Migrating from a thematic to an integrated curriculum
Teaching an integrated unit can be a lot of fun, but if you want more than a thematic approach, you need to think differently about how you structure your curriculum and your day. What’s the difference between thematic and integrated instruction? A thematic approach to instruction is a “siloed” approach, where each content area is taught in isolation. Teaching a science concept as part of a thematic unit means that when students are reading, they read about whatever it is they are studying; when they are doing writing, they write about it; when they are doing math, they solve problems about it…and well, you get the picture. Thematic curriculum keeps in place traditional subjects, and the boundaries that separate them remain intact. Teaching thematic units is commonplace in schools and helps students make connections across content areas; but thematic units don’t go far enough in engaging students in authentic, real-world learning.
Integrated curriculum, when implemented in the classroom, provides a trans-disciplinary way to view teaching and learning. Life isn’t separated into content specific experiences, and learning that is truly integrated, isn’t either. If you truly want to integrate the curriculum, you need to make instructional connections that interweave all content areas and tie concepts together in such a way you can’t tell when one subject ends and another begins. Instead of separating the school day into blocks of instruction for different subjects, curriculum integration immerses your students in the joy of learning about a new topic that merges multiple subjects into a unified curriculum. For clarification, Table 1 provides a comparison of thematic and integrated curriculum models to illustrate the differences (Beane 1997; Petrie 1992).
|Table 1. Curriculum model comparisons.|
Monarch butterflies are a natural topic for integration across the curriculum because there are so many existing resources and materials. Books and other print materials and online resources about butterflies, especially the monarch, are easily accessible. Life cycles is a concept taught in elementary school and referenced in the Standards at third grade, but fascination with butterflies isn’t restricted to any grade level and neither should learning be. Opportunities to observe and discuss the life cycle of butterflies can spark the interest of the youngest learners, while older students studying adaptations can explore the monarch butterfly’s annual migration.
Using the 5E Instructional Model (Bybee et. al 2006), we’ll explore how monarch butterflies can serve as an anchor for integrated learning across the curriculum in a model unit plan. In the integrated curriculum plan that follows, activities are woven together to integrate learning across content areas to investigating monarch butterflies. Not all activities are appropriate for all grade levels and should be selected or adapted according to age and prior knowledge of students. Hopefully this model plan will spark some ideas that can be applied to other units of study about how to integrate all content areas together in a way that will engage students in a more meaningful learning environment.
The engagement stage is designed to spark student interest and a great way to begin this investigation is by integrating language arts. Fiction books are most appropriate for this stage since you don’t want to get students caught up in the content, but rather, activate both prior knowledge and interest. You might want to read Eric Carle’s,(1969) or another book about butterflies. Steve Rich’s book,(2014) is a perfect way to begin the unit. Although nonfiction, it is a great inter-disciplinary book because it connects history, geography, and civics to science and language arts. This NSTA Kids book tells the story of former First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, and her butterfly garden in Plains, Georgia. Reading comprehension questions that you might ask include:
While you are reading, ask students to make a list of science-specific words that the author uses. Because you are using this book for engagement, using context cues is the best strategy for dealing with vocabulary. For example, your students will discover a proboscis is the mouth part of the butterfly that is used to sip nectar from flowers, based on the description in the book. Even though the life cycle of the butterfly is discussed, this isn’t the time to have students focus on content. The important science questions you need to ask to set up later learning are about the monarch’s life span; how many days does a butterfly spend as an egg? A caterpillar? In a chrysalis? You will want to mention that the author doesn’t tell us how long adult monarch butterflies live and ask if there might be any significance to omitting that information. Use this book to gain their interest and engage them in the scientific practice of asking questions that they have from the reading. Make a list of their questions so that they can be addressed during the rest of the learning activities.
In the exploration stage, students should participate in an activity that will provide a foundation for meaningful understanding. The purpose of this stage is to provide a common experience for your students to activate prior knowledge and begin building a conceptual framework. It is not the time to learn vocabulary or master content.
