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Creating an Integrated Curriculum around the Lone Star State

Michael Carberry By Michael Carberry

I’m Michael Carberry, and I moved to Texas nine years ago. There’s a phrase in the Lone Star state for folks like me: “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as quick as I could!” I should clarify; I live in Austin, the capital of Texas, a southwest hub for music, art and a creative convergence of progressive ideas and social action. It wasn’t until I moved to Texas and taught a middle school social studies class that I really explored Texas history, and I was amazed at the richness that filled the pages of the story of the Lone Star State.

I co founded and direct the Whole Life Learning Center, where we deliver a holistic approach to education. Our curriculum is multi-cultural, integrated and emergent. We also focus on place-based education, believing that a sense of place is essential for our overall development – the more we are connected to our history, our land and our community, the more we are whole. It is with this in mind that we approach the topic of Texas history and explore ways to create an integrated curriculum with that as a cultural hub.

Essentially, my goal at the Whole Life Learning Center is to inspire growth and creativity. We do this by co-creating spaces and cultivating relationships that support just that. We do this by connecting with community from the local to the global. We have mixed age groups (5-7, 7-9, 9-11, 11-13) that work with mentors on projects and studies that explore academics and arts through nature and the cultures of our world. Focusing in on Texas history, we want to understand our roots – the history of this land; the peoples whose sweat, blood and tears have fallen to this soil to enliven it with the culture that flourishes today. In the language of Enki Education, every subject has an essential energy – the heart of the matter at hand. It is crucial to remember this as we enter each class and each activity, so that we can truly pass on this sense of place and nurture the growth and creativity that happens when we tap into our roots.

The next step in unfolding the essential energy of a subject area is the specific activity involved. Here I will outline activities that interrelate, with Texas as a cultural hub, through the subjects of social studies, language arts, math, science, music, art and more. I will also explicate the methods we use to explore these topics, always bringing the essential energy of our creative growth and ever-increasing wholeness into consideration.

What I am describing is the ecosystem of a curriculum – many parts woven into a whole. Enki education has identified nine core threads that are integral to the ecology of education:

● essential energy
● the activity of learning
● unity and diversity
● the integration of body, speech/heart, and mind
● mirroring child development
● rhythms
● environment
● adult models
● teacher health

Here I will explore each of these essential threads as they connect to our ecosystem of learning at the Whole Life Learning Center.?

“If a particular subject matter or skill is worth bringing to the children, its essential energy must be worthy of our attention.”

I’ve already discussed the essential energy of Whole Life Learning, similarly, we can look at that of the curriculum itself and use that as a compass as we plan lessons and activities for each class. So what is the value of learning about Texas? Why is it worthy of our attention? Well, WLLC is in Austin, Texas and as I said before, I believe that place-based education, connecting with the roots and rich cultural history of a space, does nothing short of making us more whole.

Next we look at how that comes through in each individual subject matter. Of course, we’re not constantly referring to Texas in every math problem, but we’re looking for the subtle ways to weave the theme throughout our classes. So if the goal of math is to perceive patterns and the way energy or things can be exchanged and understood in units, then we keep this in mind for every lesson whether we are with the 7-9 year olds or the 11-13 year olds. Perhaps as the youngers explore the four operations they refer to a cowboy who is continuously trying to keep track of his ever-changing herd of cattle. And the olders are calculating perimeter and area to figure our how much fencing is needed and how much space the cattle need and have, starting with squares and moving into more complex shapes.

You can see how we begin to integrate the curriculum through cultural connections and can imagine how many stories would easily fit into the subjects of social studies and language arts. For example, when introducing the history of Texas I would set up a visit from my good friend Clark Childers and his dog, Sally. No, he’s not a descendent of someone from the Alamo, he’s an author of a children’s book about the history of Texas, written in rhyming verse. He could do a reading, which would launch us on a journey of many potential explorations; from understanding our local geology by learning about the geological past when Texas was under the ocean, to learning about the many explorers that walked this land and the many battles that were fought here. Over time we could memorize the whole historical poem and even turn it into a little play of sorts (surely Clark would love it!)

In addressing the activity of learning, Enki Education refers to the importance of experiential learning, as opposed to spoon-fed facts. In Enki, experiential learning must go through the three-fold process of learning: open intake, digestion/explorations, and understanding or skill mastery. So first, the kids would get to simply sit and listen to Clark’s reading of Texas, The True Story of the Lone Star State. Then that would set up a road map for our social studies explorations, i.e. literally creating a giant map of Texas and charting the people, routes and places we learn about. Finally, we could use that completed product and all the others in a performance for parents.

