The Best Response to a Rigid Curriculum
Like many of our education colleagues around the country, we have struggled with the constraints brought on by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, initially seeing its demands for consistency as the enemy of classroom creativity and innovation. Like several of our fellow teachers, we viewed the law’s directives as threats likely to suck every shred of imagination out of our instruction. But as we persisted in our work, we discovered that we could meet the challenges posed by the law with a powerful tool honed during our collective 37 years in education: collaborative teaching. In fact, we now believe that working together creatively is the only way to meet the ambitious goals of NCLB and state and district standards.
It is collaborative teaching that enabled us to draw on our individual and group strengths, divide work into manageable chunks, and conquer the obstacles of overloaded curriculum frameworks and high-stakes tests, all while holding ourselves accountable for results. Our collaborative efforts at Dutchtown Middle School in Geismar, La., also led to our selection as the first team ever to win the Disney Teacher of the Year award. While grateful for the honor and the professional opportunities that followed, we were most excited by being nationally recognized for our efforts as an interdisciplinary partnership.
The centerpiece of our collaborative teaching had always been showing students how the concepts and skills they learn in one class relate to all the others—and why those ideas matter. Although we’d been planning our classroom units for years, the process became much more difficult when our district adopted the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum outlining what content students had to learn in each subject and the specific weeks in which we had to teach those concepts. We were pretty sure this rigid curriculum framework would spell the end of our interdisciplinary units, but once we rolled up our sleeves and started working with the state documents, we found that the opposite was true. Not only could we continue to create these units, we could improve them. Ironically, the inflexible curriculum helped us see the wisdom of making our lessons even more tightly focused and connected.
The more we studied the documents, the more obvious it became that, in designing our interdisciplinary units, we could no longer hide behind “fluffy” activities with vague intentions. If we wanted to successfully address our individual class requirements while also showing students how the ideas from one course applied to others, we had to truly understand those connections ourselves. So we immersed ourselves in extensive curriculum mapping, looking for opportunities to build bridges from subject to subject. The process pushed us to think hard about which concepts to connect and when. The standards even provided guidance on how to pull these ideas together, by identifying universal themes—freedom, citizenship, communication—that cut across all subject areas and can capture the attention of middle-grades students at an age when they are intensely curious about the world and how they can affect it.
But as we gathered that summer before the first school year with the new curricula, to spend time planning lessons and to sketch out the key themes of our interdisciplinary units, we made a horrifying discovery: We realized that our integrated units could no longer be neatly packaged and planned weeks in advance. If we intended to integrate, we saw that we would have to be flexible and move in and out of each other’s territory as the various curricula allowed.
Fortunately, our school’s administrators arranged our schedules to provide us with a daily 90-minute common planning session to fine-tune the units throughout the year, and to allow us time to deal with all the other classroom-management issues that arise on a team. Through this collaboration, we created some wonderful examples of interdisciplinary units.
Using the standard of citizenship as a foundation, for example, we identified civil rights as a benchmark common to several subjects. We focused on U.S. Supreme Court cases addressing the topic, such as Brown v. Board of Education, and we studied Witness, Karen Hesse’s free-verse youth novel about prejudice and the struggle for equality in the 1920s. Language arts and science lessons expanded on the book’s use of perspective as a narrative device, showing how different viewpoints can alter information and conclusions. And by adding in role-playing, primary-source research, court cases related to the Bill of Rights, connections to current events, and probability and statistics, we had the makings of a dynamic unit that ensured the standards made sense to students.
Similarly, by unpacking a history benchmark focusing on the economic impact of piracy in the 19th century, we were able to create an interdisciplinary unit that drew in statistical scatter plots, linear and nonlinear functions, Internet research, plagiarism, and scientific data collection. We also met curricular objectives by teaming up The War of the Worlds, coordinate planes, outer-space learning stations, and science fiction for another exciting exploration of content connections across classrooms.
Over and over again, students’ insights and academic progress showed us we were on the right track. As one student blurted out in class one day, “Everything is related to something on this team!”
Collaborative teaching encourages the elimination of sacred cows. Anyone on the team is entitled to offer ideas and feedback about any part of the curriculum. On our team, Amanda, a math teacher, was comfortable espousing the key themes of the American Revolution. Monique, an English teacher, could insist that metaphors have a place in math problems. And, with her background in special education, Kathryn often reminded us to incorporate multisensory learning.
Interdisciplinary units are not easy to plan or to teach. There’s no question that all our lives would have been simpler if we had just bent to state and district requirements and taught the curriculum in a lock-step sequence. We wouldn’t have had to work so hard to find extra materials, create connections, or change our plans because a colleague suggested a better approach. But then we would have lost a valuable asset: our students’ interest. It was through our teamwork that we created cross-curricular links to show students how ideas and topics connected across subjects and throughout their lives. Together, we were able to drive the point home through fluid, relevant lessons that went beyond the basics.
For any individual teacher trying to address every curricular objective and still cycle back to the broader standards of learning, there will never be enough time in the day or the school year to finish. But with teamwork, and some creativity, teachers can work together to integrate and reinforce important concepts from all subjects, showing students that learning is recursive, related, and really, really cool.
Vol. 27, Issue 38, Pages 26-27