George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Ralston Elementary School

Grades K-6 | Golden, CO

Departmentalization and Integration: Deeper Learning for Elementary Students

See how Ralston Elementary teachers combine two subjects in one lesson, giving their students a deeper understanding of the content and its applied interconnectivity.
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Departmentalization and Integration: Deeper Learning for Elementary Students (Transcript)

Dawn: Being able to departmentalize really helps us integrate curriculum, and provide opportunities for students to apply and transfer so we could really see mastery.

Anne: Departmentalization is just the concept of this teacher teaches this topic, and this teacher teaches this topic. The power of that is that a teacher can really dig deep into that particular content. They could become an expert. The integration piece of it is the concept that we've paired Language Arts and Social Studies and we've paired Science and Math. Intentionally we connect and integrate those concepts together. It's kind of the marriage between departmentalization and integration.

Dawn: In fourth, fifth and sixth grade, we have two classrooms at each grade level. One teacher teaches Science and Math, and one teacher teaches Language Arts and Social Studies.

Lindsay: Last year, we moved the teachers between classrooms and we found that it was difficult to have all of your materials on a cart ready to go into the next classroom. The students get to see now a math-enriched classroom, a reading enriched classroom. And they're not overwhelmed with content from all different areas. And then just seeing a different face in the day can capture them in a different way.

Jon: I see all the sixth graders every day. Our block is two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes. And I focus on the Math and the science.

Laura: And I teach the Social Studies and Literacy. We've worked really hard on making sure we have shared expectations for the kids. Some days there's this defined reading time. Other days, it's more of a Social Studies concept and we're using our literacy skills to get to those understandings and ideas.

Laura: Social organization is how you run your society.

Lexie: In Social Studies, we've been playing a game based on the Mayan culture.

Laura: It's kind of like, "We're doing this great interactive thing, okay, now let's do some research." So they're doing some close reading and seeing what corroborates and what conflicts with what they already know. But the topic is the Maya.

Student: Folding paper books are part of the...

Laura: Sometimes the students say, "Did we even do reading today?

Dawn: It's one thing to see it in a guided reading group, students accomplishing a task or a skill, but to be able to make decisions in Social Studies about how they're using those skills is a whole other level of understanding.

Anne: It's really the power and the integration. It's how we can apply what we're learning in Math to what we're doing in Science, and how that helps us think like an engineer, you know, or think like a scientist.

Jon: We're just connecting what's going on in our parking lot, and it's going to hopefully make us think about gravity and how things flow.

Jon: What I always shoot for is an integrated piece where they're doing something science...

Jon: But imagine a laser...

Jon: But the backside is there's a whole lot of math in what you're doing.

Jon: So that bathroom pass is the same height off the floor as that Apollo insignia, is that correct?

Student: Yeah.

Jon: And then all of a sudden, math isn't a bad word anymore.

Jon: The same principle is happening right here. So we get to go ahead and try it to see if it's right.

Jon: And let's go to Point A first.

Student: Yep.

Jon: Get a reading on that. Remember, we're using tenths.

Jon: Why in the heck are we measuring concrete that they poured this summer? Why is that important?

Lexie: What happened was it rained so much and there's a huge puddle all around here, because the drain was clogged, and the busses were having to drive straight through all the rainwater.

Laura: We are doing a drainage analysis. We're trying to see if they did it correctly.

Constantine: We've been using a GPS to find our longitude and latitude.

Laura: We started off by finding our spots. And using the transit to measure the height of each of those.

Laura: Stand nice and still.

Student: 7 point 37 point 4.

Constantine: Then we measured the distance from each of those to the drain, which was Point B.

Jon: Finding out if the slope in the drain is correct, involves quite a bit of math. A lot of computation, measurement. We wanted to do something that would tie into one of our three big spheres of Science. Hydrosphere is a perfect connection for measuring the slope of the parking lot, because it connects to watershed.

Lexie: If it's clogged, our water's not going to go through to where we want it to go, the watershed is not going to work.

Jon: Okay! Okay.

Jon: You couldn't ask for a better laboratory.

Jon: So think about rocks, minerals, weathering erosion, geosphere.

Jon: This is a way to get them into the Hydrosphere in a really practical meaningful way.

Lexie: It's a foot different.

Jon: It's a foot difference, so what's cool about from that point to this point, is water going to flow?

Lexie: Yeah.

Student: Yeah.

Jon: It'd definitely flow.

Jon: It gives me a concrete foundation to connect future learnings to.

