Integrating Subjects in the K-2 Classroom


Integrating Subjects in the K-2 Classroom

Hey, y'all. Every year it seems we talk about how to integrate subjects more easily. We have so many standards and not enough time! If you follow the education news at all, you've probably heard talk of Finland switching over to phenomenon-based teaching. Despite popular belief, Finland is not getting rid of individual subjects, but they are integrating subjects using their new PBL (phenomenon, not project) model. 

Here in the US, we talk about a lot of different teaching models designed to help us teach across multiple subject areas: thematic learning, project-based learning, phenomenon-based learning, and simple subject integration. Let's look at the different definitions first. 


Subject integration is simply addressing standards in more than one subject area in a single lesson. We do this when we have students write about their science experiment, use math skills to measure distances on a map, or ask comprehension questions when students read about a topic in science or social studies. 

Thematic Learning centers around a specific idea. In kindergarten, one of our back to school themes was apples. We learned about apples (five senses, measurement, life cycle), had math and reading centers with apples everywhere, and even painted pictures of apples (art). This is one of the easiest ways to integrate learning in the k-2 classroom. It's very simple!

In Project-Based Learning, students work on a project (organizing an event, inventing something to fix a problem, etc.) that requires skills in multiple subject areas. In the example of organizing an event, students may do math to calculate costs, use spacial awareness to set up the event, read and write when designing flyers or getting sponsors, etc. Project-Based Learning has a specific end goal and objectives it's addressing. 

Phenomenon-Based Learning was part of Finland's educational reform in 2016 and is now being integrated into our Next Generation Science Standards. Phenomenon-Based Learning is learner-centered, multi-disciplinary instruction based on student inquiry and problem solving. An overall reaching theme could be climate change, civil rights, or energy. Students investigate and solve their own questions by applying whatever subjects are needed in order to find the answers. Students who engage in Phenomenon-Based Learning tend to have greater problem-solving and analytical skills than students engaged in traditional subject-based learning. 


Integrating Subjects

In most schools (probably every one I've ever taught in), admin expects to see math at math time, reading during ELA time, and not much of anything else. That sounds great on paper, but we all know we have too many standards and not nearly enough time to compartmentalize all of them. We also know that students' understanding of each standard strengthens when they are used across academic disciplines. ("Hey! We did that during math time, too!") 

So, how do we use these different instructional approaches to integrate subjects more effectively? 

In the apple example, for thematic learning, we can easily integrate an overall topic to all of our lessons and tie them together. We can have students write about their observations of apples (adjectives, spelling, handwriting, five senses), we can have them measure them and weigh them (math and science), we can look at maps of where apples are grown or find out how they get from the farm to the table (social studies). This is the least rigorous type of integration. 

For Project-Based Learning, we could have students set up an apple stand. Students could design the stand (STEM), make flyers or posters (writing, communication, art), decide what to sell--apples, apple juice, candied apples, apple pie (entrepreneurship, decision-making, strategy), how to price their items to maximize profits (math, entrepreneurship), and where the best place in town is to have their stand (geography, entrepreneurship). This is a more rigorous type of integration as students have to apply these skills in real-life situations. 

Since Phenomenon-Based Learning is student-driven, there won't necessarily be an end objective. You may guide students in a certain direction in order to help them make specific connections, but the process should be determined by the students. For simplicity's sake, say the theme is apples (it should be a bigger topic, but since we're investigating primary school application, we'll stick with this example). Questions students may have are: How do the apples get to the store? Why do we say things like, "As American as apple pie?" What makes it "American?" Did we always have so many types of apples? What is humanities role in developing more types of apples? Are certain kinds of apples better for some things, like baking, than others? This is kind of reaching, but, hopefully, you get the idea. You know that KWL chart? This is the "W." This is the most rigorous of the three types of integration. 

If I was going to use this model in upper elementary, the topic might be something regularly cited in the news to pique students interest. This could be the BLM movement, civil rights, inequality, police/public relations, immigration, or any number of other things that students need to know about. Controversial topics like these may require parent permission, but it should be framed in a way that educates students with the facts and not opinions or editorials. And it's student-driven, so these are questions students already have and parents may not be comfortable answering. (We've all redirected our lovely children when they've asked questions we don't want to answer. Mine always asked me where babies come from while we're in the car!) 

Students could use every subject area to get their questions answered. In the case of civil rights, students would use social studies to learn about the timeline of events, people important in the movement, places important milestones were reached, and the social implications of each. They could use math to determine how far apart certain events occurred, the number of people involved or hurt, and graphs to organize their information. They could use reading and writing in their research and explanations of their learning. They could use art (appreciation) when analyzing the paintings or drawings that represent the different time periods, or to make their own art examples. They could address music standards when listening to songs about the movement. They could even use science when they analyze the research debunking the myth that there is a difference between races.  

The Bottom Line

Each of these types of subject integration is beneficial for different reasons. Each requires a different level of creativity but can easily be implemented in any classroom. The biggest thing is knowing your students. I would not start off a kindergarten class with phenomenon-based learning in the fall. I would start off with thematic learning (our apple and pumpkin units are so fun!), possibly use project-based learning to setup a class store just before the winter holidays, and integrate phenomenon-based learning in April or May with our plants, life cycles, or oceans units. It just depends on how independent your students are. And it's up to us to get them there!

I hope this answered some of your questions about integrating subjects in your classroom. It takes practice, but it is so worth it in the end. Thanks for stopping by and stay tuned for more great teaching ideas coming soon. Have a great week!

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