As I mentioned, within the activity of learning the process of discovery is essential. So rather that simply saying in a science class, “Texas used to be under an ocean and that’s why we have limestone everywhere, ” we would introduce the three types of rocks through a fun song set to the tune of “Row, row, row your boat”: “Sedimentary rock has been formed in layers, often found near water sources with fossils from decayers…” Then we would go out to explore and see what kinds of rocks we found. With all the limestone, where is the water source, we would surely inquire.

Another vein of Clark’s (and Texas’) story is about the many cultures that have inhabited this land – this brings us into the topic of Unity and Diversity. Looking at the Native Americans, the Spanish, French, the pilgrims and settlers from England, the Mexicans, the Texicans, and the Americans, we can see them not as foreign subjects, but as essential characters in our play that connect us to our roots, to who we are as Texans today.

We integrate body, speech and mind to be sure we are offering a whole, integrated experience. For example, a warm-up before one of our lessons may involve skipping around the room while passing a beanbag between hands and singing, “The stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas…”  Or when introducing our Cowboy, Tex, we’ll go outside and all turn into a herd of cattle that are constantly splitting up and consequently changing group sizes, but hopefully always adding up to fourteen “Moos!” In honoring body, speech and mind in our learning processes we are giving attention to sensory integration, communication, self-expression and the arts, and flexible thinking within any particular subject area we approach.

We aim to mirror child development by understanding that there are developmental threads within the unfolding human that can be plucked in harmony with the way we approach a topic or activity. For example, we would plan to read the great Texas tall tale about Pecos Bill with all four age groups. (He was a baby travelling West in a wagon until he fell out and was raised by coyotes, and then had an adoptive human father, a cowboy named Tex). The youngest group would get to see a hilarious puppet show that would bring the story to life, but this wouldn’t quite work with the olders. They would explore tangents like the drought that Pecos Bill solves by riding a cyclone back down from Oklahoma. We have actually been in a severe drought so we would explore the effects of that in our science curriculum and open up the space for connections about our own water choices (it’s much easier to conserve and install cisterns than it is to ride a cyclone!) We could also research where Bill got his name and search for the Pecos River. And the oldest students, who are mastering the art of expressing themselves through creative writing, could have the opportunity to write their own tall tales.

Of course, we give attention to rhythms within our days, weeks, months, seasons and years. This always includes an in-breath, a pause, and an out-breath. So if we spent a whole season with Texas as our cultural hub, those three months would be divided to reflect the three-fold learning process. And each class period and the flow of each day would bring attention to the natural rhythmic process, giving time for focused work, time for expansive exploration and play, and time for transitions in between.

One of the primary ways I mentioned for meeting my goal of inspiring growth and creativity was “co-creating spaces.” It is said that good farmers don’t grow crops, they grow soil. Environment is the soil in which we learn and grow and it is essential for the depth of nourishment that we can receive in our studies. Whether it’s the natural lights, soft tones and simple cultural decorations that help to create a quiet contemplative space, or the expansive outdoors that gets us in touch with the elements of the season, we are tilling the soil with intention and attention. I don’t teach kids, I create spaces… they do all the work!

This connects with our roles as adult models. We are, after all, part of the environment. True mentorship requires a trust and depth of relationship that isn’t just bureaucratically prescribed and based on reward and punishment, it requires an adult who is willing to be authentic, to model self-awareness, conscious communication, and curiosity (not always having the answer).

Finally, a crucial aspect of that modeling is teacher health. I must take care of myself with attention to the basic rhythms of eating and sleeping and getting exercise. I must find a centering practice that connects me to my spiritual core and helps me to come from that place when I interact with youth through a whole spectrum of situations. Having that practice reminds me that I am serving the Divine through the face of each child and supporting the unfolding of that Divine expression through them. As a staff, we connect every morning before the kids arrive in order to drop into a place of silence and stillness and greet the children into a sacred space.

With all of these threads woven into an integrated curriculum we can see how they form a holographic matrix where they apply to activities and subjects at every level from the microcosm to the macrocosm. Having steeped in a sense of place and nourished our cultural roots, we have the solid foundation to stretch and reach outward and explore the many diverse cultures of our human family and continue the never ending process of integrating and growing in increasing wholeness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Whole Life Learning Center

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