Dyan Branstetter | March 2018

What’s Holding You Back from an Integrated Curriculum?

This year, our new superintendent offered an optional book club focused on George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset. After seeing Mr. Couros’ keynote at last winter’s EducationCloset Arts Integration and STEAM conference and previously reading the book, I jumped at the chance to participate. I was excited to see what our administrators and teachers thought of the forward-thinking content of the book. I was also thrilled that this was the book my superintendent had chosen. While progressing through our group meetings, the discussions allowed us to converse about some of my favorite topics, one of which is integration.

Why Make Changes?

My school district is rather traditional. We are number one in our county according to Niche, and our test scores are consistently high, too. On paper, we’re looking good. So why make changes if what we are doing works? We have very talented people who are fantastic at vertically aligning each individual subject area at the elementary level. Our school has a quality, robust curriculum for each of our subjects and common assessments built in. We have specific pacing guides to make sure we address everything, and we have minute counts of how many minutes per week we should devote to each subject. 


However, our subjects are competing against one another. Because of this, we’re skimming the surface of all of them, but we only hit a few of them deeply. We have teachers who feel like they are always falling behind because there is so much to fit in when addressing each standard individually. Our curriculum guides have a column for multidisciplinary connections, and another section for connections, but these are typically the first thing to be cut from the lesson plan when one falls behind in the pacing guide. Class time ends up focusing on requiring students to comply so we can stay on track with our pacing guide. Is this working? It certainly doesn’t sound like an environment that is fun for teachers or students. 

We know it’s best for students when we make connections and use inquiry-based, authentic tasks. We also know that students really learn through the process, and we hear over and over that teachers feel like they never have time to get to the process part. Integration can solve this problem! Yes, we should continue to explicitly teach our core instruction, because students need a solid foundation in each subject in order to have success during application. We also need to make sure students understand eligible content at an appropriately rigorous level in test-taking format. However, even with an integrated curriculum, we can build that into our explicit instruction and designate days for non-integrated work.

In the spirit of innovating “inside the box”, as Mr. Couros teaches:

What If…

… connections become the root of a unit, not the afterthought? I don’t think connections should be an option or an “extension if time”. (There’s never extra time!) When writing curriculum guides, we should list the connections across the top, and branch off into standards from there. This would allow connections to become the crux of a unit, rather than being an optional add-on. The way our traditional curriculum is now, teachers have puzzle pieces to fit together, but the pieces are all from different puzzles. If we wrote curriculum based on the connections, teachers would have the pieces of the same puzzle that fit together. This makes a seamless and meaningful learning experience for students.

What If…

We eliminated silos and had a block of instructional time to do the types of projects that 21st-century learning requires? We can find this time by purposely designing complex, high-level tasks and authentic driving questions that pull multiple challenging standards together. This ensures deep learning, and through this work, we can differentiate instruction. We can also utilize this time for team teaching (or facilitating) with our learning support and gifted support teachers.  So all students are learning and growing appropriately.

What If…

instead of using subject area experts to focus on one subject area, we had a small team of people from across disciplines write curriculum together? These teams would need to know how to deeply integrate. They could also look at each grade level’s curriculum across content areas to find connections. Even if we just started by coming up with the integrated standards, the driving question and the authentic task, we could build upon it over time. This deep integration of connecting standards is more than finding a Readworks passage on a content topic, or stating, “You can do this lesson during your writing block.”.

What If…

we didn’t ask teachers to add up minutes for subject areas? Of course, we need to ensure that none of our subjects are neglected! But if we build a solid integrated curriculum and taught everything that needed to be taught based on that, our subject appropriation would happen naturally.

What If…

we start this by giving the teachers an option of our traditional curriculum or the option of a curriculum package? One that includes inquiry-based, integrated units as the alternative? The integrated package still includes all of the standards/competencies, but standards would be woven together, pointing out what parts are to be taught explicitly during a certain subject. This would create buy-in from teachers who like the traditional approach… How? Because they would see how engaged students are and how it brings the joy back to teaching!

Take it to the next level!

Writing an integrated curriculum takes a lot of work! But it buys us instructional time, incorporates all of the 4Cs, and makes learning empowering. It’s definitely a mindset shift, but one that is necessary to take our students’ educational experience to the next level.  As teachers, we don’t have to wait for our curriculum & instruction department to be on board. Using the standards and collaboration with others, we can work to find connections within our grade level’s standards and build project-based based learning experiences for students. 

For work that is already done for you, check out EducationCloset’s IntegratEd Curriculum Supplement. This comprehensive, K-5 curriculum supplement integrates the arts and provides STEAM lessons delivered to you monthly, complete with the PD that you may desire to properly implement it. 

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.