A Teaching Mosaic: Putting Together the Pieces of Interdisciplinary Instruction

It was a Monday morning, two short weeks before Mardi Gras and unusually chilly for the Crescent City. A gaggle of seventh graders had just begun to assault my classroom. In defense (or terror), I pulled a Jeb Stuart-like flanking maneuver and ducked into the faculty lounge/refuge. I desperately needed one last skyscraper-tall cup of chicory-infused Joe.

I wasn’t alone. Two other teachers waited impatiently at the “fountain of youth.” While hot Mississippi River water slowly filtered through old, cheap coffee grinds, we struck up a polite, albeit time-biding, conversation.

“So, what are y’all up to today?” I asked. (Note: I recognized my colleagues from down the hall, but sadly, had no idea what they actually taught.)

“A poetry unit,” said the woman at the front of the line, quickly turning back to the hypnotic pot.

“Black and white photography,” said the other.

“Hmmmmm,” I said. “We’re talking about the Civil Rights Movement in social studies. I have an idea.”

Four days and three meetings later, we had designed an interdisciplinary project. Our students would write poems about race, incorporating names, places, and events from real history. They would then illustrate the poems using their own digitally colorized black and white photographs. Selected works would be presented to the elementary students and published on the school’s website. We also developed a rubric and several assessments to make sure it wasn’t just a “feel-good” experiment.

As for the three of us (to paraphrase Bogart), “It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”

Today, unfortunately, relationships and projects like these are about as common as ivory-billed woodpeckers or clean elementary school bathrooms. Apart from a scant few coffee-induced, serendipitous flukes, they just don’t happen. This of course begs the questions “Why not” and “What can we do to better the odds?”

Where Would You Put It?

Comedian Steven Wright once quipped, “You can’t have everything; where would you put it?” He then admitted, “Yeah, it may be a small world, but I’d hate to have to paint it.” In the perilous and brave new world of No Child Left Behind (or Left Untested), teachers are being asked—no, compelled—to do just about everything, to cover it all, to paint the entire child. Telltale signs abound: increasingly large textbooks, massive curriculum guides, longer days, fewer breaks, more homework, cuts in the arts and in P.E., frantic teachers and bleary-eyed principals, and, my personal favorite, backpacks larger than the kids wearing them. (Obviously, that is where “everything” is being put!)

According to researcher Robert Marzano, “To cover all the standards, we’d have to expand school from K–12 to K–22!” Until then, what’s an educator to do?

Well, most teachers, like entrenched doughboys or cornered badgers, have responded by hunkering down for a protracted (and often futile) fight. They batten their doors, rally reluctant learners, and cram from bell to alarming bell—usually, all alone. As a result, collaboration, especially the interdisciplinary subspecies, teeters on the very brink of extinction.

To bring collaboration back and keep it around awhile, schools need to do five things: 1) “sell” the concept, 2) build the infrastructure, 3) map the operational curriculum, 4) tweak the results, and 5) celebrate the successes. You’ll find all of these in the following case study.

A Sudoku Curriculum

Samuel Ellis is addicted to Sudoku. Whenever he has spare time (and considering he’s a middle grades principal, not that often), he pulls out a puzzle book and scribbles furiously. The teachers affectionately refer to him as “Samurai Sam.” He even coaches an after-school Sudoku club. During faculty meetings, he can’t help but reference the game. “Every day is like a new puzzle,” he’ll say. “Ya walk into your classroom; scan the situation; ‘mark it up’ with your best, most logical strategies or moves; and then, as always, you analyze the ever-changing data.”

His favorite Sudoku analogy is for interdisciplinary instruction. “We offer nine classes. Can ya believe it? Nine classes! Our little effervescent monsters can hardly handle two! I got a call from a parent the other day. She was hysterical. Said her kid was slaving over five projects. Five projects! Ya know what that means? Five projects probably, no definitely, done by the parents at the very, very last minute! We gotta work this puzzle out. Consolidate. Bring those nine classes together into one square—two or three at the most. An integrated curriculum and interdisciplinary teaching, that’s what I’m talking about.”

For more than two years, he spread the gospel of interdisciplinary instruction. He wanted to make sure he was truly “preaching to the choir.” Whenever he had a soapbox—during meetings, via e-mail, on the school website—he invoked the most esteemed pontificators: Wiggins, Beane, Darling-Hammond, DuFour, Klein, George Lucas (Edutopia), and others.

Like Johnny Appleseed, he scattered germane buzzwords wherever he went: “We need to build a true professional learning community. Work smarter not harder. Put the right people on the bus and get ’em settled in the right seats. Give our kids real-world, hands-on experiences—21st century skills. Prepare them for an ever flattening world!” He beat the drum loudly and pumped his multicolored pom-poms.

He also made changes to what he called the school’s “I2 carrying capacity.” He set up study groups and had them read and discuss articles and books on interdisciplinary instruction. He recruited and hired teachers with experience in the practice and provided ongoing, high-quality on-site, professional development. He switched to a block schedule and creatively carved time for teams to meet and plan. He stockpiled resources and brought in a curriculum specialist. His most controversial move was to eliminate textbooks. He said, “I don’t want Pearson or McGraw-Hill telling us what to teach. We already have the standards.” (Warning: This caused a number of folks to get off the bus!)

Next, he had the teachers diary-map using Web-based software. He said, “We can’t exactly make connections unless we know where they live. Finding overlaps in content, skills, assessments, or resources has gotta be easy as pie. We need to be able to see, albeit virtually, what’s going on in each and every classroom.” Mapping the operational curriculum broke their dependency on “caffeinedipity”.

It’s What We Do

After several years of “front-end loading” the initiative, a teacher foolishly asked, “Are we done yet?” Followed by, “Now what?”

Samurai Sam quickly swung back, “Again, it’s not a program or a fad; it’s what we do. It’s how we teach and who we are! This is an ongoing, never-ending process—a lifelong commitment. Think: raising kids or trying to prevent male pattern balding. We’re always gonna be tweaking lessons, units, and projects, incorporating new technologies and adapting to changing kids and times.”

To back up the rhetoric, he implemented lesson study to fine-tune instruction. He even got a few teachers to experiment with peer review using video. He assembled data teams to do “CSI work”. “Our student performance scores should tell us what interdisciplinary units are working and which ones are, well, not.”

To keep the momentum going and the spirits high, he also made sure they celebrated successes often. They held project fairs, gallery walks, and portfolio parties, and they published student and teacher exemplary work on the school website as well as in the monthly newsletter. “Ya gotta dance a little self-congratulatory jig every now and again!” Sam exclaimed. He then added, “But don’t forget: every day, every class, every lesson is a brand new puzzle.”

A colleague of mine once described interdisciplinary instruction as a mosaic. He said, “You’ve got shards of this and splinters of that. Up close, it isn’t all that impressive. When you step back, though, you have a masterpiece.”

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2009

Folwell Dunbar is a former middle grades teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana. E-mail: fldunbar@cox.net