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Students Get Involved With Integrated Learning

Phyllis Stewart of Lincoln High School in Vincennes, Indiana, had been hearing students ask the same question for years: "Why should we stay in school and waste four years of our lives, when we don't learn anything to help us when we get out?" It never failed to disturb the 30-year veteran home economics teacher, who also owned and operated a business in the local community. She knew very well what these young people needed to succeed in the world, and she wasn't sure they were getting it in school.

So when the state of Indiana issued a mandate requiring all high schools to offer Tech Prep programs by 1994, Phyllis Stewart breathed a sigh of relief. Help, she believed, was finally on the way.

Lincoln had always had a strong vocational program, one which Phyllis herself had helped build and direct. But the new Tech Prep movement promised more than an expansion of already existing courses for vocational students. In the new model, all students would benefit by having vocational subjects infused or "integrated" into the core academic classes. Such an approach, Phyllis believed, would make the classroom experience more relevant to students' concerns and needs, engaging them more in the learning process and increasing their desire to do well and stay in school.

Staff Takes the Lead

In 1992, Lincoln High School took an early leadership role in the state-wide effort. Four teachers from vocational and academic departments, a guidance counselor and Phyllis, as Tech Prep Site Coordinator, requested and were given a common planning period for one semester. Their intent was to begin the first stage of a Tech Prep implementation by developing a career education component to fit into the existing curriculum.

From the very beginning, the planners were excited about the possibility of change. "We saw it as an opportunity to move learning out of the theoretical realm, where students memorized and regurgitated facts," Phyllis explained, "into a more practical, 'hands-on' approach."

Because everyone felt that the subject of career education was important for all the school's students, they agreed to place the pilot class in the home economics department as a "stand-alone." There it would be available as a requirement for Tech Prep students and as an elective for freshman. Career Choices was chosen as the text, and Phyllis was appointed as the first teacher for the new class.

Pilot a Huge Success

"Career Education" was a success from the very beginning. Counselors easily enrolled students from both vocational and college-bound pathways, filling the class with more than the number needed for the pilot. During the first few months, teachers observed the experiment and were impressed with the level of enthusiasm that students displayed when talking about "careers" class.

In the classroom, Phyllis set the tone for students to learn at a new level of involvement: "I told them that this isn't a class where you must choose a career, but rather one where you go through a process to learn how to make that decision," she said. This decision-making process was exactly what had been missing in the career units Phyllis had previously taught in her home economics classes. In the new class, a framework was now in place, provided by the Career Choices curriculum, to support students in exploring their interests, skills, talents and passions before being asked to choose a career.

Teachers Initiate a Second Stage

At the end of the term, two teachers - one an English teacher and the other a computer keyboarding teacher from the business department - approached Phyllis about the possibility of collaborating in a unique way. They wanted to see students in their classrooms as motivated and involved as they were in Phyllis's class, and hoped that by integrating all three subjects, this could be achieved.

Phyllis welcomed the chance to collaborate in what she saw as a "stage two" of the implementation process. All three of them were motivated by an opportunity to show students how, in real life, people work together cooperatively, sometimes overlapping in their efforts to do the job. They were also aware that the traditional separation of the disciplines prevented students from seeing the relationships that existed between them, make learning fragmented and disconnected, with little resemblance to real life

This time, however, the team did not have the luxury of a common planning period to plot their course, causing them to rely instead on sporadic meetings in the lunch room or after school. They decided to keep their three classes separate and share the planning, execution and grading of common projects and assignments. The 9th grade was the obvious level for the integration, since students would be selecting a pathway at the end of the freshman year and could use help making their decision. Phyllis would continue to use the Career Choices text, and the English teacher would add Possibilities, the supplemental literary anthology, to her curriculum.

"Our biggest challenge was in communicating to each other what we were doing on a day to day basis," Phyllis told us. Often the students provided the necessary conduit. When the English teacher overheard students discussing how they had written definitions of success in their career development class, she asked them to bring it to her class and then graded it as a writing project. When the computer keyboard teacher heard about the writing project, she had students use their definitions in her class to design wall posters for display in all three classrooms.

