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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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Debbie Cason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a powerful testimony this story is to the importance of insuring our students find their passions. I happen to believe that teaching my students how to learn is much more important than teaching them to pass federally mandated standardized tests. If students are to become passionate about learning, I believe the integrated curriculum format is our best answer. As an educator, I realize that not all students learn in the same manner. With this fact in mind, how can we expect the vast majority of our students to pass tests that do not play to their strengths? I am a recent graduate with an Elementary Education degree and am pursuing my Master's in Education with a Specialization in Reading and Literacy and I would love to see more of this type of project in classrooms.

Chris Kirsche's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach FACS in a high school and feel very strongly it is the hands on courses such as I teach that give students the insight into why they have to learn math and science and the like. A person cannot cook without using science in their everyday life. A person cannot cook without reading directions. Mathematics is applied in measuring. The psychology of color is important in cooking. i could go on and on but I totally agree that curriculums in our schools must be fully integrated for students to gain mastery.

Allyson Truman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too feel strongly that we should be teaching as much of the subjects as we can in each lesson. So many things go together and I hear "why do I need that, I'll never use it." ANd they do use it they just need it pointed out to them. School can be the most interesting place to be or the most boring. That is up to the teachers and the students. I try to make each lesson into as much as it can be. There so little time that it needs to be that way.

Na Yang's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. School should be a fun place for children to come and learn. In my school, there's no recess. We have six instruction hours a day and we just follow the schedule all day long. There's this 90 minute block that we have to teach language arts in the morning with no interruption.

I remember, as a child school was fun because I looked forward to recess.

Na Yang

Rhonda Smith, Bluffton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree that an integrated approach is the way to go. We as educators must find ways to make learning meaningful for our students. I am afraid that we are producing robots who only know how to take tests. How are we challenging our students to learn and think. I also am more concerned with students learning and tackling difficult tasks than with test scores.

I use the inquiry process a great deal in my language arts classroom. It is a great way to allow students the freedom to explore their interests.

Shannon Roehm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am all for interdisciplinary studies. I am a 7th grade reading teacher and I try to focus the novel units that I do in my class around the time period my students are studying in their history class. It is so great to see the connections that the kids make as they read a story about a 16 year old boy and his experience at the battle of Bull Run to the facts they learn about the same battle in their history class. The kids get very excited when they begin making the connections on their own and it opens a whole new opportunity for extended discussions not only between me and the students, but more importantly between the students and their parents. Kids get excited when they can make connections and I find that interdisciplinary studies help them to be more successful at making them. It's a great way to get kids interested in participating and learning both subjects!

Jessica Grimm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A school without a time for recess!!! While I will admit that our recess was cut from thirty minutes a day to only fifteen, I can't imagine a day without it! The brain needs a break from learning. Elementary school is not what it once was. Kindergarten used to be time where children started developing their social skills. I am sad to say that the times of play based learning has come to an end. There is such a push for academics that there is often times no room in the schedule for play. Kindergarteners are reading, adding, subtracting, and creating patterns. There is no time for play. I am seeing a lack of social skills in kids who are in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades, and wonder if it has anything to do with taking "play-based" learning away.

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