Daystar School as a model of Integrated Curriculum in Action
Marilyn Higgins, Ph.D.
Professor, Yamaguchi Prefectural University, Faculty of International Studies
Miyano Kami 527-11
Yamaguchi, Japan 753-0001
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The Daystar International School in Kumamoto, Japan, operated as a private school using an integrated curriculum from 1992-1998. This paper presents an observers view of the daily program in action. Using the theme of “the plant kingdom” all subjects for a 3-month unit were taught from preschool through high school in an open and fluid way integrating academic skills into learning projects that focused the learners’ attention on key concepts such as order, cause and effect, organization, interconnection and transformation. This unit represented the second stage of a multi-unit cycle of themes over a 3-year period. The vocabulary and concepts learned opened doors to understanding physical, mental and spiritual growth. Students not only received feedback and grades on their academic performance from teachers, but a profound sense of encouragement from their service tasks in the wider community, and .a sense of self-efficacy as they practiced their developing skills in actions that contributed to the betterment of their surrounding world.
Marilyn Higgins is an educator with more than 30 years experience teaching and training teachers. She has lived in Japan with her family for more than 26 years. She is a professor at the Yamaguchi Prefectural University in the Faculty of International Studies. Professor Higgins received her Ph.D. in Moral Education in 1999. Her main field of research is in moral education environments in China and Japan. During the last ten years, she has conducted numerous intensive training programs for secondary teachers of English in China.
Daystar School as a model of Integrated Curriculum in Action
Marilyn Higgins, Ph.D.
For educators who are used to the traditional approach of teaching separate subjects as discreet skills, each in its own particular compartment of time and space in the school day, it is sometimes hard to imagine what an integrated curriculum looks like in action. How are the goals of individual learners, the class, the school day and the school year organized so that the aims and objectives of learning don’t get lost along the way?
I would like to offer you a glimpse of such a program in action from my observations of the Daystar International School. This small private school opened in Kumamoto, Japan, as a preschool and elementary school in 1990 and expanded up through high school level from 1992 to 1998. Although the school was small, it was exceedingly rich in its application of creative educational methods and materials designed to teach physical, cognitive, affective and moral skills, knowledge and attitudes. From the beginning the Daystar staff worked together on plans through consultation, action and reflection. The “teamwork” approach allowed teachers, staff members and volunteers to bring a wide variety of skills to bear to make the most of often limited resources. Their commitment to creating a culture of learning started with the staff themselves as they studied all of the information they could find about how other successful schools and programs integrating body, mind and spirit were started and carried out.
Among the people they called on to help them develop their curriculum were members of the International Educational Initiatives group. The collaboration between the founders of the former Daystar School and the members of International Educational Initiatives continues to this day, as you can see, although the Daystar International School had to suspend its full-time program after 1998 due to financial and logistical problems. Daystar continues as a community tutorial school in Kumamoto with a good reputation as a place for educating body, mind and spirit.
What I will describe to you today is a glimpse of the Daystar International School when it was in “full bloom” in 1996-97. There were approximately 35 students from the preschool to high school level. The general programs were organized at 4 basic levels: preschool, elementary, junior high school and high school.
As Daystar began planning for an integrated curriculum, the staff decided on a 3-year cycle of themes through which key organizing concepts were taught and learning goals were “spiraled” through from simple to complex levels following generally accepted age and grade-level objectives. The themes were selected also to move children’s understanding of and focus on the world of nature and society from simple to complex. On the day of my visit, the children were in the midst of studying a three-month long focus on “the plant kingdom”. The previous term’s theme had been the “mineral kingdom” and the themes to follow included “the animal kingdom,” “the human world” (human systems and governance) and “the spiritual world and its Manifestations.” Under the umbrella of each of the themes a balanced set of learning modules were developed around one of five organizing concepts: order, cause and effect, interconnections, change and systems. The way that these themes and concepts worked to help the children learn and apply the skills of reading, writing, math and science becomes apparent as one observes the classroom and the school in action.
I’ll share with you photos taken on a spring day in 1998 when I visited the Daystar International School: The preschool children had just finished hearing a story called “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, and they were then enjoying their physical education time climbing a couple of sturdy trees outside the classroom. The concept of change – moving from one condition to another through time as we grow from childhood to old age is a concept the children were introduced to through the story. The key virtues of generosity and thankfulness also were brought out as the children became aware that the standing tree is providing something for them to be thankful for. Learning to choose a good tree for climbing involved understanding such concepts as strong as opposed to weak, brittle as contrasted to sturdy and supple. They were also learning, of course, the vocabulary related to trees and plants – roots, trunk, branches, leaves, etc. These concepts played a part in other lessons.
