George Lucas Educational Foundation

Deep Learning: An Interview with Elena Aguilar

An instructional coach guides teachers through the challenges of presenting a fully integrated curriculum.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Elena: Traditionally there were these 50-minute periods where you did this textbook, and this textbook, and there was lecture; however even when that was developing and now we know that kids don't learn well that way, and we know that many students in certain socioeconomic groups don't particularly don't learn well that way, and if we want to close the achievement gap and reach those students, we need to teach differently. And so in some ways it does go against what many people grew up with, what they think constitutes good education, even what their administrators are telling them they have to do.

We have a lot of research and evidence on our side that says this is how kids learn best by integrating studies, by experience- thi- learning through many different modalities, by expressing your learning through different learning- with different learning styles, so I think we are being given permission by the abundance of research that says this works.

This does take more time, it's more planning, it's more- it's logistics and thinking but it's so much more rewarding and it works.

To be able to plan an interdisciplinary unit you need to know what's expected of those students in those other areas so I would need to have the standards for math, science, history, everything, spread out all over around me, and I would be constantly referring to them and looking at kind of going back and forth. These are my goals. Where are there standards in other areas that fit in and support that? Or where- how can I modify my goals so that I can actually pull in that sixth grade math standard that's like statistics that's rarely addressed in any depth and pull that in and support their learning in this class in this unit. So I would be doing a lot of planning. I would be talking to other teachers about what is it in sixth grade math that you feel like would be helpful for students to have reinforced in my class, or which are standards that are not addressed enough that you really wish there was some way that they could bring in? And then I would go back to my clients and see whether they worked. No? Sorry, that doesn't work here.

I think one of the keys to success in designing an interdisciplinary unit is doing a lot of research on the Internet and books and everybody you know.

I'm a firm believer in asking for what you want from everybody even though you may not even know them. And just keep looking, keep asking, and there are tons of resources out there.

When you're planning for any kind of unit again, you need to know what do you want them to understand? How am I going to know if they're understanding it? And so when you start, before you start you need to have rubrics or assessment measures already created so you know really clearly what you're looking for and then you need to communicate that to students so they know it's not a mystery. What am I expected to do? What is it going to look like if I get an "A"? And then all the way along you need to be doing formative assessments. Are they getting it? If not, what do I need to do, how do I need to reteach, how do I need to restructure my class, what other strategies can I do? Changing instruction, give them another assessment, but you need to know before you go into it what are you looking for.

So at ASCEND I taught a core of history and English and my partner-teacher taught math and science and we followed a model of teaching of designing curriculum and instruction called expeditionary learning. And one of the central curricular components of that was to integrate curriculum.

To make instruction as authentic and meaningful as possible for kids, to connect it to their world, to the real world, to be responsive to their needs and interests. In the beginning of 2003 the likelihood of there being a war was on the forefront of everybody's mind and newspapers, and although I had sort of mandated curriculum I was supposed to cover standards the students really wanted to know about what was going on with this war and this conflict and wanted to understand it deeper and fortunately there were enough connections to be made and there were so many language arts standards that could be addressed in designing that curriculum and I'm emphasizing this sort of external pressure of standards and curricula that we have to teach because that is the reality. But what I found then and still believe now is that you can do it. It's just about looking creatively and getting some administrative permission. You can say "Look-it, in this study of the war they did persuasive writing, they did debate, they did poetry, they wrote personal essays, they went to other schools and did teach-ins. They taught their parents. They spoke to newspapers." And all of that you can still do and meet standards and you can do that and meet the interests and needs of your students.

If you're a beginning teacher and you're starting to want to tread into interdisciplinary studies and integrating more curriculum and it seems overwhelming and you can barely get the kids to sit down and be quiet and open their textbooks, I would say take small steps and it's okay and use the textbook and make some small goals for yourself like once this month I will bring in a poem. Or I will have one guest speaker this year. Or I will take some small steps. Get- it is okay to get the classroom management set, feel comfortable, have- start understanding the curriculum, understanding the standards and then there may be a unit that you'll think about doing, a two-week unit in the spring. It doesn't have to be a semester. It can be a one-week, a two-week unit where you're going to focus on something and you already have ideas about how and you can spend six months mulling it over, asking whenever you have a second once-a-month to "Do you have any ideas? I want to do something about frogs and do you have any ideas about what I can do?" So it's a great way to start making connections with colleagues and asking colleagues what they if you're a beginning teacher and taping on their resources. But take small steps and think about it as a long-term goal.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education go to

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

You are welcome to embed this video, download it for personal use, or use it in a presentation for a conference, class, workshop, or free online course, so long as a prominent credit or link back to Edutopia is included. If you'd like more detailed information about Edutopia's allowed usages, please see the Licenses section of our Terms of Use.


Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Coordinating Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Scott Pearson

Production Intern:

  • Neil Tan

Comments (2) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Grim Al.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like Elena's model of teacher training, compiling the teaching material. Especially, when she talked about the war, when children read the newspapers and answered the important questions, such as "How do we best understand and study war?" There is a kind of connection between teacher and students and environment.

MONIKA LINN's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so very disapppointed in Florida education. My 1st grade son's "monthly" homework is nonsense and way below my standards and so un-challenging and not creative! "Tell someone in your family something nice about them." "Count to 100." "Write these 5 letters for practice." And I just found out that this is to be the ONLY homework my son will get all year, from a monthly calendar...a note turned in at the end of the month that the tasks were completed, no proof to turn in to the teacher at all! I never had any interest in teaching, but my want for my kids to get a better education makes me want to jump right in. I've always said, from when I was young that integrating different subjects towards one project will help people learn better and be interested. So many kids, myself included hate school once junior high or high school came. Barely retaining anything, hating being there, A grades starting to go downhill....there must be something better. We did a large group project in history and that is the one thing I remember out of school and school projects. I retained alot of what I learned, statistics and numbers we learned. And to this day I have a large interest in the subject. Just think about what we can do for nature by teaching this way and making people interested in it. Watching these videos makes me want to cry. Not enough importance is put on quality education, everyone just scrambles to meet the minimums. I really appreciate what you do!!!!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.