciplines to class, the lesson left with them. I also feel that when we integrate learning we show respect for all subjects in all classes creating a better sense of community within the school.I agree that this makes more sense than a "test."

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Elena Aguilar Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California