Old lesson, new plan

This isn’t your old-fashioned lesson plan. Some Columbia teachers use the integration method to help children learn about several subjects at once.
Sunday, January 30, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:20 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

From the outside, it’s the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. But for a group of Lee Elementary School second-graders, inside the brick building is a journey into Africa.

“We’re ready to go around the world today,” Ann Mehr says to Brandy Moore-Klutse’s class as they enter the exhibit of masks inside the museum’s first gallery. Mehr, the class’s art teacher, then leads the students on a whirlwind trip through the African continent and its history.

In just 45 minutes, Mehr teaches the students about Africa, from its geography to African-American poetry.

“Can anyone tell me what kind of patterns you see here?” she asks as she points to several decorative African-American masks.

Mehr then explains how the beating of traditional drums was used to retain and convey a tribe’s collected history.

Under her direction, the class channels its own rhythm with a knee-slapping rendition of “Che Che Kule,” a traditional African chant.

How Africans’ own sense of rhythm was interrupted by slave traders is also explained by Mehr.

And finally she brings them back home — to America — with a painting by Romare Bearden, an African-American artist whose work epitomizes the creative explosion of the Harlem Renaissance.

That’s a lot to digest — especially for an 8-year-old.

Even so, many Columbia Public School educators think that students will understand and retain the information better if subjects such as English or history are merged into one unified lesson plan, a method of teaching called integration.

Formally, integration involves taking elements of a core subject, such as math, science, language arts or social studies, and crossing them with curriculum from a different core area. For example, a class reading “Paul Revere’s Ride” would integrate both poetry and American history lessons.

This integration method helps students not only learn better but understand how subjects and ideas interrelate, says Linda Bennett, MU associate professor of social studies education.

“Children don’t learn in isolation, and why would we totally teach anything in isolation?” asks Bennett.

Lee is currently the only fully integrated fine arts elementary school in the district, says Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education.


Second-grader Alexander Krentzel cleans up after his class made collages of jazz musicians as part of curriculum to learn about art, music and history. Also shown are, from left, Maria Lagunis, Mickey Hua and teacher Ann Mehr. (DARREN BREEN/Missourian)

Before switching to the new curriculum in the early ’90s, the pros and cons were heavily weighed, he says.

“All the stakeholders were involved in the decision,” Jensen says, including parents, school board members, teachers and even local business partners.

For Columbia schools, Jensen sees integrated curriculums as a positive, a way to relate education to what we do in our daily lives, something that can further motivate children.

However, not all educators agree that subject integration is the most effective way for students to learn.

Mark Schug, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has researched and studied integrated curriculums for 35 years. He explains that schools tend to adopt the integrated curriculum because of a “long-standing set of progressive ideas” on the issue. Supporters tend to have a “distrust of subjects. They believe they are artificial and that the children’s experiences are more meaningful than anything they could learn from books.”

“It is a wildly oversold idea,” Schug says, adding that the empirical research on the method is very weak.

“Studies after studies have shown kids can learn subjects,” but there are “far fewer studies that show an integrated curriculum results in improved achievement.”

Although some teachers prefer integrating curriculums, many schools have not been as encouraged.

“Far fewer schools are willing to take the risk because of standards and testing,” Schug says.

Regardless of contradictory studies, Mehr, like others in the district, says the concept improves students’ retention and enthusiasm for learning.

Her approach at Lee incorporates knowledge from outside her specialty of art into the context of what the kids see at the museum. Concepts from the daily classroom are reiterated and themes revisited.

Helping to break down that isolation is the introduction of guest speakers to the class. In Mehr’s class, a native African played his music so students could hear the lesson instead of simply viewing pictures of African instruments. The students’ music class also explored the history and songs of the Jazz Age in America.

“Integration gives kids an ownership of their knowledge. What you discover is these rich layers where information isn’t isolated facts, but it’s related to melodies, games, (etc.),” Mehr says of the concept.

She says schooling in the United States actually started out using the integrated subject approach but more out of necessity than a desire for an innovative approach.

“It is like the one-room schoolhouse,” said Mehr. “When things relate you get a more holistic education.”

Integrating subjects is not a new idea and has been discussed since the early 1900s.

“Integration has proven itself well beyond experimental,” said Jim Cramer, associate professor of education at Stephens College.

Yet the idea is not limited to the core subjects. Fourteen years ago, Mehr’s dissertation on art education concluded that students learn better when applying core concepts to artistic projects as well.

“If you hear something, then draw a picture in your own mind, you have to transpose that information,” Mehr said. “It gets actualized at a higher level of learning.”

Mehr cited, for instance, students who are asked to draw a desert landscape. They have to learn the science concepts of flora and fauna, and the geographic landscape, a social studies objective, in order to create the picture, she said.

Through the process of research and exposure to that idea, students repeatedly see the same images and phrases. The drawing is a reflection of students knowing where to put what they are learning, Mehr said, and that it all fits for them.

Schug disagrees. He said integration is limiting. Themes aren’t as powerful as subjects. And it makes it difficult for the teacher to coordinate lessons, who then must know the subject “extraordinarily well.”

“It is hard to imagine that kids can learn a full curriculum, including math, science and reading, in an art-only environment,” he said.

Schug said integrated curriculums take an uncertain approach, are difficult to organize and are undependable; “How can you be sure the kids are actually learning (the subjects)?”

By separating subjects, teachers can better monitor students’ skill levels, Schug said. “Subjects give new insight, they promote discipline and methodology.”

