Posts Tagged ‘interdisciplinary’


So I’ve been thinking about terminology. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but a lot of times we hear words and terms that we think we all understand in the same way, and we don’t. Two different experiences have made me think about this idea.

First, I have been leading a task force investigating interdisciplinary teaching and learning at my school. I don’t think anyone came to the group with no thoughts about what interdisciplinary work was, yet we did not come close to having a shared understanding of the term. This became our first task.

The summer before beginning our work we all read Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation. Even though we all read the same book, we still didn’t all have the same idea. In interpreting literature it may be okay to have slightly different readings of the text; however, when we are trying to focus on a particular pedagogy and don’t all have the same understanding of what that is, those differences are not okay.

After spending the school year talking, reading, and visiting schools, we are clearly not the only ones who have not nailed down what we mean by the words we used to describe our program. This was a year of slow learning and slow looking, terms I learned at a Project Zero conference in the fall, as we worked our way towards an understanding and then a definition of what we will call interdisciplinary learning at our school. We did not want to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of wheels out there; lots of them work just fine. What we needed to do was tweak an existing wheel that would work for our cart.

This process ultimately led us to work on several documents. Using our Jacobs-based definition, we applied it to an Understanding by Design lesson plan template (it’s licensed for reuse and alteration) and adjusted it to stress qualities and ideas that we wanted to highlight. More importantly, we wrote a document that describes where we are and what we believe about interdisciplinary work at our school. Again there’s already a lot written about what interdisciplinary work is, and we have leaned heavily on all of that earlier work.

Finally, we integrated that with our own terminology about teaching methods, mission language, and strategic plan ideas so that the language itself connects to our own native language. As the majority writer of this document, I feel confident in saying it is not going to win any awards. However, I think when we as a group sat down to look at a draft, we realized how far we had come. We could not have written such a document when we started; we may have been saying the same words, but we did not mean the same things. However in April after working together for most of a school year, we were ready to speak a common language. I am really proud of this.

My second recent experience that has made me aware of terminology is an online course I am finishing (Educating Global Citizens through Harvard Graduate School of Education). This time the terminology in question is connected to global competencies and global education. The individual words (global, competency, education) are more common than interdisciplinary, and in some ways so common that it’s hard to imagine that putting two of them together would not create a universally understood term. It turns out that is not the case.

The course began as one might expect with readings and lectures explaining both what how to define global competencies and the importance of a global education. It then quickly moved to the participants practicing describing this to others. There was an assignment to talk to another stakeholder in the school community and in a few minutes make a case for global education. I found this assignment to be surprisingly challenging. Why? Terminology.

I chose to talk to a non-educator. I did this intentionally. What I found was that I started in the middle, when what I needed to do was start with the terminology before I could say why it was important. I also found that the person I was talking to, of course, had other ideas about what these words mean beyond a school setting, which gave me another way to explain the importance of this kind of work.

One of the final assignments for this class is to record an elevator pitch. I’m still working on it, but I do have a plan. Rather than focusing on convincing the Listener of the importance of whatever I’m talking about, I’m thinking about spending most of my allotted minute on clarifying what global competencies are. Suggesting that a global education, whatever that means, is important in 2017 does not seem like a very hard sell; fewer words are necessary. What seems more in doubt is ensuring that my listener has the same understanding of what I mean by global competencies. 

Terminology. Not necessarily exciting, but you can’t go anywhere without it.

So, I’ve been thinking about Project Based Learning (PBL). As my school thinks about expanding our interdisciplinary course work, PBL has, of course, entered the discussion. I’m a fan of PBL, and I know it’s not easy. However, I think I might have forgotten just how much work it is to do well.

CCO Public domain image by sandid

To review, there are projects that teachers plan at the end of a unit, as summative work. In that case, the learning happens and then the project is the assessment of the learning. Then there is project-based learning (PBL) where the learning happens in and around the project. In an effort to see more true PBL in action, I’ve been visiting other schools that are PBL based and going to a lot of conference sessions on the topic. All of this looking and listening has been super interesting. I’ve seen examples of units and projects that look great: clear learning goals, interesting and engaging (to the kids) questions, integrated learning, and rigorous (I know that is a bit of a dirty word right now) work.

I’ve also seen examples that don’t hold up, where the unit is focussed on engaging products without enough learning, integrated or not. Some of what I have seen that is not working, in my opinion, is being described as project based learning, but the students are jumping right to the project (as if it was a project at the end of learning) and skipping over the learning.

Even so, I don’t think anyone I have observed in the classroom or heard from at conferences is not trying very hard to do right by kids. Where I think part of the downfall has happened is in one of two places: either too much focus on the engaging kids part or too much focus on the charming product part. Both of these flaws mean that the deep learning and effective evaluating of the learning is getting short changed. I have certainly been guilty of both mistakes, maybe even in the same unit.

I have not made any revelations here. Anyone who teaches knows that teaching is always a lot of work and some drudgery. Good teaching is a lot of smart, thoughtful work and some drudgery. Effective and rigorous PBL shifts a lot of the teacher workload to the beginning of the unit. Then, during the unit there is lots of on the fly instruction, formative assessment to determine what content needs some direct instruction, conferencing with groups or individuals etc. There are a million moving parts. This is not work for the faint of heart.

I can see that as I have been spending more time thinking about interdisciplinary work and PBL, I have brought a wider range of ideas and approaches to my own teaching this year. As I think about teaching an interdisciplinary course next year, I guess my point is that I am excited to think more about this sort of work and mindful of the very real challenges it brings.

