The Power of Integrated Learning

The Power of Integrated Learning

It is said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Integration is one of the pillars of a Toronto Heschel School education. Having taught in settings where integration was not emphasized, my early encounters with the Heschel approach felt a bit like that moment in the movie The Wizard of Oz when the monochromatic sepia tones suddenly shift into vivid technicolour. With integration as an organizing principle, lessons came alive in new and often unexpected ways. Witnessing firsthand the creativity and enthusiasm with which Heschel students approached learning was both moving and inspiring. Now in my fourth year as a teacher at Heschel, I appreciate this opportunity to share what I have learned about integrated education.

Within the field of education, integration takes many forms and is understood in a variety of ways. At Heschel, there are three well-established forms of integration that guide the faculty and that shape the experiences of our students:  the integration of Jewish and general studies, the integration of the arts, and interdisciplinary integration. I have also identified a fourth form of integration, which I call process integration.

Years ago, in Los Angeles, I had a professor who had decided to speak only Hebrew to his children.  Their mother and everyone else in their lives spoke English.  When I asked the four-year-old daughter what language her father spoke to her, she answered, “Hebrew.”  When I asked her what language her mother spoke, she responded, “Normal.”

Heschel was the first school in Toronto to emphasize the integration of Jewish and general studies. Where most Jewish day schools have separate Jewish and general studies departments, many Heschel teachers teach on “both sides of the curriculum.” In addition, in each grade, central curricular themes span multiple Jewish and general subjects. For example, in Grade 5, the theme “From Slavery to Freedom” is echoed throughout the curriculum. In Bible studies, the students study the Exodus from Egypt. In language arts, they read Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker and explore the journey of young American slaves escaping to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

At Heschel, our integration of Jewish and general studies and faculty sends the message that Judaism has relevance and meaning in our everyday lives. Jewish values and practices are more than a supplement that adds spice to our lives; they guide the way we live and shape who we are as human beings.

Integration of the arts is central to a Heschel education. A hallmark of arts integration at Heschel is the Artist Statement in which students explore their artistic objectives and choices and express them in a carefully developed written statement. The journey our students make between art and other disciplines is often a roundtrip or even offers multiple destinations.

With the Grade 7 novel study, the journey begins and ends with written language. Artistic expression is the middle step and enables the students to dig deep into the text itself and to explore how the text is affecting them. Reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is a profound experience for a Grade 7 student. The characters are intensely real and, for some students, reading this novel represents the first time they have ever fallen in love with a book.

The final project calls upon the students to translate their feelings and insights about their favourite character into words, images, and symbols on a “Graffiti Wall,” a canvas board 45 by 60 cm in size. The rich content of the Graffiti Wall is then explained in an accompanying Artist Statement. This back-and-forth journey between written words and visual art, between the intellect and levels of experience that precede and transcend rational thought, enables the students to enter the world of the novel in a life-altering way, and it allows the messages and lessons of the novel to take root deep within their consciousness.

At The Toronto Heschel School our emphasis on interdisciplinary integration is based on the understanding that the subjects we teach are artificial constructs that do not reflect the interrelated nature of reality. The “big ideas” and “essential questions” upon which curriculum is built are rarely limited to a single subject. For example, the theme “From Slavery to Freedom” mentioned above is echoed throughout the Grade 5 curriculum. In social studies and civics, the students explore the rights and responsibilities that come with living in a free society. By linking one subject to another and by reinforcing learning in multiple classes, interdisciplinary integration maximizes both efficiency and relevance.

Relevance is a key ingredient to success in any educational setting and it is an essential component of effective integration. Integrated education is not only about finding overarching themes and matching content across different disciplines. Integration is about offering a web of interrelated experiences that support and reinforce a child’s efforts as a growing human being to master essential developmental tasks. True integration goes beyond what we as educators write on a curriculum document. It is what takes place within the consciousness of our students.

The idea of relevance leads me to the fourth form of integration, one that I call process integration as it encompasses the whole of the child’s experience at school. The concepts we teach must be integrated into the process through which they are taught, modelled in the way teachers relate to students, and encouraged in the relationships that students have with one another. Process integration means that the values we teach permeate the life and culture of the classroom and, ultimately, of the school.

In Grade 5, Underground to Canada, the Book of Exodus, and the overarching theme “From Slavery to Freedom” are rooted in the emphasis Jewish tradition places on human dignity and our obligation as Jews to use our capacity for empathy as a guide in our treatment of other human beings. These values can only take root in a classroom where the teacher goes out of his/her way to respect the dignity and feelings of his/her students.

At the heart of process integration are authenticity and an integrity that integrates the values one teaches. At the same time, as important as these values are, authenticity and integrity represent demanding standards that teachers are not always able to meet. At one point or another, even the most caring teachers let their students down in some way – by inadvertently teaching a boring lesson, by responding with impatience, or by failing to keep a promise. Teachers are human, and the job of teaching is too complex and challenging for anyone to do it perfectly.

All teachers make mistakes, and I know of only one antidote – the one taught by Jewish tradition: Teshuvah (i.e., making amends). Although Teshuvah is generally associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is a practice that has year-round relevance because mistakes are made in all seasons. Teshuvah is a three-step process: acknowledging that one has made a mistake, apologizing and doing one’s best to repair the damage, and taking care not to make the same mistake again.

Process integration represents every teacher’s biggest and most important challenge. It involves putting aside our role and authority as teachers and standing before our students as fellow human beings who are worth no more and no less than they are. When a teacher performs Teshuvah, offering a student or a class a sincere and heartfelt apology, everything that teacher teaches is afforded a special kind of relevance in the minds and hearts of his/her students. As a result, integration occurs on a deep level.

In nearly four years at The Toronto Heschel School, I have already collected what feels like a lifetime of meaningful memories. One particularly poignant memory relates to the end of my first year. There are no bells at Heschel, so on the last day, in the final minute, students watched the clock and counted down as the hands came together to signify noon. “Three – Two – One – Zero!” Suddenly, there was an eruption of hugs and tears.

I was moved and also shocked. Looking back to my own childhood, I recall feeling nothing but unbridled elation and relief at the end of every school year. Of course, students at Heschel look forward to summer vacation. At the same time, their connection with the school and with one another goes very deep – deep enough that even a temporary separation packs an emotional punch.

I am convinced that the connection Heschel students feel with the school, with their teachers, and with their classmates is, in no small part, due to a philosophy of education that permeates the school. This philosophy not only recognizes but also embraces the wholeness and sacredness of each child and views him/her as an essential part of an interrelated and integrated world where school, family, community, Judaism, art, nature, God, and humanity interact. At The Toronto Heschel School, the locus of integration is deeper than any overarching theme, deeper than the curriculum itself. The ultimate integrating factor is the journey that we as teachers and students take together. It is a journey that encompasses the whole of our shared humanity.

Dr. Dan Goldberg wrote this article as a teacher at The Toronto Heschel School in 2012.


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