Academic journal article English Journal

"To Be English, Math, and History": A Multidisciplinary Project for Students and Teachers

Academic journal article English Journal

"To Be English, Math, and History": A Multidisciplinary Project for Students and Teachers

Article excerpt

As I write this article, my colleagues and I (Nancy) have just completed an experiment. In June 2012, teach- ers at my school from different dis- ciplines were encouraged to find ways to integrate our courses, to "work smarter," and to allow our students to do the same. Many of us have dabbled in interdisciplinary or cross-curricular activities be- fore. In this case, the challenge was to find a way to blend more than two subjects and ensure that all subject-area teachers involved felt that a significant number of their required learning outcomes would be met through whatever activity or process we en- visioned. Our discussions were animated, thought- provoking, and full of potential. Summer came and went and despite the busy-ness of the fall, I was still intrigued and determined enough to want to create something real from those fascinating "what if' dialogues. Happily, both my peers and my ad- ministrators supported my request for 40 minutes of collaborative work time.

Two mathematics teachers and two English teachers met face to face, while the two social stud- ies teachers involved participated later via individ- ual conversations and group email. Though both the English teachers and social studies teachers had long required their grade 12 students to produce research papers, one mathematics teacher was faced with a new addition to the British Columbia Ministry of Education prescribed learning outcomes (requiring either a research paper, researched presentation, or both), while Bruce McAskill's Pre-Calculus Math- ematics 12 course encourages the use of group work and projects for assessments. Because of earlier dis- cussions, and informal one-on-one conversations prior to our meeting, we were all prepared to strat- egize together, coming to the table with a mindset I like to refer to as "open-minded grace." We wanted this to work, and we wanted to be able to offer our students a way to craft one extremely thoughtful, well-written research paper. We were all ready to put into action what Howard Gardner, in his Mul- tiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, has advocated for teachers of all subjects for decades: "the useful- ness of rich and engaging projects and the desir- ability of that systematic cast of thought involved in reflecting upon one's work" (153). We wanted students to think deeply about the ideas and skills highlighted in at least two of the three subject areas and we wanted to give them significant incentive to find where their ideas, questions, habits of mind, and academic skills best intersected.

Sadly, seeking commonalities between and among subjects has not always been a dominant part of a school's academic landscape. Historically, at our school, as students went about writing their individual essays for each discipline, social stud- ies teachers would mention that "the strategies you've learned in English about thesis statements, outlining, or transitions will help you construct a good history paper too," while we English teachers would emphasize that clarity of thought, effective quotations, and logical arguments would impress history teachers as well. Did our students make the- matic connections and use appropriate skills across the disciplines? None of us really knew. Beyond a few offhand comments in the staff room ("Students really struggle with semicolons, don't they?"), we teachers had no knowledge of what kind of writing our students produced in other courses.

Enter our experiment. Even though we were all onside, there were difficulties. One of the chal- lenges, some might even say one of the risks, of moving to a multidisciplinary assignment was figuring out a way to acknowledge, yet also effec- tively work through, the fact that "[dfifferent do- mains of knowledge, such as science, mathematics, and history, have different organizing properties" (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 237). Teachers and students alike were going to have to be very clear about the expectations of each component of the multidisciplinary paper, how each element might be perceived differently (and therefore assessed dif- ferently) by each receiving teacher, and even what the overall flavor of this paper should be. …

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