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?
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."