By Mark Springer
The positive benefits of interdisciplinary units and integrated curricula have long been recognized. The emphasis in such units and programs on making connections and applying essential skills to explore significant themes encourages students to develop their higher level thinking abilities as they address real-world issues. Unfortunately, achieving these benefits often proves problematic, even on so-called interdisciplinary teams, because so many factors affect the development and implementation of curricular innovations. Of course, teachers have the primary responsibility for delivering a curriculum and occasionally, as in my own case, have some control over designing an integrated curriculum. However, it is principals as curriculum leaders who provide the crucial support and make the critical decisions that ultimately determine students’ access to these powerful learning opportunities.
This is an awesome responsibility to say the least and by no means an easy one to fulfill. Many daunting obstacles can interfere; many roadblocks can detour the most well-intentioned administrators. The most successful principals, however, embrace this responsibility to encourage exploration, experimentation, and innovation. They know that ensuring a curriculum that is “developmentally responsive, academically challenging, empowering, and equitable” (NMSA 2010) requires a sustained, purposeful effort on several fronts simultaneously. What is more, these principals are willing to take those necessary and often demanding steps.
In my three decades developing and teaching integrated curricular programs, I’ve had the advantage and privilege of working with some very successful visionary principals who understood the importance of empowering teachers and young adolescents to become engaged in integrated curricula. Their efforts resulted directly in our Watershed (Springer 1994), Soundings (Springer 2006), and Crossroads programs, as well as a great many other curricular innovations within our school’s more conventional teams. Thus, the combined practices of these principals serve as a model for other forward-thinking administrators who want to be “courageous and collaborative” (NMSA 2010) curriculum leaders.
First and foremost, the most progressive of these principals openly encouraged my teaching partners and I by providing much-needed time for planning, implementation, and reflection––not an easy task. Sometimes this meant allowing us to use in-service days to work on our planning, rather than sending us off to separate academic department meetings where we would normally go. Frequently, it meant running interference, as it were, and defending our efforts to other administrators, school board members, and people in our larger community who did not immediately grasp the significance and value of these programs that differed from the conventional curriculum. Always it meant educating themselves in the literature so they could advocate for us articulately and persuasively from a strong, research-based position.
Equally significant, these principals also involved themselves as active partners in our efforts. They did not try to dictate changes, but rather cooperated with us as we analyzed and assessed our efforts. When problems and issues arose, the principals offered suggestions and clarified exigencies that could impact our subsequent actions. They provided perspective and guidance while allowing us to make and test our own decisions and to learn from our successes and mistakes, just as we teachers do for the students in our integrated programs.
Ensuring the success of curriculum integration and similar innovations also required creativity and flexibility of our principals as they made some very practical and logistical decisions. For example, we continually struggled with the issue of space in our 75-year-old building. Truly integrated teams need larger than normal classroom spaces for optimal performance and flexibility. Aware of this, our resourceful administrators were open to unconventional alternatives. Perhaps a wall could be removed or partially removed between two adjoining rooms. Maybe a larger space currently used for other purposes than a classroom could be modified to serve. At the very least, could the integrated team have classrooms across from each other and use the hallway when necessary? At one time or another, each of these became an option for us as we sought to solve the spatial problems presented in our building. Eventually the district built a new middle school and our principal let us help design the spaces that would become the new homes for our integrated programs. Obviously, particular solutions will vary, but the constant factors are the principal’s awareness of special needs for innovative curricula, and his or her willingness to find the best solution possible.
The same is true with respect to scheduling concerns. Curriculum integration works best when allotted blocks of time. The principal must be willing to explore alternative schedules and look for ways to keep the students together for extended periods of time. Here, too, we confronted challenges over the years and tried different schedules. Some worked better than others. Some worked for a while, but then circumstances changed forcing us to rethink the schedule yet again. As with all logistical concerns, no one solution fits all cases; but possibilities always exist. The real question ultimately hinges on whether or not the principal is willing to recognize and consider those possibilities. Fortunately, most of the principals with whom I’ve worked were willing.
Those who were less willing to look for solutions also demonstrate through their inaction just how important the principal’s efforts are. After the very successful implementation of our seventh-grade Watershed program under one particularly strong principal-advocate, we had to wait nearly a decade to initiate a second program for eighth graders. A new principal, while fully supportive of Watershed itself, did not believe the program could be successfully replicated or extended. So, while he supported all of our efforts to maintain Watershed, he refused to allow any initiatives regarding further innovation. His eventual replacement, a protégé of the principal who helped us start the program, took steps almost immediately to support the development of the Soundings program. A few years after that, he also encouraged and facilitated the development of our sixth-grade integrated program, Crossroads. Clearly, the principal made all the difference when it came to making innovative curricula available to the students.
The principal also makes the difference when it comes to maintaining integrated curricula. For example, our principals realized the need to rethink the ways they assessed teachers and programs. In an active, student-centered classroom, the teacher seldom stands at the head of the class presenting information. More often than not, the teacher is apt to be found on the floor amid a group of students working on a project, or off to the side facilitating a class discussion, or moving quietly among multiple small discussion groups listening to students’ conversations and observing progress. Such teaching requires different assessment rubrics from those used to assess a lecture or a bulletin board. Similarly, integrated classrooms tend to be energy zones, alive with activity and, yes, often noise. My principals quickly developed an ear for constructive noise and an eye for engagement. They learned to ask students questions to gauge learning, rather than rating a teacher’s plan book or lecture. Instead of merely evaluating a teacher’s performance, our principals found themselves actually participating in the class as students shared with them ideas and plans and then solicited their advice. In short, the principals came to see their own role as both teacher and curriculum assessors in a more cooperative light.
Finally, day-to-day decisions concerning budgetary matters and resources that all principals face can also make or break an innovation, and the spirit of cooperation extends to this aspect as well. Fortunately, our integrated programs are not any more expensive than conventional ones. However, they do require a far greater degree of flexibility with respect to materials. Regular curricula tend to do many of the same activities and use the same materials each year, so their resources and budgets can be planned months and even years in advance. Teachers in integrated curricula that empower students to help plan cannot always know months or even weeks ahead of time precisely what materials students will need. Our principals solved this problem creatively by budgeting a certain amount to our combined integrated programs each year. Those funds were put into an account from which the teachers could draw to order materials as needed based on student-generated ideas. That system has recently been changed, and our central office has taken such discretion away from the principal. As a result, our students are now more limited in what they can plan and do.
So once again, the reverse proves the rule. Whether due to mandates from on high, from personal philosophy, or merely from benign neglect as they get caught up in the frenetic day-to-day business of running the school, when principals lack the skills or the willingness to support innovation, progress slows to a halt and the students suffer.
Courageous and successful principals, however, are those visionaries who actively strive to initiate, encourage, and support curricular innovation in spite of the many difficulties they know they will encounter. I have been fortunate in my career to work with many outstanding principals whose actions illuminate a path to successful curricular innovation. I hope teachers in your school are equally fortunate.
Springer, M. A. (2006). Soundings: A Democratic Student-centered Education. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Springer, M. A. (1994). Watershed: A Successful Voyage into Integrative Learning. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
(2010). This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents: A Position Paper of the National Middle School Association. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Mark Springer is an award winning eighth-grade teacher at Radnor Middle School in Wayne, PA. He is a popular speaker at conferences and has authored numerous books and articles on integrated curriculum and middle level education. Most recently, he was on the writing team for the National Middle School Association’s newly issued This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.