Diagonal Alignment

A tool to integrate basic skills across the curriculum

In working with teachers on integration and differentiation, there are a few obstacles that are prevalent in almost every group. Logistics in implementing this approach in a system that is currently used is a common hurdle. Another hurdle is trying to integrate curriculums to determine what should be taught. Diagonal alignment is one way to help teach and reinforce basic skills and concepts throughout an entire year. It’s based on the idea that there is vertical alignment by subject matter or by grade level each month. Horizontal alignment refers to the sequence of subject areas within a year.

In a typical school, a simple table can be developed that shows basic concepts taught each month in each subject. When the chart is filled out completely, the teachers can see if there are any natural ties between their subject and another subject to encourage integration. Teachers could also look at the chart and choose to rearrange parts of the curriculum to overlap and integrate, or they can create a spiral effect for skills that cross subjects and can be reinforced every few months. An example might be the idea of measurement being taught in math in August, then science reinforces the concept in October. Or social studies is teaching population growth so math develops an exponential growth unit to tie into the social studies unit.

To keep it simple, start with a structure that is simple to use. First have each subject area determine the basic skills that are vital to the subject area or that students traditionally struggle with. The list could include fractions, percentages, and division for math; map skills, chart development, and geography for social studies; the scientific process and measurement for science; reading and non-fiction writing for language arts. Classes such as art, choir, band, and physical education can and should be included when possible.

Once the list of basic skills is decided upon by each subject area, those teachers create a “cheat sheet” for other teachers. The cheat sheet gives key points for the basic skills and the focus in each of the concepts chosen. The subject area teachers also teach a mini lesson of those vital skills to the staff just prior to the school year. The idea is to share expectations and key points for all non-subject area teachers to make sure there is a consistent message.

After the opening teaching session and the cheat sheets have been delivered, the subject areas begin to teach class. The curriculum of the class does not change in the scope and sequence previously used, but there will need to be a place to teach the basic skills and concepts that were shared with the teaching staff. The skills and concepts need to be taught by the subject expert at the beginning of the year so the base is solid and can be reinforced throughout the rotation of the other classes. A sample rotation is given in figure 1, and the term diagonal alignment is evident when you draw arrows from the content area to the class that will reinforce the basic skills the next month. The order is at the discretion of the staff and may be influenced by other content being taught that may lend itself to a natural integration of subject matter.

Figure 1

Content Area
Basic Skills
August September October November
Language Arts LA basic skills Sci basic skills Math basic skills SS basic skills
Social Studies SS basic skills LA basic skills Sci basic skills Math basic skills
Math Math basic skills SS basic skills LA basic skills Sci basic skills
Science Sci basic skills Math basic skills SS basic skills LA basic skills

Using the previous model of scheduling the rotation of basic skills, in the month of September each teacher will begin to work in the basic skills of other subject areas. The basic skills cheat sheet and communication with other teachers will assist in this process. As an example, language arts determined the basic skills they wanted reinforced were non-fiction writing and reading comprehension. In the month of September, the social studies teachers would teach the required social studies curriculum, but they would integrate either one or both of the concepts of non-fiction writing and reading comprehension. Bringing map skills to math, graphing to science, or measurement to language arts could all be done in the first month of diagonal alignment. The impact has begun. After three months of reinforcing these same areas in different aspects of the curriculum the results will be noticeable.

The rotation could repeat in the second half of the year, or if the subject area teachers feel that the skills are now solid, they can move into another need of the base curriculum. This process is a beginning to a more integrated curriculum. The ultimate goal is to be fully integrated when there are natural ties. Better yet, develop a curriculum that starts with the idea of the bigger picture of the whole curriculum and create an innovative approach to deliver to students.

In the current school year, students return to school mid-August and first semester is done at winter break. School concludes at the end of May. That means the months of December and May are wrapping up semesters and a good time to take advantage of an integrated project-based learning model that combines subject areas to create a larger project. Again, this should lead to a deeper level of curriculum development. Targeted differentiation is a model that is used to develop that higher level of understanding for teachers and is another approach to innovate a school curriculum.

The big question that is often posed is “How do I grade this?” The ideal situation is that we use standards-based assessments with the goal of attainment of the standards. However, many schools still use a grading system that is not standards based. The issue then becomes a matter of communication. Common rubrics or allowing the work done in one subject to be used in another subject for a grade would be possible. Each school or staff should determine what works best.

The logistics of any new program could make or break the attempt. It is vital to keep in mind that learning is the most important aspect of integrating content. Whether you grade, don’t grade, share, or don’t share doesn’t really matter as long as authentic learning is happening. Make the logistics work. Find common ground. Help each other reach the basic standards of your subject area. Remember you do not teach math or science, ultimately you teach kids!