On the Loose: Combining Subjects Invigorates Teaching

Summer is a great time for experimentation. (Paul Cowan/iStockPhoto)

By Heather Clydesdale

Chinese language and culture classes have become a popular offering in schools. But what happens when China breaks free from language and area studies? Teachers find that it can complement the arts and English, sway through dance and music, trek across social studies, and even trifle with physics. Surprising subject area pairings revitalizes teaching as educators try fresh approaches, learn from one another, and see their own areas of specialty in a new light.

A case study of an innovative pairing of arts and language teachers spearheaded by policy-makers in Kentucky reveals strategies and benefits for integrating subject areas. “When you integrate, you double achievement,” says Jacque Bott Van Houten, world language and international education consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education. The Kentucky legislature originally awarded money so schools themselves could establish integrated programs, but administrators and teachers were unsure how to do so, and their efforts floundered. The Department of Education then decided to organize summer academies and directly train teachers to engender ongoing collaboration.

Designed by the Kentucky Department of Education, the Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, the weeklong summer academies were free to elementary and middle school teachers in the arts, and the Spanish or Chinese language teachers with whom they were paired. A flamenco dancer, guitarist, pipa player, brush painter, storyteller, and fan dancer taught the arts and language teachers in the target language. “The Chinese teachers were very surprised, I think, to see that it was possible to teach someone in the target language all the way through the content,” observes Bott Van Houten. Participants learned how to assess performance and language. After the academy, outcomes were measured upon observations of teaching, a review of lesson plans, and interviews.

Bott Van Houten advises teachers wishing to integrate programs to garner administrative support and respect new pedagogical approaches. They should become familiar with content areas, and ensure that goals, if not common, are at least mutually supportive.

Integrated programs, she says, are compelling to student participants and parent audiences. Sometimes they garner media interest, further raising program visibility. According to Robert Duncan, arts and humanities consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education, “Teachers thought it had a strong, positive impact on their teaching.”

Teachers need not wait for a state initiative to embark on integration. The National Consortium for Teaching about Asia (NCTA) provides professional development so teachers across subject areas can infuse their courses with China-related materials.

Jacqueline Fludd, a social studies teacher at Paint Branch High School in Maryland, was inspired by her NCTA seminar and study tour. She incorporates art exhibitions at nearby museums as well as film festivals and international culinary fairs to engage her students in learning about China. She also leveraged the resources she purchased with a mini-grant to introduce colleagues to China and pique their interest in pursuing China-related professional development.

The doyen of combining subject areas is B.J. McElderry, chair of the art department at the Upper School at Garrison Forest School in Maryland. “I wanted to see China across the curriculum,” she explains, and began by approaching the school’s headmaster and various teachers, encouraging them to attend NCTA conferences.

Because of her endeavors, students at her school today analyze Du Fu in English, dabble in the “three perfections” in a joint art and literature session, and investigate China’s “floating population” of migrant laborers. Music classes integrate Chinese folk songs and hulu flutes have replaced recorders. P.E. classes feature Tang ribbon dances and tai chi.

Undaunted by seemingly random pairings, McElderry convinced a physics teacher to co-design a unit on modular construction featuring courtyard houses and hutong alleyways, and another on trusses based on the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium.

McElderry, who acknowledges that she has been weaving China into her school’s curriculum since 1993, recommends persistence. “For every teacher I was able to pull on board, at least two were resistant.” Next year, students at her school will encounter China in a biology unit on Chinese medicine. If you are a colleague of McElderry, resistance appears futile. Resistance would also seem misguided, according to the many educators who testify that unleashing China animates teaching throughout the curriculum.

Resource Organizations

National Consortium for Teaching About Asia (NCTA)
China Institute


College Board Chinese Language and Culture Initiatives

Primary Source

Georgetown University National Resource Center for East Asia

Asia in the Curriculum Bulletin

The U.S.-China Institute

State Models

New Jersey
West Virginia