Unless you have a butterfly garden handy, it is difficult to provide a hands-on experience with monarch butterflies for your students. If you have the resources, set up a butterfly habitat in your classroom and have students spend some time observing and documenting them. (These can be ordered inexpensively from online retailers and science suppliers.) This might be done in a brief session or by journaling over a period of days prior to digging deeper into the content of the unit. There are also ways to provide a virtual experience to help your students build conceptual background. One way is to tune into one of a variety of butterfly webcams on the internet. Students can observe butterflies in real time by viewing live streaming or in recorded clips. If using direct or virtual observations, make sure you have students journal their observations and note specific behaviors of butterflies.
My favorite exploration activity involves students exploring butterfly life cycle manipulatives that can be used for close examination at each stage in the life cycle. (Safari Ltd. has models of various organisms that can be used for learning about how organisms change throughout their life cycles.) Students can handle these real-life models of eggs, larvae, caterpillars, chrysalises, and adult butterflies without worrying about harming fragile creatures. You may want students to sequence the models in the order in which they were presented in the story. Questions you might ask include:
This part of the lesson is where you should focus on crosscutting concepts. The questions you ask will help students develop these cognitive tools. Your students may not yet know the answers to the questions you ask, but questions that highlight crosscutting concepts are perfect for getting them thinking like scientists. Engaging students in “science talk” at this stage promotes deep thinking and help students turn their experiences into meaning. A “science talk” is an instructional strategy where students intentionally participate in science discourse related to the lesson (Gagnon and Abell 2007). Table 2 includes specific questions you can ask related to specific crosscutting concepts that should generate discussion with your students.
|Table 2. Questions related to specific crosscutting concepts to ask students during the Explore stage.|
In addition to observing butterflies, this might be a great time to integrate the arts. Learn a song about butterflies. Facilitate art projects that transform your room into a simulated roost complete with tissue paper butterflies and flowers. Make a snack out of grapes that looks like a caterpillar. With each activity, have students generate questions about butterflies as a basis for guiding further learning.
By now your students should have generated questions about monarch butterflies based on their experiences in the engage and explore stages, and this is the time to find some answers and build a scientific understanding of the science content. It isn’t uncommon for teachers to start instruction at this stage with an overview of vocabulary. Unfortunately, without the prior engage and explore stages, students often don’t have a conceptual foundation for learning. You don’t save time by starting learning with an explanation; it actually takes more time to teach concepts when a strong foundation experience is missing. If your students have had an opportunity to explore those concepts prior to learning vocabulary, they are likely to retain more.
So, in this stage it’s time to help your students build the scientific vocabulary to talk scientifically about what they’ve discovered. Make a list of new words they’ve seen and heard and use your best language arts strategies here for vocabulary development based on these discoveries. Terms that students need to know include: chrysalis, larvae, roost, and metamorphosis, but they may have more. Help them connect the concepts they have observed with the core content. Don’t be afraid to go beyond a standards-based level of understanding if they are making connections based on their experiences.
To further integrate language arts and science, this stage of the 5E learning cycle is another great place to read a book. This time, you will definitely want your students to read a nonfiction selection that will help them organize a mental schema of what they discovered in the exploration stage. Books you might choose include, (2017) by Sally Stone, (2015) by Sharon Katz Cooper, (2017) by Dawn Leon, or National Geographic’s Great Migrations, Butterflies (2010) reader.
I like using magazine articles from children’s science magazines for integrating language arts whenever possible; for example, a copy of the 2016 ASK magazine from Cricket Media has an article on monarch butterflies. Using this type of reading material requires a different set of reading skills as articles are laid out differently than books. Regardless of the source you use at the explain stage of the unit, be sure to build reading comprehension skills by asking students questions from the text. To reinforce an understanding of science concepts, ask students to answer specific questions about the life cycle of the butterfly. To help bridge to the next stage of the unit, students should be asked specific questions about monarch butterfly migration.