Anne: Conceptual understanding is at the core of what we are doing. How do we look at units of study, and not just looking at isolated content areas.

Anne: What's happening in fifth grade?

Anne: I meet with every team every week. Grade level teams as well as vertical teams to see how what we're working on is having an impact on students.

Jon: Now all of a sudden, we're doing decimals. And then we had to figure out the difference between two measurements.

Laura: I wonder if you could tie that site analysis into the fourth grade site analysis and that grant we got, or we're getting.

Jon: Oh, that's perfect.

Jon: Rather than being an expert at seven different things, I can work really hard to become an expert at two subjects.

Jon: Copy that, good work!

Jon: It's a wonderful way for me to become the best teacher possible.

Dawn: The benefits with the students have been phenomenal. It's created more purposeful, more authentic setting for learning, and we've seen that every day.

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Fostering a Deeper Understanding of Content for Your Students

To foster a more authentic and purposeful learning environment, Ralston Elementary School practices departmentalization (students having a different teacher for each content area) and integration (the combination of two or more subject areas).


"Rather than being an expert at seven different things," notes sixth-grade science and math teacher Jon Bromfield, "I can work really hard to become an expert at two subjects. It's a wonderful way for me to become the best teacher possible."


In most elementary schools, when students are learning math, it's separate from science. When they're learning language arts, it's separate from social studies. In the upper grades at Ralston, however, students learn how two subjects are connected.

Through departmentalization, their teachers specialize in two subjects, as well as teach those subjects in the same lesson. When the students learn math, they will then be able to apply that to what they learn in science. When they learn language arts, they will be able to apply that to what they learn in social studies.

"It makes me feel more involved," reflects Pablo, a sixth-grade student. "You have the chance to learn more about the real world."

How It's Done

To recognize the benefits of Ralston Elementary's departmentalization practice, it's necessary to understand how the school is structured:

  • Kindergarten and first-grade students learn in regular elementary classrooms, with one teacher for all subjects.
  • Second- and third-grade students have three teachers, each responsible for a separate subject: math, reading, and writing. This is departmentalization. For example, all students learn math from the same math teacher.
  • In grades four through six, there are two teachers per grade level. One teaches math and science, and the other teaches language arts and social studies. This is departmentalization plus subject integration.

Start Small: Implement Departmentalization Across One Grade

Three years ago, Ralston piloted departmentalization at the second-grade level. The teachers wanted to deepen their content knowledge, which departmentalization allows, and they also wanted the ability to quickly iterate their lessons to better meet students where they are.

What Departmentalization Looks Like in Second Grade

  • There are three classrooms at the second-grade level.
  • Students have one teacher for each of the core subjects: reading, writing, and math.
  • Each core subject is a 75-minute block.
  • Each teacher also teaches social studies and science for their homeroom class.
  • Students rotate to each of the three teachers for their three content areas.

Expand Implementation Slowly Across Other Grade Levels

After Ralston's successful semester pilot using departmentalization for their second-grade students, other teams began to show interest. Principal Dawn Odean, instructional coach Anne DiCola, and the teachers discussed what departmentalization would look like in other grade levels and how they might facilitate that.

They began by looking at units of study. Instead of approaching content in the traditional way -- teaching math by itself, teaching science by itself -- they looked at how math, science, social studies, and language arts interacted, and how the students could apply their math learning to their science learning, and apply their reading and critical thinking skills to help them better understand social studies concepts. Through departmentalization, Ralston teachers teach only two subjects, making those subjects easier to integrate.

"One of the things we found," recalls Odean, "was that [departmentalization] really helps integrate curriculum and provide opportunities for students to apply and transfer -- so we could really see mastery."

Today, Ralston uses departmentalization in grades two through six. They keep kindergarten and first grade in the traditional setting, with one teacher for all subjects, as they want to focus on making students feel comfortable and building strong relationships in a new school environment.

What Departmentalization Looks Like in Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Grade

  • There are two classrooms at each grade level.
  • One teacher teaches science and math as one class, and one teacher teaches social studies and language arts as one class.
  • Each teacher sees all grade-level students every day.
  • Students rotate between two class periods of two hours and 15 minutes each.

Reflect on and Refine Your Lesson Plans

An added bonus of departmentalization is the idea that teachers are teaching the same lesson multiple times, which gives them an opportunity to quickly iterate based on student feedback.

"[The teachers] do their lessons three times a day in their content area," explains Odean. "If they were in a normal elementary school it would take them three years to do a lesson three times. [With this approach] they can reflect, shift and adjust, shift and adjust again, and make it be the best that it can be."

