Creating meaningful learning experiences through language arts and mathematical connections
Examining the Evidence
For centuries, traditional American schooling has taken place in isolated silos of math, language arts, science, and social studies. However, once entering the workforce, students find that the increasingly global and interconnected world does not discriminate between disciplines. Artists, athletes, and authors require problem-solving and computational skills as much as engineers, entrepreneurs, and electricians depend on the skills of strong and effective communication. To develop citizens who are well-equipped to consider and analyze current world issues, we draw upon interdisciplinary learning to ” … expand student understanding and achievement between all disciplines [and] enhance communication skills” (Jones, 2009).
Current educational research has given rise to STEM and STEAM initiatives across the nation. Along with these initiatives, project-based learning and service learning are essential components of a middle school student’s education. However, language arts and mathematics have historically been areas with little overlap. As middle school educators, we must find meaningful connections between disciplines to emphasize the truly integrated nature of our world. Unfortunately, little to no training is provided for a language arts and mathematics (LAM) program.
This article combines research-proven concepts of project-based learning with new collaborations between two disciplines whose partnership is typically overlooked. Ultimately, our goal is to create, implement, measure, and sustain a math and language arts interdisciplinary program that meets these goals.
How to Start
The easiest way to begin a cross-curricular collaboration is by examining the school’s vision, grade-level themes, and current projects teachers have already developed within their disciplines. Through purposeful reflection, common themes and areas of overlap can be determined. A math project may have communication, reading, and writing components, whereas a language arts project may have the potential for rich mathematical understanding. In our case, the math teacher engaged the students in an annual budgeting project while the language arts teacher conducted a business-themed unit. These two projects showed clear overlap.
During the initial implementation at our school, we connected a study of Hoot by Carl Hiaasen with an analysis of environmental issues using ratios and proportions. The students read the novel and completed a writing assignment that sparked interest and further discussion of statistics in math class.
As our interdisciplinary explorations evolve, projects form from many aspects of student need. While novels may be the starting point for one unit, development of student character may be the beginning for another. Some units and projects are launched with student interest in mind, while others come from a specific academic need.
Language Arts Novels
Research consistently supports the fact that successful teachers of literacy provide their students with ample time to read and write. Guthrie and Humenick (2004) found that reading volume predicted reading comprehension, and that dramatic increases in reading volume are important for literacy proficiency. It is paramount that language arts students not only receive explicit reading instruction, but spend lots of time actually reading. According to Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth (2017) in A Guide to the Reading Workshop: Middle School Grades, by the time students are in middle school, two-thirds or more of their curriculum will be in content classes. Because language arts teachers carry the responsibility of supporting students in their transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn, we use class novels and nonfiction as the foundation for cross-curricular planning.
Once class novels are determined, we identify themes. During our study of The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis and No Place by Todd Strasser, students analyzed the factors that influence poverty and homelessness. More subtle themes included an understanding of identity and finding one’s own path and place of belonging. Once themes are identified, teachers can begin to think about how content can be taught through these big ideas.
The world of mathematics learning is changing. Gone are the days when timed tests, memorization, and quick recall are valued above all else. According to Jo Boaler (2015), “Real mathematics is about inquiry, communication, connections, and visual ideas. We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math. We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models, and communicate in different forms.”
Math topics at the middle school level are inherently connected to all other disciplines. Recognizing these connections within the classroom not only increases student engagement in the task, but also creates real-life connections that provide opportunities for students to solve problems.
Once themes of study are identified in the language arts classroom, we take inventory of which mathematical concepts connect to those themes. Percentages easily connect when studying poverty rates. Fractions can be practiced through baking for a homeless shelter. Geometry skills naturally connect to discussions and designs of dream homes. Integers and functions can be explored through a budgeting project. Integrating the themes into the math classroom connects learning between classes while providing experiences and simulations for student engagement.
Kids are surprisingly similar across the globe. Nonetheless, the social and emotional needs of students can vary depending on the school community, home and family support, socio-economic status, and other factors. Berkowitz and Bier note that, “(m)any of the American founders understood that education is vital for self-governance and the success of our form of representative democracy. Schools simply have to contribute to the formation of civic character if the nation is to survive” (2005). The incorporation of character development through an analysis of various perspectives and exposure to a variety of content is not only essential to developing global citizens but promotes academic learning.
Evaluate what the kids need. Consider the experiences they do not encounter on a regular basis and formulate projects that expose them to these life moments. For example, while poverty and homelessness is a relatively unfamiliar experience for many students, it is an issue to which they must be exposed in order to be agents of change in the future. Do the students need leadership development? Consider a partnership with younger students. Do the students need a lesson in kindness and compassion? Perhaps a partnership with a local organization or a trip to a food pantry could open their eyes to an unseen world.
Pokemon Go, SnapMap, bottle flipping, fidget spinners, escape rooms, and basketball. The games and activities our students are interested in can connect to curriculum with some foresight and planning. We use these activities as a vehicle for learning deeper concepts. For example, through a study of identity, students created personal Pokemon characters and used math review concepts to capture each other’s Pokemon across the school’s campus. Students enjoyed a school basketball game as they studied percentages and wrote feature articles about the players and coaches. If teachers can capitalize on current fads and transfer them to the classroom, learning engagement will skyrocket.