Mehr started teaching integrated curriculum in art class to fourth-graders in 1978. It’s through the creative process that we are fully human, she believes; Mehr has made a life of extending that process beyond the painted, tiled and collaged walls of her classroom.

Mehr, a clay artist, was a pioneer in Columbia for curriculum integration with the arts. For more than three years after 1990, she designed and tweaked the integrated curriculum that Lee now uses as a core of its expressive arts mission.

Core subject areas now work under the same philosophy – that kids learn better when information reaches them in different ways and in multiple areas.

Judy Trujillo, the social studies curriculum director for the district, said integration is a way to bring necessary skills such as reading, writing and critical thinking into the context of social studies.

“When kids are asked to read and write in isolation, it is often a struggle for them,” said Trujillo, who also teaches history in an integrated classroom.

Students more thoroughly understand social studies concepts, she said, when the concepts are applied to writing exercises. Likewise, they can articulate themselves better after learning about historical events that make particular themes tangible, even exciting.

She said her eighth graders at Oakland Junior Highuse the poetry and speeches of the American Revolution to discuss the war’s causes and dynamics.

“Because the literature and the research tells us that integration is the way that kids learn best, it is going down to the lower levels,” Trujillo said. “We are seeing this at the administrative level and building. The whole district is at the benefit of integrating when appropriate.”

Subject integration is an important method of teaching, according to the MU School of Education, which is why its administration requires its undergraduate students to develop their own integrated subject curriculum, said MU Education Dean Richard Andrews.

“Evidence shows that in schools that use subject integration there is a higher performance level in all kids,” said Andrews.

He said teachers also benefit from subject integration since a coherent curriculum develops a sense of community not just among teachers of the same grade level but among teachers across grade levels. Integrated subjects also help the school as a whole since the approach boosts performance standard scores that schools depend on for state funding, Andrews said.

“To raise the performance standards, you need to cut across subjects,” Andrews said.

The integration isn’t easy and it requires planning and coordination among teachers, he said. With the right preparation a civics lesson can flow seamlessly into a history lesson as in the case of one of Mehr’s October lesson.Leaning over Columbia’s replica of the Liberty Bell in front of the Boone County Courthouse, Mehr asks, “What is freedom? Is it an idea?”

This was the final stop for Mehr’s class, who had ventured away from Lee Elementary to analyze patriotic symbols in downtown Columbia. Standing on the sidewalk, they ended their excursion with a well-practiced version of “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag.”

Seven-year-old Zach Cunning was an expert on America’s symbols even before this excursion.

“There’s the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell at the courthouse, and there’s the flag – of course,” he said during the field trip. “I could recognize all of them.”

Zach knew all of these symbols because his classroom teacher, Ann Norris, had already introduced the ideas of liberty, freedom and justice to her first-grade class.

Mary Furness, Zach’s mother, said that using the arts to reinforce what Zach learns in the daily classroom creates an excitement that lasts all the way to the dinner table. Zach reacts best to learning when he encounters concepts in several areas, she said.

Furness said she sees in Zach the effects of integration “when a whole bunch of concepts come together and a huge light bulb – a neon light bulb – has come on; when it is more than a concept; when it is something that fires his imagination.” The field trip was not just about art. It was also about philosophy and history.

“What is liberty?” Mehr asked in front of the Gentry Building’s small-scale Statue of Liberty. “Who was Ann Hawkins Gentry?” she probed.

And it was about music. “I think it’s time for a song,” Mehr announced in the drizzling rain as cars passed along Broadway. The group did not hesitate and “America, America” quickly filled the street.

High school students may not be up for singing in class, but that doesn’t mean subject integration is limited to use in elementary schools. Yet, just as public singing might not go over well with high school students, subject integration itself is a contentious practice within high schools.

“Integrating is far more difficult than it is thought to be,” Schug said because teachers’ training is more specialized by subject.

For tenth graders at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, integration is a regular part of the high school experience – required courses in social studies and language arts for sophomores and juniors are integrated.

Rock Bridge has also extended integration to an Advanced Placement language and U.S. history composition course.

Mary Dix, a mentor for first-year teachers at Rock Bridge, has taught English under both the integrated and single-subject systems.

She said she absolutely prefers the integrated approach.

“Before, students would walk away without much meaning,” Dix said. “But this [integration] makes so much more sense.”

The day before the winter holiday break began, sophomores in World Studies await the bell after finishing a unit on China team-taught by Deborah Tucker and Debra Perry.

Blue, green and red metaletters, giant murals expressing Chinese art and its symbolism, lie in a pile on a desk – the remnants of weeks spent researching Chinese writing systems, writing an essay and reading Pearl S. Buck’s Good Earth.

Patrick Heeter, a student in the class, said the duel-subject approach offers a different mindset, one in which you don’t have to cram historical information into discussion of literature or vice versa. Instead, he said, you actually learn one through the other.

“It puts it into a context you can relate to and remember,” he said.

William Priest, the social studies department chair and a teacher at Rock Bridge, said the school has been moving toward integrated curriculum for 15 years. He said he would like the future to bring further combinations of other subjects math, astronomy and geography.

“It [integration] offers a greater depth of thought,” Priest said. “It’s helping the kids to see the big picture that the little pieces fit into.”

Combining core areas into one class more accurately reflects the processes of the real world, Priest said.

“You don’t really use knowledge that you have in boxes,” Priest said. “You use things from different areas simultaneously – math, science, your knowledge of people – you use them as you need them.”

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