Integration In Action

While teachers practicing departmentalization specialize in specific subject areas, integration in the upper grades is the practice of weaving content from one of their subject areas to the other.

By applying their learning from one subject to another, the students begin to see its relevance. For example, by learning computational skills and measurements in math, Ralston sixth-grade students were able to measure the slope in the drain in their school parking lot, giving them ownership in fixing the school's water overflow and ice problem, and showing them that their learning is connected to the real world.

"We wanted to do something that would tie into one of our three big spheres of science," explains Jon Bromfield, sixth-grade math and science teacher. "Hydrosphere is a perfect connection for measuring the slope of the parking lot because it connects to watershed and how our friend gravity is always pulling things down. You couldn't ask for a better laboratory."

In their sixth-grade social studies and language arts class, while doing a simulation on the Maya, students take breaks for research, close reading of articles (from secondary sources to primary documents written in the 1500s), and analyzing their own artistic replicas of primary documents.

By departmentalizing and integrating two subjects, Ralston teachers guide their students in transferring their skills. They have more time to plan and intentionally integrate their lessons.

Create Integrated Lesson Plans

Departmentalization at Ralston has spurred upper elementary teachers to create integrated lesson plans. Laura Hinijos, a sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher, offers three tips from what she has learned:

  • Be transparent. Some days, she says, students ask her if they'll do reading in class. To be more transparent, she could say, "We're doing social studies today, and here are the literacy skills that we're using."

  • Create structure. Some days, she outlines defined reading and writing time. Other days, their focus is on a social studies concept, and her students use their language arts skills to learn and better understand the ideas discussed.

  • Be responsive. It's important to have structure in place, she notes, but that structure is responsive to what needs to happen in the classroom. "If we need more time on a project and more time collaborating, then some of those other structures shift, which is the beauty of having that almost two-and-a-half-hour block. I have that ability to shift what’s happening during those two and a half hours."

Look at Concepts Across Grade Level

Ralston Elementary integrates concepts across subjects. Each grade level has one specific concept that ties across all their classes.

In kindergarten, they looked at the concept of change. "They're looking at change in science," describes Odean, "and they can talk about those things in reading and writing, and in math as well. Some of that integration is done at the more basic level at the primary grades."

Hinijos focused on risk as a concept in her sixth-grade social studies and language arts class, and she talked with Bromfield about how he could incorporate risk into his math and science class at the beginning of his geosphere unit. They brainstormed questions such as:

  • What are the risks that we take, or don't take, with our natural resources?
  • How does that affect our geosphere?

Integrate Expectations

Ralston's teachers share students across grade levels and create common expectations. With departmentalization and integration, explains Hinijos, "it's more of a sixth-grade decision versus an 'in my classroom' decision."

Create shared expectations.

Both sixth-grade teachers share the kids and share that responsibility of creating unity among both classes. They talked about their expectations and agreed to always be on the same page. "We've worked really hard on making sure we have those commonalities as far as shared expectations for the kids," Hinijos points out, "so it's not like whiplash for the kids. . . 'This is what Miss Hinijos expects.' 'This is what Mr. Bromfield expects.'"

Create a homework agreement.

They also created shared agreements around homework. If one of them has their students working on a large project, the other one won't be assigning a lot of homework. "We’re trying to be responsive to what the students need," elaborates Hinijos, "but also respectful of what students can handle, and making sure they’re getting a common line of communication from both of us."

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TeachCow's picture
Podcaster & Teacher

Departmentalization can have its downsides as well and it doesn't work for every school.

Katharinek's picture

Great article with tons of benefits of departmentalization. Last year I taught fifth grade math and science and my partner taught social studies and language arts. It was great planning two subjects and using the same lesson twice. I often felt like my second group was getting a better lesson because I knew what would work/what may not work based on the results from the first class.
This year I only teach math but to fifth and sixth grade. One of my partners teach language arts and the other teaches science, social studies, and health. I have the benefit of only planning for math, but it is a lot of work planning for two grades and a combination class.
What do you think the downsides of departmentalization are? I can not think of any... I love it.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

KatherineK, honestly the only downside I can see is the loss of that "generalist" stance that is so much a part of the elementary experience. I think we need more interdisciplinary connections at the middle and high school level and I hate to see that lost at the elementary level- but I also see the upside of what you describe. There's certainly a lot more efficiency!

Corah's picture

I'm wondering how big the classes are at 4th, 5th and 6th grade since they're funneling into two teachers from having 3 in the prior grades.

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