Stepping into Interdisciplinary Activities

by Tricia Ebner

Over the past couple of years, our building administrators have challenged us to try incorporating more interdisciplinary lessons and activities in our classrooms. Two years ago, many of us were reluctant. The worries over elements of OTES and the new assessments weighed heavily. Last year, with the passage of HB 362, our administrators once again encouraged us to try it out. The eighth grade language arts and social studies departments decided to collaborate on a project.

Eighth grade social studies focuses on American history from colonization through Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War. About six or seven weeks into the school year, the eighth graders work through a research-based activity on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. After some conversation between departments, we decided we could easily collaborate and support each other by using the students’ research work in both social studies and language arts.

We dedicated a common planning time to examining the requirements of the social studies project and discussing how language arts could support the work. Our library media specialist joined us, so that should could see how best to support the project across both content areas. We discussed which language arts standards were most effectively addressed with the project, and what support our students needed to be successful in the work. Within a few days, we had an outline of our plans. In social studies, students researched and completed a questions page. Later, they gave presentations to their peers about their selected signer. Our library media specialist supported the project by showing students how to find and use valid, reliable sources and take notes using source and note cards. In language arts classes continued the coaching and support of using note cards, along with lessons on organizing information to write an essay, including parenthetical citations.

Overall, the collaboration worked well. Because we had clearly-divided responsibilities, teachers didn’t have to try to negotiate how to handle grading of the different elements of the project. Students liked having a common research focus for two classes. Having the support of the library media specialist was critical. We also had the benefit of one teacher working as both a language arts teacher and a social studies teacher, so when questions came up but time didn’t permit a full cross-department meeting, she often answered questions to help both departments.

On the other hand, for language arts, the project dragged a bit. Our students had not been introduced to the note card/source card approach to research, so this took more time than we had anticipated. What had originally looked like a two-week project stretched beyond that as we worked through the struggles. Later in the year, if one of us mentioned “Signers Project” to the kids, the class would inevitably groan. This led to some changes in our work this year. For example, language arts is introducing the note card/source card approach earlier in the year, so that when we get to the Signers Project, it won’t be a brand-new approach for them. This should streamline the Signers Project a bit and also give students the opportunity to work more independently on this skill.

Trying any new approach in curriculum and instruction takes time, research, and experience. Our first interdisciplinary unit had a few great moments, and a few moments showing areas needing improvement. This year we will make changes and see whether these changes improve the students’ understanding and quality of work. Ultimately, all of us involved, teachers and students, will continue to learn and grow. That what it’s all about.

If you’re interested in finding interdisciplinary lessons, activities, and units, check out Literacy Design Collaborative at www.ldc.org. This organization hosts a web-based library of interdisciplinary materials available for grades K-12, written and juried by teachers and aligned to standards.