The elementary level children were learning to read, write and spell these words. Their lessons, too, revolved around the plant kingdom and its various connections. So in the corner where the children did their reading lessons they had posted vocabulary lists naming all kinds of plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers, trees, grain, herbs, beans and fungi.
They were learning to classify and categorize. Like young scientists they were taught to observe and make lists of what they knew and a list of what they would like to know more about. A selection of books about plants was on display to attract them during their “free reading time”.
A world map that had been created for the geography lessons they studied in the previous term when their theme was the mineral world was still in use. This term it was being used to attach news items on ecology-related service projects around the world. News items about reforestation, agricultural development and so on were added over the course of this unit. So it was doing “triple duty” – as a geography review lesson, an ecology lesson and conveying moral themes of the interconnection of the human world to the global environment.
Hanging from the ceiling were mobiles which provided information about the various organizing principles. So even when the wall space was filled, there was information that students could get “right out of the air.” Some parts of the room were used for the older student activities. Walls there carried more sophisticated posters on the life-cycles of plants, the importance of forests, tables of chemical elements. The younger children were not necessarily responsible to learn all of that, but it was there in plain sight for those curious enough to look for it. And they were able to observe from time to time the older children working on mastering that content.
The hallway had been converted to a “greenhouse.” Its sunny location was a perfect place for the younger children to start the indoor plant laboratory. A patch of ground down the hill from the classroom provided space for an outdoor community garden. The younger children learned how to get the seedlings started. The planning and heavier gardening work was generally carried out by the older children. But all were involved in watering, and weeding. The processes provided a venue to discuss science, math, health and nutrition, historical roots, unity in diversity in the plant kingdom and in all of nature including the human world.
Note how the environment itself became “information-charged” and was created and recreated to enrich the student’s focus on the concepts students were learning. Art activities included using plants as subjects and as media for artistic expression. In literature and drama students explored how plant “language” was used metaphorically through such expressions as “seeds” of ideas, “roots” of civilization, “branches” of learning, “fruits” of ones labor and so on. They had fun going on plant-related vocabulary “treasure hunts” through all kinds of books and magazines.
At the junior high school level the students studied in greater depth the process of photosynthesis as their science focus. They learned about agriculture and farming from both historical and geographical perspectives, while learning what kinds of food are used in different cultures, and the fundamentals of both local and global agriculture. They exercised their math skills to talk about “bushels per acre” or “how many hectares of wheat would bring in how much money.” They learned how to solve practical problems using simple and advanced algebraic formulas, geometry and so on, while discussing the current events problems of hunger and food distribution.
Speaking of food, lunchtime at Daystar also provided opportunities for learning of skills, knowledge of cooking, nutrition, as well as cleaning and community service.
High school students studied the biochemistry of plants at a much more complex level. Reading assignments to train their comprehension and vocabulary included sections from the deeply science-based philosophical work, Lives of a Cell. Whether studying history, geography, language science or mathematics, the connection to plants and their vital role in the life of man was underscored.
In some ways the in-classroom work was not very much different from any average school. Children learned from direct teaching or from reading. They learned to write up observations, to make gradually more complex reports. They learned keyboarding and computer skills. They took tests to consolidate their memory skills and demonstrated their abilities to recall and to use information in a variety of ways. But their experience with the information went beyond the “books and paper tests”. Physical education would include sports and recreation options, but some students preferred to get their physical exercise working on the building or gardening projects. There were always opportunities to synthesize approaches to knowledge as well as physical activity – a science project might become the source of inspiration for poetry or pottery, a social studies unit might be contained in a music lesson that would lead to dance and choreography.
A major project for each term was planned and carried out. For Daystar International School during the term devoted to plant life, a trip was planned to a learning site with an environment and plant life very different than the one the students were used to in Japan. In fact, the students were taken to the Bosch Baha’i School in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California. There they offered their service and learned how to help with ecology projects in the forest. They also helped the staff to create a large and productive vegetable garden. As the students studied various things they needed to know about plants in this different environment, they put their knowledge right to work. The results and appreciation they received from the services performed impressed the students even more than grades on their report cards. In addition to learning the vocabulary, the scientific principles, the math skills needed to perform the various tasks they had, the students felt a sense of accomplishment for making concrete contributions to their own community and other communities.