In this stage, students should apply and extend their conceptual understanding while engaging in scientific and engineering practices. There is no end to the cross-curricular integration activities your students can participate in. Understanding migration of the monarch butterfly is important to understanding their unique life cycle and provides an opportunity to integrate social studies through mapping. We’ve shared a simulation activity on the Science and Children website (see Online Connections).
To integrate technology, introduce students to the Journey North monarch migration website. Students can work with real-time data exploring the observations posted by citizen scientists. Start by asking students to find specific information about sightings in their state. For example, give students a map, and using the most recent migration data, ask students to find out:
Given a map of the United States and the most recent fall migration data, ask students to find out:
Using this same website, you can help students develop a model of the life cycle of the monarch by finding images of each stage in a butterfly’s development. Sightings that include pictures are represented on the interactive map using location pins with white circles in them. This single activity is suggested by the wording in the NGSS Core Content standard and is a must-do application for this stage of the unit. Have your students complete a chart such as the one shown in Figure 1 by finding a sighting with an attached picture and recording that information in the chart. They should also include a drawing of the image in the picture, or they could use an online document to copy and paste the picture into an electronic journal. You can limit this activity to observations in your own state or region and give students a state or U.S. map to plot the locations of each sighting.
You can also integrate math using the Journey North website by comparing monarch butterfly sightings over time. Students can focus on comparing observations in different locations over a single season by counting the reported sightings identified on the map or identify trends for a single state by using data collected in prior years. (Data on the website goes back to the 1990s.) This is ordinal data, in this case information collected over a linear time period. When graphing data over time, students should always use a line graph to present their findings. Line graphs make it easy to see trends over time. To practice coordinate geometry older students can play a Battleship type game where they take turns identifying and calling out the latitude and longitude coordinates of specific sightings and locating them on a map. Coordinate geometry is a math Common Core standard for fifth grade, while latitude and longitude are often in elementary social studies standards as early as third grade.
There is no end to the ways in which you can utilize this data to build learning in multiple content areas. Students may even want to participate as citizen scientists and begin to make their own sightings, either with your whole class or individually. Show older (grade 3–5) students the smart phone app that Journey North has created so that they can go home and get their families involved. The data available on the app and website is so extensive that students can plan and carry out investigations related to all aspects of the monarch’s life cycle and migration. These activities are designed to engage students in a number of science practices, from constructing models to collecting and interpreting data and more.
Embedded into these activities are multiple formative assessment opportunities. Listening to science talk during various activities you’ll know whether or not students understand ideas presented in the activities. Identifying and sequencing images from the website will let you know if they are ready to move on. In other subject areas you may be assessing activities for writing, reading, math, or geography.
For a summative assessment on the science content, I recommend using journaling activities. When students write their own ideas, they are presenting a more thorough picture of their understanding of the disciplinary core ideas. For this unit, students can explain the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, using a Claims–Evidence–Reasoning model for the evaluation. Arguing claims from evidence is not only one of the science and engineering practices but also an important language arts skill across multiple grade levels. Ask students to address a prompt such as the following in their science journal:
Question: Based on what we learned about monarch butterflies, how long is the lifespan of a single monarch butterfly that is born in the spring? How long can one of these butterflies live? Be sure to include a timeline of the butterfly’s life cycle in your journal and label each stage.
Assess student responses on their ability to correctly identify each stage in a butterfly’s life cycle and that their reasoning for determining the butterfly’s life span is a result of combining the time spent at each stage. Look for any misconceptions that still might exist, and if students go beyond the standard by presenting other information they have learned along the way. While the prompt shown is appropriate for older students (grades 3–5), younger students might need a simpler version, such as: Draw the life cycle of a monarch butterfly. Explain what happens at each stage.