We would be remiss if we did not address the fact that student interests change year to year, month to month, and sometimes day to day. The nature of student interests, along with the fluctuation in emotional, social, and academic needs, requires that projects, simulations, and experiences change, or be adjusted, with each new group of students.
Project One: A Study of Poverty
This interdisciplinary LAM unit project begins with the theme of “poverty and homelessness” derived from the novels The Mighty Miss Malone and No Place. Studying this topic gives the students a chance to dive into an important social issue. Connections to ratios and proportions in mathematics allow students to analyze data and statistics that connect to the stories being read in language arts class. This study spans two and a half weeks of math class and four weeks of language arts.
Language Arts Assignments
- The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis, novel study
- No Place by Todd Strasser, novel study
- Comparison of novels to current events – nonfiction reading strategies
- Definition of poverty and minimum wage
- Annotations, readings, discussions, and writing assignments concerning the following:
- Social, economic, and political factors that make up a novel’s setting (and our own environment)
- The connection between poverty and unemployment
- Race and poverty
- Factors that perpetuate poverty
- Cost-of-living for basic needs and the implications
- Analysis of graphic representations of poverty by location
- Study of local median annual incomes
- Calculations of minimum wage
- Finding unit rates to compare income by race
- Proportional reasoning to determine number of people in poverty
- Fractional modeling to bake cookies for a food pantry
- Scale drawings to build a home for those in need
Project Two: Business and Budgets
This simulation is a quarter-long experience in which students use design thinking, collaboration, and experimentation to budget for a family, adopt an egg baby, obtain a “job,” create a product, pitch their idea to “sharks,” market their products, and produce and “sell” their creations. Unlike the poverty simulation, this experience begins with student interest, the social need to expose students to the difficulties of budgeting, and the need to connect learning to real-world experiences. This connection allows students to see possible applications of their learning that could be useful in their future. In math, students explore functions, percentages, and integers, while they utilize non-fiction writing, presentation skills, marketing techniques, and research skills in language arts.
Language Arts Assignments
- Cover letter and resume
- Business proposal
- Poetry for “egg baby”
- Comic strip story
- Shark tank presentation
- Commercial script
- Business and economics articles – nonfiction reading strategies
- Mission statement
- Letter of thanks
- Press release
- Response to complaint
- Calculation of salary and taxes
- Calculation of car payment, rent, monthly loan charges
- Calculation of cost of a child
- Coupon creation
- Cost analysis of business
- Comparison to minimum wage from poverty study
- Graphing daily balances on coordinate plane
- Find line of best fit
- Creation of circle graph to compare spending
- Analysis of profits and losses
Building connections across disciplines takes time and planning. One cannot only plan for the needs of their class; one must place an equal focus on the other teacher’s class and curriculum as well. Additionally, as unit projects or simulations occur, consistent check-ins, updates, and adjustments keep the experience both rich in academic value and implemented smoothly.
Tips and Tricks
Math teacher reads novels. It is vital that the mathematics teacher be aware of and well-versed in the novels and themes being discussed and studied in the language arts classroom. This allows for authentic communication and more clarity in the planning process.
Be flexible and communicate. To stay on track and adjust due to student ideas, we update a Google Doc each day with what was accomplished and where we need to go next. This allows each teacher to be aware of the status of the other discipline and make adjustments where necessary.
Set deadlines. Prior to beginning the project, teachers need to decide which assignments have strict deadlines and which are more flexible. Prioritizing the assignments that have a direct effect on the other discipline allows each teacher to continue progressing through the project/simulation.
Use math content to guide pacing. To authentically connect projects to curriculum, the language arts teacher must allow the math content to guide the pace. Students need time to explore math content prior to diving into tough discussions that require analysis.
Kids take the lead. It’s important to allow students to guide the experience. If a student takes the project in a new direction, let him or her. We often find that these are the most valuable moments within a project.
Introduce projects together. Introducing projects as a team tells the students that the teachers value
Communicate with parents. Emphasizing that parents can contact both teachers with questions or concerns is helpful when dealing with any issues that arise. This also allows parents to feel connected as their child experiences learning in a way that may be different than what the parent is used to.
Be sure to differentiate. With projects, simulations, and the use of design thinking and iteration, students’ needs can be met through individualized studies and depth of analysis.
Don’t force it. If it doesn’t fit, it’s ok. Not all units connect well. Aim for authentic experiences.
Keep anecdotal records of student discussion and “aha” moments. These reminders will help with planning and adjusting of projects in future years.
Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. (2005, February). What works in character education. Retrieved from http://www.character.org/uploads/PDFs/
Boaler, J. (2015, May 7). Memorizers are the lowest achievers and other Common Core math surprises. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/memorizers-are-the-lowest-
Calkins, L., & Ehrenworth, M. (2017). A guide to the reading workshop: Middle school grades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Guthrie, J., & Humenick, N. (2004). Motivating students to read: Evidence for classroom practices that increase reading motivation and achievement. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 329-354). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Jones, C. (2009). Interdisciplinary approach – advantages, disadvantages, and the future benefits of interdisciplinary studies. ESSAI, 7 (Article 26), 76-81. Retrieved from http://dc.cod.edu/cgi/