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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit


by Mary Short
Fairbanks North Star Borough School District


The Rural and Interior Alaska Instructional Improvement Academy introduced me to new curriculum models and gave me the opportunity to review and revise some of my own ideas and methods about curriculum. While reading Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned I found many ideas I will be able to incorporate into my instruction in the future.

Several of the articles in LT/LL described a curriculum which was a community-aware, whole-student, activity-based model. These are some of the areas I would like to focus on this next year. The community based curriculum mentioned by Helen Roberts in "The Development of an Integrated Bilingual and Cross-Cultural Curriculum in an Arctic School District," involves the community in many aspects of the school functioning. This puts ownership of the school and the school's success or failure in the hands of the community as well as the school staff, and creates an environment which fosters growth, sharing, and mutual respect. These concepts can also be applied more narrowly to a neighborhood served by an urban school. 

Ray Barnhardt, in his article "Culture, Community and the Curriculum," discusses the "meaningful experience" curriculum. This curriculum model is used in Nigeria and is applicable to both rural and urban Alaska. The experience based program utilizes the resources of the students' community, so that they can become contributing members of their community. I will use this model in my unit.

"Weaving Curriculum Webs: The Structure of Nonlinear Curriculum," by Corwin, Heln and Levin, gave some wonderful ideas on how to use a whole language unit approach. This nonlinear style affords a more motivating learning experience which respects different learning styles and rates and is easily blended in with community-aware, activity-based models.

Judi Hall of the Juneau School District, one of the presenters at the Early Childhood Special Education workshop, focused on the integration of disabled students with their non-disabled peers. This enables both disabled and non-disabled people to learn how to deal with each other and gives a clear message to future citizens that disabled people are vital members of the community. Educating all members of a community as they would live in a community, together is a community-sensitive approach.

Patti Herman of the Portage Project in Portage, Wisconsin, was also a presenter at the Early Childhood Special Education workshop. Her topic was about parent communication. The skills Ms. Herman outlined are invaluable for anyone who wants an open dialogue with parents. Ms. Herman shared needs inventories, listening skills, and tips on how to lead a parent conference which facilitates two-way communication. These skills are imperative to my unit in order for it to succeed. My integrated curriculum unit which follows attempts to integrate all of the ideas outlined above.


Assessment of Needs

Three assessments must take place when outlining a unit. The school must assess the needs of the community, the needs of the family, and the needs of the student. 

Roberts stresses patience and compromise when developing an integrated unit. She reminds us that the community should be involved in all aspects of the curriculum from school goals to textbook selection. Adopting her diagrams and flow charts will guide the school in incorporating the community in its decision making.

Barnhardt listed the curriculum principles used by Helser in writing a meaningful experience curriculum. I will not review the nine principles here, but stress that they are important guidelines when reviewing and revising curriculum. It is important to assess the community's social and family life, health and economic factors and communication patterns and customs. In this curriculum model, students learn tasks for the purpose of solving a question or problem, not in order to finish the text or get a grade.

With the input of the community and the above guidelines the needs of the community as a whole will become apparent. To assess the particular needs of the families you serve, more specific assessment tools need to be utilized. Patti Herman of the Portage Project has devised several assessment tools which are culturally sensitive and applicable to both rural and urban settings. They are readily adapted to a community's specific situation. These tools assess the families need for information, support, and community services, as well as financial needs and family functioning.

Assessing the needs of the student consists of a simple step -ask. The student is asked to think about what he or she would like to know about. The "I-Search" can be used as a personal research project conducted by the student about a topic the student would like to learn more about. With the assistance of the teacher and the community the students use many different sources of information to answer their questions, each of which have the word "I" in it. For example: Would I like to be a smokejumper? Can I make money selling cookies in town? or, What kind of snow machine should my family buy? The I-Search is a type of nonlinear curriculum as discussed by Corwin, Hem and Levin.


Answering I-Search Questions

The integrated curriculum unit topics can be chosen once the needs of the community, the family, and the student have been assessed. The community needs assessment gives the entire school its focus, general objectives, and long term goals. The family assessment reveals very specific goals to be met in the immediate future by the school, family and social agencies. The student needs assessment tells the teacher and student what questions are important to the student and gives the teacher the framework in which to teach the basic academic skills.

Students may brainstorm as a class, in small groups or with a friend to come up with several problems they want to search. The topics can be charted for others to see and get ideas from. The student then must choose which topic to search and refine that problem into an "I" statement.

As soon as I-Search topics have been chosen the students will let everyone in the community know their topic, so that if there is a knowledgeable community member they may become a resource. If a volunteer has been found the students may tap the expert's knowledge by interviewing him or her. Questions are written, revised and rewritten, interviewing is practiced and role playing takes place. Students devise the best way to take notes and practice taking notes during the role playing. Telephone skills are reviewed and then reinforced as the students phone to request an interview or do a long distance interview. Personal writing and social skills are discussed and exercised when the students write a thank you note after the interview has taken place.

Most I-Searches will require library research in order to gather background information. This affords natural time to learn library skills and note taking. It is also a logical time to learn about plagiarism. When library skills and note-taking are needed by the students in order to answer their questions, the instruction becomes meaningful and useful.

Students' topics may require them to send away for information. The students then have the need to learn how to write a business letter requesting information, and the teacher has a teachable moment to instruct the students in how to write a business letter and to help them edit the letter before it is mailed.

While the students are gathering information to solve a problem they have chosen, they are following through with the writing process and learning many writing conventions such as punctuation, capitalization, and standard spelling. The students will start with a draft and through friends, groups, or the teacher, locate the confusing areas of the writing and revise their work. The students will learn how to use spell-checker programs on a word processor, dictionaries, a thesaurus and other references. The students work will be edited so that others could benefit from it should the students choose to share.

A timetable with explicit due dates is a management necessity. Students receive a calendar so that they may record these due dates in order to keep themselves on schedule and avoid procrastination.

The gifted students may want to research a topic more thoroughly than other students. Their needs should be accommodated with a more flexible due date. The learning-disabled students may require more directions and organizational structure in order to complete their projects. With extra guidance, the students can still work at the same pace as their non-disabled peers without being singled out. Mentally handicapped students can be involved in this model as well, as supported by Judi Hall of the Juneau School District. The problem to be solved would be based on the community and families' needs assessment. For example, the community may have vocational opportunities for the student if s/he is trained, or the family may feel that toilet training is important.


Grades are a necessity of school life, but what the grades evaluate and how the grades are devised is up to the teacher and individual student. Together they specify what components will be grades - typically information, format, style, writing conventions, looks and miscellaneous. Within each component it is agreed upon as to what needs to be accomplished in order to receive a specific letter grade. By being part of the grading process the students know what is expected of them and have an investment in the grading system.


The advantages of the community-oriented, integrated, nonlinear curriculum far outweigh the extra teacher time it requires. By utilizing these components students are able to study what is important to them and their community and to learn the basic academic curriculum within a meaningful framework.

 Arctic Giants


Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



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Last modified August 18, 2006