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September 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 1

Castles, Kings . . . and Standards

Standards can actually help integrate the curriculum, as one 4th grade teacher discovered when implementing a unit on the Middle Ages.

How can I create an integrated curriculum when I am locked into covering the standards?" asked Adrian DeTullio, a teacher with three years of experience.
Behind DeTullio's question were two assumptions: one, an integrated curriculum leads to more interesting learning experiences; and two, standards constrain teachers to a discipline-based curriculum.
DeTullio teaches 4th grade at St. Ann School in St. Catharines, Ontario, an affluent community where parents want demonstrable measures of academic success. The school is one of 11 research pilot programs in Ontario studying the effects of parental involvement on school improvement planning. Success on the pilot project will be measured, in part, by results on provincial and schoolwide testing.
Unlike some teachers, DeTullio liked the standards because they offered structure. Typically, he would choose one standard from a standards document and plan his lesson around it. Then he would move to the next standard, checking off the standards he had covered. But although he felt accountable, DeTullio was also frustrated. His lessons didn't seem as interesting as they could be.
I teach at the local university and interviewed DeTullio for the research pilot. During the interview, we strayed into my area of interest—integrated curriculum. DeTullio was skeptical that he could teach an integrated curriculum in a test-driven culture. His skepticism echoes that of many educators.
An integrated curriculum enables students to see the big picture, to understand the topic's relevance and real-life context, and to engage in higher-order thinking skills. Some teachers view standards as fragmenting knowledge, impeding instructional flexibility, promoting minimum achievement rather than maximum performance, and failing to lead to higher-order thinking skills (Vars, 2001). I see an integrated curriculum as the only way to handle the requirements of the standards movement and the knowledge explosion (Drake, 2000).
Could we develop a vibrant curriculum that covered the standards and prepared students for required assessments? DeTullio and I decided to find out. Debra Attenborough, a freelance educator and doctoral student, joined our planning team. Another 4th grade teacher, Dagmar Midgley, implemented the curriculum with DeTullio.

Exploring the Big Picture

The topic. I asked DeTullio to look through his 4th grade mandated curriculum for possible connections among required units of study. He selected Medieval Times (social studies) and Pulleys and Gears (science and technology). We also added the subjects of language arts and the arts.
  • Begin to develop research skills (social studies and language arts);
  • Formulate questions about and identify needs and problems related to structures and mechanisms in their environment and explore possible solutions and answers (science); and
  • Solve problems presented through drama and dance and evaluate the effectiveness of each solution (the arts).
The content. Somewhat embarrassed, we remembered little about the Middle Ages from our school days. We needed a big picture of the content area, so we inquired into other teachers' experiences and surveyed children's books from the school library. DeTullio viewed a CD-ROM and used the Internet. These avenues triggered our memories and offered potential resources for the students.
We felt ready to start.

The Learning Bridge

To help put it together, we wanted a learning bridge to connect the subject areas. The know, do, be framework (Drake, 1998) became useful.
The know component includes facts and knowledge—the content. How could we make sense of the content in a meaningful way? Instead of looking at isolated facts, we asked, What was worth knowing? For us, the big ideas transcended the specific disciplinary content of a topic. We wanted students to understand concepts and generalizations. These big ideas were not apparent in our standards documents, and we wrestled with what was most important to learn.
The do component includes skills that students can demonstrate. What was worth doing? For us, students needed broad-based interdisciplinary skills, such as communication, collaboration, information management, and problem solving. These skills transcended any specific content. Students needed to know the content, however, to demonstrate the skills.
The be area addresses how we want students to be, or how we expect students to act, during the unit. This area was the most important for us, regardless of its relative unimportance in curriculum documents.
With our learning bridge, we were able to structure the Middle Ages unit. The know area dealt with concepts—such as heritage, citizenship, and systems—and generalizations—such as "Citizens have roles and responsibilities," and "Our heritage connects us to the past." The do area focused on design and construction; research and inquiry; and presentation, both oral and written. The be area centered around collaboration, responsibility, and respect.

Medieval Times

Early in the process, we realized that a culminating activity would be a good assessment strategy. We would hold a medieval fair in the school gymnasium and invite other classes and parents. We aligned our ideas with the know, be, do learning bridge and our overall standards. As we created the daily learning activities, we revisited the culminating activity to ensure that the activities led toward it.