So, I’ve been thinking about the looking, seeing, and interpreting skills of my students. I’ve been talking with a few colleagues about a potential broad interdisciplinary, humanities course.

After a long, involved chain of events, I found myself in possession of both a new copy of  Ways of Seeing by Jon Berger and Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry. I purchased them both at the same very small bookstore on a lovely afternoon of wandering about with my husband. Ah, winter break. Picking them both up at the same store was a happy coincidence that made me think about them together.

Anyway, I read Ways of Seeing decades ago and was reminded of it again last school year by a colleague. When I tried to find my copy at home, I couldn’t. So, it’s been on my mind recently as I’ve continued looking for it. Another colleague has been suggesting Syllabus, but her copy is also missing (as in she lent it to someone who keeps forgetting to return it). The two titles were already linked in their lostness, but I did not notice.

Well, now I have put them together as a new twisted pair. (Old twisted pair blogging challenge description)

I am part way through Syllabus and have begun rereading Ways of Seeing. They are certainly VERY different reading experiences; in fact, I really cannot overstate how different. Syllabus‘ pages are combinations of drawings, doodles, and handwritten text. The pages are colorful and lively. There is a lot of space to think and a lot of need to think about what is not being said. Ways of Seeing has images as well, but there is no shortage of words. As a reader, there is a lot of information coming at you in the words, rather than in the spaces.

However, I am also struck by their similarities. Although they are approaching the task from wildly different angles, both Barry and Berger are thinking about the interplay between words and images, seeing and drawing.

As I continue reading and rereading this twisted pair of books, I am getting so many ideas for ways to incorporate these ideas and habits into my English class. . .

Back to reading.


So, I’ve been thinking about EduCon again and sessions in general. What makes a workshop, session, speaker good?

20080702 cookbook 03I recall reading a description of one reviewer’s process of reviewing cookbooks. This reviewer and cook was going to be on a panel discussion about several cookbooks. He described a conversation he had with another panelist in advance of the discussion. The other panelist asked him how many recipes he had tried from the cookbook in question and if he didn’t think it was critical to have tested most of the recipes. What the reviewer explained was that he was looking for inspiration. He gave an example: since there was a good-looking recipe for lamb stew, he made a lamb stew. He didn’t have or like some of the ingredients so he did something else, it brought back certain fond family memories, he enjoyed the stew, and was planning to speak positively about the cookbook. (I am so sorry I don’t have the reference to this. I did look, but it is probably several years old at this point. My best guess is that it was either in the NewYorker Magazine or the New York Times. If this rings a bell for anyone, let me know and I will put in a link.)

The memory of this article popped back up in my head recently. I have been thinking about EduCon and what I got out of each session. I didn’t take many notes this year, and I was thinking about this, wondering if that was a bad sign. But I’m a glass half full person. I’m putting a possitive spin on this because I think it was a totally worthwhile event for me.

I am going with the cookbook review plan I mentioned above. I arrived at the conference, looked through the not-glossy handout of sessions, which I had already looked at online, and attended many different sessions. Like my unnamed cookbook reviewer, I sometimes came to a session because of a familiar sound to a topic and then found I lacked some ingredients I would need to use the recipe being described. But, it’s my job to take inspiration from these other teachers’ work, look around at my ingredients, and create my own version.

For example, I attended a session by Diana Laufenberg (@DLaufenberg), Zac Chase (@mrchase), and Rosalind Echols about an interdisciplinary unit they were teaching in high school at SLA. (Watch Diana’s TEDx talk.) I loved the maps tool that Diana showed that had links to all the students projects, I appreciated the spirit of adventure and risk taking that Rosalind displayed with her science fiction idea. I was heartened to hear about the time it took for the three of them to work together before they were comfortable enough with each other, their school model, and their students to attempt this level of collaboration. I am still thinking about some of the things they talked about. And, I teach neither high school nor science.

I also attended Yoon Soo Lim (@DoremiGirl), Kyle Pace (@KylePace) Elizabeth Peterson (@eliza_peterson), and Michelle Baldwin (@Michellek107) session about arts integration. I don’t teach art or music perse. I do talk about art in my social studies class (I like to dust off that art history major every once in a while). I got to see Michelle’s drumming circle, hear about Yoon’s choir and setting the constitution to music, and talk to others about the many challenges to true subject integration. Not only did these educators share their ideas, they also shared their desire to be included in the regular Ed classroom, their interest in being incorporated into the larder grade level planning. It made me think about not just the number of times I connect with my specialist subject colleagues but the way I do it. Do I just expect them to support my content? Am I seeking cooperation or true collaboration?

Cookbooks, or at least the ones I buy, also have beautiful pictures and sometimes I like simply to look at the ideal images of meals I know I will never make myself. It’s pure eye-cany and all about the unreal and the imaginary. There is something to be said for this kind of workshop session as well. Sometimes the presentation is ideas and discussion that goes well beyond the scope of my classroom. For me, that’s great too. I love a good sweeping, big-idea discussion that lets me think about what I would do if I got to be queen of everything education. An hour well-spent at a conference or unconference does not have to be about anything practical.

So I got to see all different lamb stews, or veggie casseroles if you prefer. Now, it’s up to me to make my version. I can take a little from here, a little from there, look at the raw ingredients at hand, consider what I can get a hold of, dream big and plan small. Not only does what I create not have to be the version I saw, it can’t be that version. I’m making it.

Photo by jspatchwork licensed under creative commons.