Have you ever worried about subject equity? Our tested subject areas have lengthy blocks of instructional time. The other subjects have limited time. The solution? Teachers are told to integrate subjects that are not tested into the ones that are. While this might be a quick answer for those concerned about subjects other than reading, writing, and math, the only way it can be done successfully is to carefully weave naturally connected standards together in a way that matches the scope and sequence of the curriculum. If we design the curriculum with great thought, we can connect many subject areas. Students can spend time going deeper into the standards as opposed to working through them quickly because of a fast pace. That doesn’t happen by simply telling teachers to “integrate”.
Integration. What does it look like? Who does what, and what goes where? It is easy to say that we are “integrating”, but without clear parameters, we might be aiming for a vague target. Here is an important point to remember:
Integration can’t happen without explicit instruction in the original subject area.
Because arts subjects are typically a separate class in elementary schools, this is the clearest place to point out this distinction. Let’s say we’re going to integrate math and music. The foundations of music should be taught in music class. The math skills should be taught in math class. The integration happens when we bring the two subjects together. The same would apply to science and writing. Science content should be explicitly taught, writing should be explicitly taught. Then both science and writing can be extended through an integrated project or task.
When subjects are never explicitly taught, this gets fuzzy. If there is no music instruction for students, yet music is incorporated into another subject, students have no foundational music skills to extend. The concept is the same with other subjects. If social studies and writing are to be integrated, some time needs to be devoted to teaching social studies concepts and writing skills first. The direct instruction of both subjects can be taught side-by-side or as needed to help students navigate through a project. Both must have equity, and both must be assessed.
As we add more requirements to our curriculum, the best way that we can integrate multiple subjects is with project-, process-, or inquiry-based learning. This type of instruction takes a great deal of planning up front, but engages students in a way that other methods do not. It allows students to apply the foundational skills they are learning in multiple subject areas. If students missed those foundational skills (or had misconceptions), applying their knowledge/skills could help them to fill gaps that otherwise would have become greater. This can allow the time needed for learners with a need for intervention, and it can also allow enrichment opportunities for students who need more than our general curriculum.
Arts Integration and STEAM are quintessential to a project-based, integrated approach to learning. STEAM also incorporates the technology in a best practice scenario of using technology as a vehicle for learning instead of “learning technology”. With effectively designed curriculum, we can strategically plan projects connecting standards that students frequently struggle with, allowing them to spend more time applying those in an authentic way. STEAM addresses the need for 21st-century skills, especially within the 4 C’s- allowing students opportunities to collaborate, communicate, build creativity, and build critical thinking skills. And although the acronym officially stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, it is very hard to create a project based STEAM unit without meeting some ELA standards in the process. If the curriculum has an authentic aspect, it can easily tie into social studies as well.
We want students to become well-rounded, life-long learners. In the real world, subjects do not always have clear distinctions. Adding more content to our curriculum does not achieve this goal, as we know that fast learning is not deep learning. Students need time to explore and work with the foundation we are giving them. Students need to produce authentic work to buy into the purpose of learning to engage and motivate them. This provides the environment for all to succeed, learn and grow.
Dyan is a third 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.