Introductory Activities

Sporting a robe, a gold crown studded in jewels, and a curtain rod as his scepter, King DeTullio introduced Medieval Times by holding court. He ruled his "subjects" for seven weeks (the crown remained on). His first order was a town meeting to develop a class code of honor, similar to a code of chivalry.
King DeTullio then gave students an overview of the unit. He introduced them to the culminating activity and to ongoing activities, such as diary writing and independent research. He briefly spoke about curriculum integration. Curious, students wondered when, for example, they would do science. "When you make your castles, you will learn about pulleys and gears," he explained. Occasionally, he let them know when they were integrating the curriculum. For example, when students read about the Magna Carta to find out who signed it, he reminded them, "When you are reading, predicting, and finding the main idea, you are learning language arts."


What would DeTullio teach between the introduction and the culminating activity? This, the heart of the curriculum, required us to consider several ideas. We needed to make sure that we aligned the mini-units with the know, do, be learning bridge and the culminating activity. We wanted to leave room for student negotiation, but we needed some specific activities to ensure that we covered the standards.
  • What were the important events and people of the times?
  • What things were invented and how were they used?
  • How were people similar to and different from us?
  • How did people live?
  • Are the know, do, be bridge and the overall standards addressed?
  • Do the activities lead to the culminating activity?
  • Are we assessing the learning appropriately?
  • Is the curriculum relevant and interesting?
Seeing the standards as interconnected eased our task. The standards gave us a chronological order. For example, in Pulleys and Gears, students must observe or describe how pulley and gear systems function, how rotary motion transfers to rotary motion in another system, and how gears operate in one plane and two planes. We followed this set of activities by making a pulley system. The eight standards that related to this performance demonstration were fundamental to research, design, and construction.
The standards for the Pulleys and Gears unit fit perfectly in the mini-unit on Castles and Creators, where students would be creating a portcullis or drawbridge. DeTullio had previously taught this material one standard at a time, but now it became a seamless process.
We covered language arts and the arts by asking students to demonstrate their learning. Students designed and constructed a castle, wrote research reports and stories, danced, drew portraits, role-played, and gave oral reports. They also read age-appropriate literature. We explicitly taught and evaluated the skills for each activity.
After creating each activity, we recorded the appropriate standards from the relevant subject areas. We covered many more standards than we expected because specific standards folded into broader ones. Recording which standards we were covering gave us a clear picture of what skills and content we explicitly needed to teach and assess.
How did we make the curriculum interesting? Including the arts standards inspired innovation. Resource books and teacher collaboration motivated us. We chose strategies that were hands-on, offered variety, applied to a real-life context, and promoted critical thinking.


The medieval fair was a great success for both students and teachers. The students dressed in medieval garb and decorated the gymnasium with artwork and research materials. Students from other classrooms, teachers, and some parents visited the fair to enjoy the storytelling and dancing.
We had an ongoing dialogue about what to evaluate and how. Students were undergoing schoolwide assessment for basic skills independent of the unit. How much evaluation was enough? We planned for both ongoing and summative assessment.
Referring back to the know, do, be bridge, we decided that students could demonstrate their understanding of concepts (know) in their application (do). But we needed a solid set of rubrics to assess the applications. DeTullio and Midgley evaluated a range of approaches. Synthesizing the mandated curriculum documents, DeTullio developed a chart to show that the standards in all four subject areas focused on reasoning, inquiry, communication, and application. He then developed rubrics, incorporating student input.
How did we separate subjects on report cards? The standards guided us once again. Although we presented the curriculum as a whole, we also addressed each subject area through the subject-specific standards that we had identified in each activity.