Other integration efforts went more smoothly. One of these was a job shadowing project that Phyllis initiated using the Career Choices materials. After making the initial contacts with employers, she had her students select sites for shadowing. They then wrote letters in their English class to the employers, and typed and formatted them on computers in their business class. All three teachers were involved with different aspects of the project, and the students received three grades and three credits for a single project.

By the end of the term, the teachers were confident enough to try a three-part final exam. In business class, students did computer searches for a specific career of interest, and gave the printouts to Phyllis. She designed a test consisting of general questions which each student would respond to individually, requiring them to use critical thinking skills rather than regurgitate facts. She measured their answers by referring to the printouts they had given her for a final grade in her class. The test then went to the English teacher who graded for grammar, spelling and sentence structure, and to the business teacher who graded for form. Students took one test, making less work and taking less time for all involved. (Outline of this exam is available by calling our offices and asking for the resource: "Phyllis Stewart's Final Exam.")

Integration Means Involved Learning

How does the integrated experience get students more involved in learning and motivated to succeed? Phyllis pointed to four possible ways she has observed:
  1. Personalized approach. "When the subject matter is personally relevant, students see that learning can be about who they are, and what they want to do in life," she explained. "Then they are involved from the beginning with their very favorite subject-themselves." When Phyllis had previously taught careers as a unit in home economics, she saw students lose interest with the more traditional, objective texts. "Career Choices made the process personal," she said, "so students could do their own exploring and find a possible career. In each chapter, there are stories of characters who are going through the same struggles, helping students to see that they aren't alone, that others have the same problems as them," she told us.
  2. New dynamic of communication. In the integrated classroom, Phyllis believes that teachers learn to listen to students for feedback, without reacting or becoming upset. "I ask my students regularly: `What's been good, what's not been good, how could I have done it better?'" she reported. By admitting them into the planning process, she believes, students are naturally more responsive to - and more responsible for - for their own learning.
  3. Learning becomes cooperative. Students have more opportunities to learn how to work cooperatively in the integrated classroom. Many group activities lend themselves to situations where critical thinking skills, such as problem-solving, are necessary. "When they have to think, they get more involved," Phyllis told us. "I tell them: `You just bought a new car and are making payments when your job is terminated. What do you do?' They discuss it in their groups, list pros and cons to come up with a solution, and report back to the larger group."
  4. Results are competency-based. Because integrated learning brings elements from the real world into the classroom, assignments and tests are often competency-based. Phyllis explained: "Students know exactly what is expected of them before they begin an assignment. I tell them what they're going to learn, what the goal is, and how it will be graded, because that's the way it's done in the business world. When they go to a job, they won't have to guess what they're expected to do."
Overcoming the Resistance

In spite of the many advantages of integrated learning, Phyllis still encounters fierce resistance by educators who don't want to change. "I was a traditional teacher, myself," she told us, "and even though I'd worked in business and understood what students needed, it was still hard to become a facilitator in an active, noisy classroom. But I couldn't help seeing that students are different today, and things needed to change."

Now, whenever she hears: "If it was good enough for me, it's good enough for these kids," she responds with a more accurate assessment of today's reality: "We live in a global society, characterized by ever-accelerating change, information and technology explosion, and unprecedented economic and social challenges - a very different world from the one you and I grew up in!"

Much of the resistance, she believes, comes from the fact that teachers are isolated from the world their students are entering, and don't really understand what is needed for them to succeed. To help teachers get more in touch, Phyllis's Tech Prep Consortium sponsors "Faculty at the Factory," a program which provides a $250 stipend, or a college credit, for a teacher to work at a local business for one week. "They come back to the classroom with what students need to know," Phyllis told us. As a side benefit, the teachers get together with business, industry and post-secondary people to design school-wide competencies, or standards, which make the school more accountable to the community.

Phyllis enthusiastically sums up what she believes are the benefits of integrated learning: "When students connect school to what is meaningful in their lives, they are more motivated and have a better chance for success. When teachers have students who are easier to motivate, they have less discipline problems, and their experience is more rewarding. When more prepared people are available for employment, the community benefits. Everyone stands to win when learning becomes an experience that involves students and makes them active partners in their own education."

The story continues -- Ten Years After the Pilot

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