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Tips for Planning Interdisciplinary Units in Middle School

By Sarah Henchey — April 17, 2012 3 min read

During my fifth year of teaching, my principal asked me to move from the 8th grade to the 6th grade. I suddenly became more aware of the range of students within a middle school: Some students still had baby teeth and believed in Santa while, one floor away, others were dangerously close to driving and shaving.

I soon realized that 6th graders needed more repetition and connectedness in their learning. Fresh from elementary school, where they’d spent most of the day with one teacher, they were not used to a patchwork curriculum in which class changes signified the boundaries between subjects.

I’d learned in my undergraduate coursework about how team-teaching could ease this transition, supporting students’ social and emotional needs via interdisciplinary instruction. I just hadn’t seen it in practice—until my principal arranged for a group of us to visit a nearby middle school.

The neighboring teachers shared the ups and downs of the process they had gone through to establish their interdisciplinary framework. They had faced challenges—but they were forthright about the impact their units had had on student learning and engagement.

Afterward, our 6th grade teachers committed to trying out one interdisciplinary unit by the end of the year. We stumbled through the planning and execution but learned a lot through our mini-experiment. This year, we vowed to make a more sustained commitment to interdisciplinarity—and we’ve already seen payoffs in the form of more intensive student engagement and better retention of knowledge.

Here are a few lessons we’ve learned:

Spread enthusiasm among your colleagues. You can’t do this on your own, so think carefully about the “pitch” you’ll make to your colleagues. Show them some examples of how collaboration can make a difference: Perhaps you could visit another school, view a video of successful collaboration, or discuss articles like this one. You may want to do some advance thinking about topics that really lend themselves to interdisciplinary teaching.

Consider starting small. Organizing and executing an interdisciplinary unit can be a daunting task. There are many ways to experiment with this concept without committing to a large unit. Consider skills or experiences that correspond with your students’ needs. For a few weeks, could your grade focus on analyzing informational texts or strategies for identifying unknown words in context? Is there a broad theme, such as “change” or “relationships,” that could be highlighted over the next month?

Set broad time frames. We’ve found it helpful to focus on incorporating the interdisciplinary focus over a broad period of time, like a nine-week grading period. This allows teachers the chance to thoughtfully weave the shared goals into their content area without feeling restricted by time.

Avoid superficial connections. While interdisciplinary units aim to help students make connections across contents, we want those links to be as purposeful and meaningful as possible. We try to not “force” overlap or expect that all teachers will approach it in the same way. Depending on the unit, one teacher may incorporate the shared content in three class periods while another may spend the majority of his class time focused on the interdisciplinary content.

Communicate early and often. In most schools, teacher planning time is stretched far too thin—but frequent communication is vital to creating an effective interdisciplinary unit. It can be difficult to find common planning time, but we’ve successfully used tools like Google Docs to communicate and provide updates. This pre-meeting work has allowed for productive use of our valuable face-to-face meeting time.

Celebrate success with students. Our own excitement around a unit directly translates into student engagement and buy-in. We’ve found ways to celebrate the hard work teachers and students have invested in our learning. For example, after a two-month exploration of Greek and Roman cultural legacies, we held a Classical Antiquities Week. Culminating events included Olympic Games and an evening called, “Party at the Parthenon,” where students shared their learning with their families.

Taking simple steps to making connections for students can go a long way in helping them to better understand and synthesize their learning. We’re hopeful to continue adding to our integrated units each year, allowing for more connected learning for students. What experiences have you had with interdisciplinary units? What tips would you add to the list above?

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