Meeting the Unexpected

Finding time was our greatest challenge. Juggling schedules to plan meetings, for example, was difficult. Time also affected implementation. DeTullio and Midgley found that they couldn't complete the entire planned curriculum—the first mini-unit took more than four of the seven weeks. In deciding what to cut, the planning team reviewed the know, do, be bridge and the culminating activity.
Another challenge was to cover all the standards. We often went over the list of standards and looked for areas that we had missed. For example, one standard that we had not covered was "to know environmental causes of pollution then and now." We planned to add this explicitly as a category in students' research questions. But this addition was an unnecessary safeguard because the students as researchers selected pollution as crucial to understanding everyday life in medieval culture.
DeTullio commented that, in hindsight, any standard that did not fit into a broader idea did not seem vital to the curriculum. He wondered what would have happened if we had worked with different content. "Does it always work so easily?" he asked. We all agreed that the answer was yes—given careful planning and good content areas.
Did we cover the standards? We checked which standards we had covered after implementing the Peasants and Kings mini-unit. Students brainstormed research questions, completed the research, presented the research in chart form, and held a mock interview. They also created a dance, drew a portrait of a knight, wrote in their ongoing medieval diaries, and read fiction.
We listed all the required standards and checked off those we had covered. We covered a number beyond our expectations: writing, 16 of 25 standards; reading, 19 of 25 standards; oral, 12 of 18 standards; drama and dance, 17 of 21 standards; visual arts, 9 of 17 standards; and social studies, 19 of 21 standards.
There were other surprises. During implementation, we found natural connections with math and realized that we could have legitimately included math in the unit. Students also insisted that we add physical education, and they created medieval dances and played Capture the Flag.

Student Response

Did students' test scores improve? It is too soon to tell how students did on the schoolwide testing because the results have not yet been released. The teachers, however, did make some observations. On the rubrics, students generally maintained a level 3 (a high level of achievement), with some achieving a level 4.
The teachers noted that students learned both the content and the skills. Midgley had worried that students would not be able to connect their individual research piece with the larger picture. Would students who researched lords, for example, understand the lords' role in the feudal system? She was pleased to find that students did make connections.
The teachers were particularly pleased with the be aspect. For example, a group of boys created and performed a dance. "I was blown away," DeTullio said. "I wouldn't have given them 30 seconds to work together without a problem. They worked together for two entire class periods. And they ended their dance with a group hug!" Observing this group perform, I saw no hint of problem behavior. He attributes this amazing breakthrough to the student-created rubric for group behavior. The students had decided that they wanted their code of honor to be the rubric for group behavior and wrote it in their own language.
After the first mini-unit, I asked the students what they had learned. They offered a long list of concepts and generalizations. They knew about life in medieval times and the differences and similarities between then and now. They were sure that they had developed research skills. Like their teachers, they said that the be area was important. They learned how to cooperate with others, how to be dependable in a group, how to be loyal to the king, how to solve problems without complaining to the teacher, and "how not to blow my top for every little problem."
For teachers and students, the most common descriptor of the unit was "fun." DeTullio said that one of the biggest problems "was keeping the excitement down." Although some students had reservations—one found integration "too confusing"—most said that integration helped them learn better.
The project falls in line with the general research on integrated curriculum. In classes with an interdisciplinary approach, students enjoy the curriculum presentation and achieve positive results (Drake, 2000). And students who learn through an integrated curriculum do as well, or better, than those who learn through more traditional approaches (Vars, 2000).


Excited, DeTullio said that he is "more reflective than before—during and after classroom teaching." Early planning helped, giving him time to understand the big picture. "We taught this unit before and even did some of the same activities, but this year was different." Now he sees the connections across subject areas and across the standards.
Previously, his assessments related only to knowledge and facts. Now he includes higher-order thinking skills. Understanding concepts means being able to demonstrate knowledge through application. Process and content are equally important. Even DeTullio's teaching style has shifted: "My teacher-centered lessons aren't good enough anymore; I see myself as a facilitator."
A significant factor for success was the collaborative team effort. The team environment encouraged him to continue and helped trigger ideas. More than once, we left a planning session proclaiming, "That was fun!" Equally significant was the collaborative partnership between DeTullio and Midgley. They had worked as a team on other teaching assignments, but veteran teacher Midgley appreciated DeTullio for his new ideas and for making her think. DeTullio learned from her expertise, high expectations, and efficiency. They discussed issues together and made sense of integration.
"Can I create an integrated curriculum when I am locked into covering the standards?" After this unit, DeTullio could answer his own question. Yes, he could develop a vibrant, integrated curriculum that covered the standards. And, given his students' enthusiasm and success, he knew that the project was worth the effort.

Drake, S. M. (1998). Creating integrated curriculum: Proven ways to increase student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Drake, S. M. (2000). Integrated curriculum: A chapter in the Curriculum Handbook. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Vars, G. F. (2000). Editorial comment: On research, high-stakes testing, and core philosophy. The Core Teacher, 50(1), 3.

Vars, G. F. (2001). Signatures for students' position statement question standards movement. The Core Teacher, 51(1), 1.

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