Even though teachers work in different rooms and on different hallways, our individual subject areas should not be viewed as existing within rigid instructional walls.
Middle level educators need to engage in collegial conversations and co-create learning experiences with team members to help develop more cohesive, integrated experiences for students. In middle level schools—where the team model continues to flourish—teachers and students have an opportunity to make connections across the imaginary boundaries of content areas.
This article shares our collaborative approaches to developing integrated learning experiences that helped teachers and students build bridges—both figuratively and literally.
Poetry Across Content Areas
AMLE talks with authors Jason and Christie DeHart about Integrated Curriculum in the Middle Grades
As English teachers, one area that has allowed for a great deal of creativity in our classrooms has been the use of poetry to connect to vocabulary instruction in science, history, and math.
One particular activity required eighth grade students to use summaries of historical people who were significant to the colonization of the United States to create found poems. Found poetry consists of taking phrases and words located in other resources and using those words and phrases to create a poem.
The use of this kind of poetry method engages visual learners, students who enjoy creative outlets, and those who may have trouble comprehending large texts. Creating found poems also allows learners to focus on important words and phrases to create meaning instead of reading and trying to comprehend large pieces of text in one chunk.
As the domain-specific vocabulary needs of middle school increase, having a memorable format like poetry can help students transition into the next steps of their learning after elementary concepts are developed, and then use these terms and texts to tackle the next steps in their learning.
Integrated approaches to teaching and learning should also include opportunities for student collaboration. Working with peers promotes the development of the class as a learning community as well as students' leadership and communication skills.
One middle level team chose to restructure classes and engage students in a bridge-building activity that included groups of students who did not necessarily have classes together.
This project had four phases:
Phase One: The research phase of this project required students to use skills developed during language arts and social studies classes to read and analyze primary and secondary sources related to designing and constructing bridges.
Phase Two: The proposal and design phase consisted of students making small models of their bridges using concepts of scale as well as scientific concepts of the engineering and design process.
Phase Three: The creation and testing phase provided opportunities for students to use found materials—such as newspapers, construction paper, and magazines—to construct bridges and test the ability of their larger model to withstand a preset amount of weight.
Phase Four: The reflection phase involved a process in which students analyzed the different phases of the project, identified ways to improve the design and construction of their bridges, and communicated their understanding of the content.
Middle level students benefit from team-oriented approaches to learning that encourage students to contribute to the group's success as well as individual development.
Science and Propaganda Through Time
We implement a propaganda project that requires students to use advertising techniques and argumentative writing—content that is traditionally taught in English/language arts classes—during this project that involves the creation of an advertisement to "sell" a historic product.
Students select a scientist from a list provided by the teacher. Students then locate and read information about the scientist and the scientist's invention, discovery, and body of work. They also need to determine the influence of the scientist's work during that time period.
Helping students develop research and thinking skills is critical as they work on their writing skills that extend beyond narrative compositions. The explanatory and argument writing standards, prevalent in middle level schools and high schools, require a different kind of writing, a new approach to reading and thinking about texts.
Primary and Secondary Sources with "Smithsonian Boxes"
Middle level students enjoy hands-on learning experiences where they can touch, feel, and closely examine objects.
The "Smithsonian Boxes" learning experience was inspired by the desire to help students connect social studies and language arts content while also focusing on primary and secondary sources, analytical skills, and hands-on learning.
Sixth grade students participated in this activity during their studies of Ancient Egypt. The teacher compiled examples of primary sources such as ancient jewelry fragments, ancient Egyptian coins, and ancient scrolls. Each item was sealed in taped plastic bags to create the feeling that the documents were authentic and needed to be protected. On the outside of each bag were detailed descriptions of the artifacts and how they were used in ancient life.
Also collected were secondary sources related to Ancient Egypt, such as a screen-shot of a website, a leveled reader, and a newspaper article about an archaeology dig. All materials were duplicated and placed in plastic bins for teams of students to examine.
The teacher began by stating that "Smithsonian" had sent boxes of artifacts and other materials related to Ancient Egypt for them to examine. The teacher then explained how students would work in their teams to examine each artifact and document, read about each piece, and decide if it was a primary or secondary source.
Once they decided if the item was primary or secondary, they then had to use textual evidence in the form of a quotation or paraphrase as evidence to support their claims. Students individually recorded their responses on a log sheet, yet worked together to analyze and discuss each piece.
The students' high levels of excitement and engagement during this experiment confirm that creating and implementing activities that promote active involvement and hands-on learning are beneficial.
The learning experiences and strategies offered in this article are "bridges" that teachers can implement to help students make connections within and across content areas. Activities that involve poetry, hands-on construction projects, and interactive discovery are a few methods teachers can use to increase student engagement and deepen learning.
Jason D. DeHart is a former language arts teacher. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in literacy studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. He also teaches graduate courses at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Christie DeHart is an eighth grade language arts teacher at Ocoee Middle School in Cleveland, Tennessee. She is the recipient of the Cliff Schimmels Excellent Performance Award.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2017.