Although not addressed in the BCSC model, I like to add a sixth “E”, representing “Enrichment.” This is an opportunity for learning to continue across all subject areas. For example, you might have your students use what they have learned to create travel guides for monarch butterflies to use on their journey. Which states will they travel through? What are the places of interest along their journey? How far will they travel in each state? If they fly at a speed of 12 – 25 miles an hour, how long can they expect each stage of their journey to take? To integrate writing and civics, your students can write letters to government officials advocating for a butterfly garden in nearby parks. If you do have a butterfly garden nearby, spend time observing how long butterflies spend on each flower or if they prefer one color of flower over another. Collect and graph data that records their behavior. Put a butterfly habitat in your classroom to record the number of days each butterfly spends in its chrysalis and graph the data. To explore symmetry, have students construct pictures of butterflies using coordinate pairs. There is no end to the ways in which you can extend learning about butterflies into every corner of the curriculum. Table 3 summarizes some of the suggestions for integrating instruction included in this article.
|Table 3. Interdisciplinary integration for sample curriculum on monarch butterflies.|
This lesson can be adapted for a virtual learning environment in the following ways. Create a video or screencast of the book you are choosing to use for the Engage part of the lesson. Ask students to respond to your discussion questions using a discussion forum, or record their thoughts to your guiding questions in a class post-it session (e.g., Padlet). The Exploration is probably the most challenging part of the lesson to adapt, but there are ways to get students exploring in a virtual activity. One way is to access butterfly garden webcams and ask students to make observations. Or, have students explore a butterfly game app on their tablet such as “Flutter” or “Butterfly Idle,” which includes a simulation of the butterfly’s life cycle as part of the game. Be sure to ask appropriate guiding questions to help students think about how butterflies change over time. Prepare the Explain activity as an independent reading activity or screencast a mini-lecture to present the content. The Elaborate activity presented here is easy to do as an online lab, but be sure to include screenshots in your instructions as well as sample data. The Evaluation can be presented in a variety of formats.
Students who participate in truly integrated instruction will learn so much more than science. When engaged in learning concepts across multiple subjects, students learn science so much more deeply. Integrated instruction is authentic learning at its best, interweaving content areas as tools for learning. In the model plan presented here, it’s easy to see how science standards are met, but other content areas can be interwoven as tools for learning that develop skills across the curriculum. Help your students to see learning through the lens of integrated instruction and find ways to break down the artificial time barriers that try to compartmentalize learning. By using science concepts as an anchor for instruction across all subjects, your students will be engaged in a more authentic and relevant learning experience. Step beyond subject boundaries by adapting your next science unit using a trans-disciplinary, integrated approach for your students.
Marsh, L. 2010 National Geographic’s Great Migrations, Butterflies. National Geographic Press, Washington, D.C.
Silverman, B. 2016. Magical monarchs in Ask Magazine, Cricket Media. 15 (8).
Donna Governor (email@example.com) is an assistant professor at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, Georgia.
Beane J. 1997. Curriculum integration; Designing the core of democratic education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Bybee R.W., Taylor J.A., Gardner A., Van Scotter P., Powell J.C., Westbrook A., and Landes N.. 2006. The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins and effectiveness. pp. 88–98. Retrieved from
Carle E. 1969. The very hungry caterpillar. New York: Scholastic.
Gagnon M., and Abell S.. 2007. Making time for science talk. Science and Children 44 (8): 66–67.
Katz S. 2015. When butterflies cross the sky, North Mankato, Minnesota: Picture Window Books.
Leon D. 2017. One million monarchs, Independently Published.
Petrie H. 1992. Interdisciplinary education: Are we faced with insurmountable opportunities? Review of Research in Education. 18 (1): 299–333.
Rich S. 2014. Mrs. Carter’s butterfly garden. Arlington, VA: NSTA Kids Press.
Stone S. 2017. I am a butterfly. Northbrook, IL: Wisdom Hearth Publications.
Marsh L. 2010 National Geographic’s Great Migrations, Butterflies. National Geographic Press, Washington, D.C.
Silverman B. 2016. Magical monarchs in Ask Magazine, Cricket Media. 15 (8).
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