Connecting the Dots: Interdisciplinary Planning in Action

By Kieff, Judith | Childhood Education, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Connecting the Dots: Interdisciplinary Planning in Action


Kieff, Judith, Childhood Education


This Idea--Sparker was contributed by James A. Bryant, Jr., Assistant Professor at the University of New Orleans.

One of the most important functions of a teacher is to help students make important connections between the subject matters they study. Too often, the different curricular subjects, such as social studies, language arts, math, and science, are presented to students in a vacuum. Accordingly, many students leave school without ever noticing the vital relationships among all areas of knowledge.

Interdisciplinary planning is a great tool for confronting this challenge. There are well-known drawbacks to such planning, of course. These include the time it takes to plan across the curriculum, the need for faculty colleagues who are willing to cooperate, and the constant schedule interruptions for nonacademic activities such as pep rallies or assemblies. Even teachers fortunate enough to have common planning periods know that time is the biggest single obstacle to true and effective interdisciplinary planning. Still, the positive effects of such planning on student learning and understanding make it well worth the teachers' efforts.

Below is a lesson I did while teaching 6th-grade social studies in North Carolina. My class was studying Vietnam, and it seemed like a good chance for some interdisciplinary work. I was fortunate to work in an environment that allowed for team teaching and provided the 6th-grade team with a common planning period. My five colleagues and I spent approximately one month planning for one day's instruction; this was time extremely well spent. During that school day, the 6th-graders were completely immersed in the topic of Vietnam and the Vietnam War. They learned how each subject was connected to the others, and the vacuum, at least for that one day, was dispelled. Each period lasted 50 minutes.

Social Studies:

During the 50 minutes I had with the students, we discussed the political aspects of the Vietnam War. The students were separated into groups of about five to read two different accounts of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The groups were then assigned roles as United States senators and were given a position in favor of or opposed to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This took about 30 minutes. The final 10 minutes were spent debating the resolution, culminating in a vote to determine whether or not the class would have approved the resolution. Although positions were assigned for the debate, students were allowed to vote according to their own opinion and conscience. Some of the books I used as resources for researching this lesson were:

* The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam

* The Living and the Dead by Paul Hendrickson

* When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip

* We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway

* The Complete Idiot's Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod (despite the unfortunate title, this book has an excellent synopsis of the Vietnam conflict and is particularly useful to teachers hardpressed for time).

Math:

In their math class, the students were introduced to some basic concepts of statistics and how numbers were often used to justify the war in Vietnam, particularly in an effort to convince the American public that the U.S. military was "winning." Students listened to brief audio clips of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon assuring the public that the war was being won by the United States. The students discussed the concept of "body counts," and why this could be a misleading indicator of military success. Their math teacher drew comparisons to the Civil War, showing that the North lost more men than the South in many battles, but still went on to final victory. Finally, a piece from McNamara's book In Retrospect was given to the students to take home and think about; the paragraph dealt with the misuse and misunderstanding of statistics by U. …

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