Teachers as Web Developers: Making Cross-Curricular Instruction More Efficient
We live in a world where efficiency is key, and we have become increasingly more dependent on technology to multitask. We create grocery lists as we check our email. We scan Facebook to keep track of our many friends and loved ones. We are more and more reliant on online shopping to get all the things we need.
Efficiency is just as important in our professional lives. So I wanted to use technology to make teaching and learning at my middle school easier. With the help of colleagues, I created a cross-curricular “one-stop shop”—a single website for teachers and students to access instructional resources from across the curriculum.
Here are a few details about the website and some inspiration for creating a similar learning project at your school to make students’ and teachers’ lives more efficient.
I started this project to address some recurring needs of students and teachers in our school:
- An online space for teachers to collaborate. So often we get overwhelmed by meeting the needs of the 150 bodies that pass through our classrooms every day that we have no idea what’s going on in their other classes. Teachers needed a single shared space to track activities and content in other classes and view colleagues’ lesson plans.
After getting approval from our principal, a few social studies and literacy teachers worked together to create units for an interdisciplinary website. The units had similar content and themes but were not duplicative. For example, the social studies teachers created a human rights unit, while the literacy teachers focused on the Holocaust. We also created a calendar that showed important deadlines for each class.
- Share common resources. A single website allowed us to easily share cross-curricular resources and mini-lessons. For example, instead of having to recreate lessons on topic sentences or finding the main idea, teachers could go online to find materials, supplements, and instructional videos used by other teachers. Putting these resources online helped us collaborate around common expectations for reading and writing.
In addition to helping teachers share resources, this website helped students make connections between classes and develop cross-content skills. “Oh, topic sentences? Yeah! We did that in literacy class. And here is the video link that will remind me how to write one.”
- Provide students with 24/7 instruction. Teachers posted instructional videos that students could watch if they were absent or needed a refresher at home. Students could rewind, replay, pause, and work at their own pace.
Teachers could also use the website to individualize instruction. For example, if a student didn’t need to learn about topic sentences but needed instruction on transition words, the teacher or student could easily access the appropriate resource on the website without having to dig through a file cabinet in search of a worksheet.
Once the website was up and running, our group of teachers got together to discuss the pros and cons of the project and to survey students. Here are some of our takeaways:
- Technology and training limitations. Only two groups of teachers, our social studies and literacy teachers, were able to work on the project. None of us received any formal training on website creation. But we allowed ourselves to try new things, knowing that if something didn’t work well, we had the freedom to try something else.
There are a number of website-creation platforms available, but because our district preregisters every student and teacher with a Google account, I began there. I used Google Sites as a housing place for all of our class activities. We quickly learned that we could easily post documents for assignments, create forms for quizzes and surveys, and add instructional videos. It also turned out to be easy for students to turn in their assignments via the website.
- Student outcomes. Overall, the outcome of the project was extremely successful. In a survey of our 8th grade students, 81 percent of them found it useful to have social studies and literacy content on the same page, and 95 percent of them liked the idea of an interdisciplinary website. Perhaps the most significant finding was that 93 percent of the students felt that the website helped prepare them for high school.
- Improved collaboration. The project created a more efficient, virtual collaborative space for teachers. We were better informed about other teachers’ lessons. We shared materials rather than recreating them. And we even reduced some teachers’ workloads by eliminating substitute lesson plans since substitutes could refer to the website. We still aren’t where we need to be with collaboration at my school; all teachers need more time to talk and create tools together. But the website is a step in the right direction.
Considerations for the future
The path for this project was not always smooth, and we identified a number of significant challenges:
- Student access to technology (inside and outside of school). Most students had relatively little trouble accessing the Internet from home. They also used their cell phones to engage with the website. (One of my favorite moments was when two students worked together on their literacy homework at a volleyball game, using their phones.) However, our school does not actually allow students to use their cell phones during class. And while our social studies and literacy classes had access to some outdated netbooks with questionable batteries, students’ access to the site at school was limited once they left those classes for the day.
- Managing behavior in the 21st century. Many teachers and schools don’t have policies in place for students who misuse technology. Often, our first instinct is to take the technology away, but that removes the tools for learning. Students have been misusing pencils and paper for years—but we don’t automatically take away their notebooks and pencil bags. We need to find a better solution for students who step outside the boundary of what’s acceptable within the classroom.
- Move technology to the forefront of professional development. My colleagues and I had the latitude to experiment with technology, but in order to move online learning projects to a larger scale, training must be provided to all teachers.
Expanding the classroom walls to make teaching and learning more efficient is vital. However, it remains an uphill climb. There are a million new district initiatives every year that require their own professional development, not to mention unstable teaching staff due to turnover. Expanding curricula to include multiple subjects requires a dedicated commitment from administration both within schools and at the district level.
Interdisciplinary online learning has positively influenced how I teach and how my students learn. For me, there’s no turning back!