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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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Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is such an inspiring story and a great testimony to the fact that students will learn when inspired. Teaching students to a test is not what makes a lifelong learner. Inspiring children to ask questions and seek the answers to those questions is what makes them a lifelong learner. Shouldn't we be allowing them to do this in school? To show students how math relates to science and social studies and language arts and so on gives them a sense of purpose to their education. This seems to make more sense than needing to pass a selected response test to graduate from high school.

Jodi Mitts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my opinion, integrating curriculum helps students to learn and retain information that is taught. Our school focuses heavily on curriculum integration. The language arts teacher and I create units of study that incorporate historical knowledge with literature and writing skills. For example, our students are currently working on a research paper to submit for the Illinois History Fair. They are learning research as well as writing skills through this project. Later in the year our entire 8th grade team works collaboratively during our unit on the Harlem Renaissance. In history we focus on the time period and the key individuals of the Harlem Renaissance. In language arts, the students study the poetry of the time period and create original poems. In science class they learn about inventions of the time period and create radio commercials advertising for these new and amazing inventions. During physical education class they learn dances of the time period. All of their knowledge comes together in one spectacular night where they perform their live radio broadcast in front of their parents and the community. It is the highlight of their 8th grade year.

Kirsten A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read this story and found myself nodding my head and getting more excited as the students began to use their higher-level thinking skills. Recently we had staff development in the area of differentiation. We discussed the need to bring students into higher levels of thinking and we looked again at Bloom's Taxonomy. We as teachers need to pose questions that are not just knowledge-based, but we also need to give students the opportunity to synthesize and evaluate. I was amazed at the student who asked the question about the bubonic plague. She was showing that she could both synthesize and evaluate the information that she had been given.

Years ago at our school, teachers were allowed to integrate the curriculum. I had many binders full of units we had created that encompassed all of the curricular areas. We as teachers were proud of those units and the students absolutely loved them too. The past three to four years have brought many changes to our school. We are very concerned with testing and we tend to focus only on test preparation. Much of what we do has become very disjointed. Math is math, reading is reading, and science is science. We no longer carry anything over to another subject area. In fact, we are being forced to ability group more and more with other classrooms by subject area. My students don't have the excitement they once had. Luckily I have been around long enough to see the pendulum swing and I think if I have enough patience someone will see the importance of integrating curriculum again.

Kara Dagliere's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Integrating curriculum allows students to make connections across content areas. They are able to witness first hand that subjects can be taught and used together and do not need to be segregated. Integrating curriculum also allows students to form a deeper understanding. Our school is about to begin a unit on the Election. This unit will integrate history with language arts, math, and technology. Students will learn about the issues in this year's election while learning many concepts such as debating, creating surveys and graphing results, writing and directing commercials and television ads. Students will also learn how to register to vote and how to use an actual voting booth. This unit will focus on the necessary standards, but will connect to the real world and allow students to apply what they have learned in various ways. Integrating the curriculum is more meaningful to our students and can create an exciting learning environment. Why not integrate?

BeckyG's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that integrating is so much more effective than isolating the subjects. However, I teach third grade and while there are many things I can integrate I have found the standards set by my state sometimes just don't relate. I don't wat to fabricate a connection or feel like I am really stretching it. The standards are neccessary but can be limiting in that respect.

Julie Westphal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we need to integrate our curriculum as much as we can. With so many standards to meet, it is practical to integrate and make the learning meaningful. This way our students start making connections. This teaches our students to be better learners, spurring on their intrinsic motivation. It is important to teach our students how to learn, not just how to take tests. I too have my students read novels that relate to their social studies topics, and even science when possible. Our writing also revolves around our content areas. Whenever possible we make connections and talk about how good readers make connections and good learners do the same thing. We need to continue to build on practical experience to help mold life long learners!

Chris from New Jersey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I want to agree with the blogger who wrote that, "There is such a push for academics that there is often times no room in the schedule for play." If only the powers could be could recognize that play is a way of learning, we'd be so much better off. Children (of all ages) needs a chance to play. It reinforces skills they are learning. It increases social and emotional growth. Yes, let children be children "now!" instead of us always preparing them for the next test, the next grade, the next whatever. Let them be who they are now!

Chris from New Jersey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What is the difference between comments at the top of an article and Comment RSS right beside it? I am new to blogging and appreciate the help.

Debra Cerrato's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 1st grade at a suburban elementary school in GA. The school I teach at believes in teaching individual subjects i.e. reading, spelling, language arts, etc.... I believe that more could be taught if the curriculum was integrated and provided some meaning for what was being taught. In college, I was exposed to curriculum integration; however, I have not had the opportunity to teach this way because I am entering my 2nd year of teaching. As I become a more experienced teacher, I plan to utilize curriculum integration in my classroom because I truly believe that children learn best when they are actively involved and understand why learning nouns, and how to read are important. I also believe in teaching to children's multiple intelligences and this gives me the perfect opportunity to diversify my teaching.

Rachel Kane-Kirkpatrick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an English teacher at a high school in western Maryland. I am currently in my sixth year of teaching and have recently begun work on my master's degree.
Perhaps the most rewarding unit I have taught over the last six years involved a collaboration with one of the history teachers. We were both teaching 10th grade students. I teach a unit around Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart and her history curriculum involved a unit on Africa. We worked together to design a project that would involve using knowledge from both classes. My students were excited and engaged because they were able to use information learned in more than one place. It was like a light bulb went off inside their heads and it energized them.

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