When they returned from their trip the students gave short speeches and “photo reports” to the parents and other students who were unable to go on the trip. Opportunities and encouragement for public speaking was an integral part of the curriculum in every term. The students who had not taken part in the trip had done special assignments in the park areas surrounding the school and they also spoke on their experiences. All of the students then wrote up their reports and created a school newspaper special edition. The diversity of talents and experiences contributed to the whole as various arts and media were put to use when students shared their newly gained knowledge and experiences with the whole community.
To evaluate the students, at the end of each term every teacher wrote a short paragraph for each student. They reviewed what was covered in the term and how each student participated and performed in their particular subject area(s) such as science, history, math, art, language (English and Japanese), moral development, physical education, service projects, and various electives such as computers, music, and so on. A “grade” was given indicating that the work had been “excellent,” “satisfactory,” or “needed more effort.” If a student had not completed the assignments well enough, he or she might even have failed. However, the grade sheet carried the teachers’ comments clearly indicating what had been failed and what elements needed to be strengthened or redone. In this way the student and the parents were given clearer understanding of the student’s strengths and weaknesses than a mere “letter grade” or numerical score could convey. The grades were not assigned on a competitive basis comparing students with others, but by evaluating each individual’s performance in relation to his or her particular competencies and goals.
While the teachers and staff created the overall plan for the term, the elements of the basic skills and concepts that were to be learned within the theme, there was room in such a curriculum for a margin of adjustment and serendipity. Community resources or special opportunities such as special visitors, concerts or chances to participate in community events that would relate to the students’ development could be worked into the plan. Community facilities such as the swimming pool that was available at low cost during certain hours could be utilized with flexible planning and coordination. Although a smooth routine was developed, not all days went as planned. In a small school illness or other unexpected occurrences can have a stronger effect on the group as a whole than in a large school. But well-honed consultation, communication and problem-solving skills kept the momentum of the learning environment going forward.
A staff consultation meeting was held each morning, followed by a morning circle that included all students as well. A short period of inspirational readings and/or music greeted the group each morning, followed by brief scheduling announcements and a look at the overview of the day. In addition, there was a special “Friday Forum” that brought everyone together to reflect on the week’s activities, to raise any problems for discussion, suggest goals or changes needed and to look ahead to the preparations needed for the following week. There was a conscious effort to create and maintain an atmosphere of affirmation in which the perception and resolution of problems could be carried on fluidly while differences in style, approach and personalities were accepted and appreciated.
As students and staff headed out for the weekend, they often engaged in recreational activities with each other and with friends from the wider community. Sports and recreation, music drama and dance characterized the extra-curricular activities that involved the Daystar Community in character building and community-building past times. The atmosphere of consultation at school had the added benefit of seeming to enable the children to see themselves as more than “bit players” in the life of the wider community. They often noticed problems and would set about to create the means to solve them. In order to gain and maintain a connection to the students from the public schools in the area, the Daystar students carried out an open-school festival on a weekend day every other month or so to invite students from other schools for the chance to get to spend time together. The Daystar students also enjoyed being called upon as “translators” for a bi-annual children’s theatre event that was carried out between Kumamoto and its sister community in Montana, USA.
What do the students themselves think of such a school? For many of the students, as it was the only school they had known, they just knew that they liked it. It was only later, after going on to other systems that they realized how much they had been blessed by their unique learning environment. But some students who had gone to other schools before coming to Daystar had interesting and unexpected observations to share. For example, after school on the day I visited as the children were preparing to go home, I asked one of the elementary school students what she had enjoyed about her week. Her answer was not related to plants or vegetables or the focus of the outward lesson activities. She shared something from a book she had read in the free reading time that had helped her to resolve a moral issue about right and wrong in the “nether world” between children and grown ups. She was feeling very good because she had come to an understanding about a question that had been bothering her that she had not been able to come to terms with. She said that, somehow, in her former school she had never had time or a way to think about such problems of human relationships.
I was impressed that in the atmosphere of discussion and consultation at Daystar, this student had taken the language lesson she was reading and had translated it into a moral lesson that she had been working on in her heart quietly in the background. It was a wonderful reminder that while we educators can provide the materials, the goals, the environment, the elements of learning, and that we must be wisely aware of the delicate balance of all essential factors. But it is the hearts and minds of the students and of the teachers as real people who become learners in the environment that they mutually create, who weave the elements into their own experience and make it a curriculum. In many schools, reading, writing, and math are considered the “subjects.” But in an integrated curriculum, the talents and qualities, the skills and abilities of the students that can be “educed” or “led out” are the curriculum. The students are encouraged to discover the seeds of talents and gems of spirit that have been planted within them, and to cultivate and use these in such a way that they bring honor and gratification to themselves and their family, their society and their Creator.
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