Teaching students broader concepts using an interdisciplinary approach promotes more authentic experiences and broader learning. Laura Duerr, author of the Spring 2008 Educational Horizons article, "Interdisciplinary Instruction, Educational Horizons," notes that students also become more involved learners and are able to remove the imaginary discipline lines across subjects, allowing for deeper connections.
What's more, significant statistical research shows that students who are taught using interdisciplinary approaches develop stronger higher-order and critical-thinking skills and are able to apply those skills to other units of study. Julie Anne Taylor, in her February 2008 History Teacher article, "From the Stage to the Classroom: The Performing Arts and Social Studies," concludes that this approach may broaden students' understanding and appreciation of other cultures.
In our sixth grade class at the United Nations International School (UNIS) in New York, we created an interdisciplinary unit in math, humanities, and English, weaving in concepts and skills to provide our students with the many educational benefits of this approach while teaching social justice and global awareness.
Through the Humanities Lens
Students studied the experiences of people around the world who live below the poverty line.
At UNIS, developing globally aware students is a priority. One of the central strands in the humanities curriculum asks students to explore and appreciate different countries' geographic, political, economic, cultural, and societal structures to promote greater awareness of their world. In their exploration, students seek not only to learn the facts, but question and challenge information learned. Through this investigative process, our students learn about the significant inequity and injustices in the world.
Last year, our students were particularly interested in other populations' lack of access to various resources such as food, water, education, freedom, and a living wage, and the discrepancies of such access around the world. Students studied the minimum wage in different countries and learned about the experiences of those who lived below the poverty line. They investigated global economic and social issues affecting diverse populations in various countries using these essential questions to guide their thinking:
- What are the limiting factors affecting people's growth?
- How do the data we collected clearly show the struggle that people face each day to survive and lift themselves from poverty?
- Does everyone have equal opportunities to gain employment?
They also explored initiatives by organizations and people to help make incremental changes and make resources more accessible.
During this year-long study, students chose a country they were interested in studying, researched an inequity experienced by the people of that country, and learned about efforts to reduce that inequity.
Throughout the project, they refined their research skills by collecting data, reviewing authenticity of information and sites researched, and synthesizing information. They strengthened their comprehension and critical reading and analysis skills by using active and close-reading strategies.
Through the Math Lens
We linked mathematical concepts of ratios, decimals, and percentages to students' exploration of global inequities. For example, they gained a deeper understanding of what it means when 80% of a population lacks proper health care by creating real-life scenarios that illustrated that in our classroom of 25 students, at least 20 would not have access to doctors and medical treatment.
Through the math lens, they explored the essential questions for their chosen country, sharing statistical information through self-created graphs and charts that explained the significance of the issue. Students broke information into relevant chunks so they could better understand the often complex and abstract statistics through the context of their own lives. In this way, they showed their understanding of ratios, decimals, and percentages.
Through the English Lens
In English, students strengthened their literacy skills, including comprehension, writing, close reading, and presentation skills, through the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) framework.
In this framework, students take charge of their learning using self-reflection, goal setting, personalization, and differentiation. Teachers provide students with exemplars and model processes. They show students how to engage in close-reading strategies to strengthen their comprehension; systematically use the writing process to express their knowledge clearly; and strengthen their presentation skills by learning and practicing engaging techniques.
For example, our students pre-assessed their presentation skills by recording themselves giving a presentation, then having their presentations evaluated by themselves, peers, and teachers using a rubric. Subsequently, they read articles about giving effective presentations and watched exemplars on Ted Talk and YouTube to further develop their presentation skills as well as their comprehension strategies.
Putting It All Together
Students took charge of their learning using self-reflection, goal setting, and personalization.
Students shared their researched information on their chosen country, highlighting and analyzing one inequity by researching and analyzing statistics and clearly communicating the information using charts and graphs. They also discussed the relevant social implications of the lack of access to the resource and specific remediation efforts. Students created a PowerPoint presentation and shared their information with the other sixth grade and fourth grade students.
Learning the facts about inequity around the world proved unsettling. The students wanted to take action and make a difference We collaborated as a class and created the Give to Give initiative. Students encouraged the middle school community to give up a luxury item or treat and donate the money saved to a cause the third graders at UNIS were working with: Silent Tapes: 50 kids/50 cameras (http://silenttapes.com/projects/np/50-kids-50-cameras).
Students shared their researched information about their country, highlighting one inequity.
This organization was raising money to create a community center for the young children in the favelas in Fortaleza, Brazil. Using their writing skills, the sixth graders also published and sold an anthology of stories to support the cause.
Service-learning educator Cathy Berger Kaye encourages teachers to link units of study to service-learning but cautions teachers to have the service component come naturally from the content or concepts being taught. The idea that the rigorous learning opportunities should come first is central to her framework. This is what naturally emerged at UNIS.
Through their learning, students were inspired to make a difference in the world around them.
Success required close collaboration. Well before the unit began, we identified the most effective places for us to collaborate and sketched out a plan. We met regularly to troubleshoot, share ideas to deepen students' experiences, revise our plan, and celebrate positive experiences.
When we embarked on this collaboration, we did not know what the full outcome would be. We knew that our students would have a richer, more authentic experience through which they would be able to strengthen their skills. What occurred was even more profound: The students were inspired by their learning to create a grassroots movement to inspire change and serve others; partner with other, younger members of the school community; and realize their global impact in this world.
Pooja Patel is a middle school learning specialist at the United Nations International School in New York and an adjunct instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the co-author of
Using Formative Assessment to Differentiate Middle School Literacy Instruction (Corwin 2012).
Kevin Toledo is a middle school mathematics and science teacher at the United Nations International School in New York, and a graduate of the mathematics leadership program at Bank Street College of Education in New York City.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, January 2016.