Teaching Books Collaboratively

By Amy Wickner — February 25, 2014 3 min read
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Collaborative teaching and multidisciplinary instruction meet close reading and analysis in the January 2014 issue of English Journal, subtitled “Interdisciplinary Synergy: Teaching and Learning in Collaboration.” Essays in the issue describe different teachers’ experiences designing and teaching themed lesson plans that follow ideas across media and subject areas. Several of these case studies explore how books may be taught as interdisciplinary texts.

“ ‘No Bamboozlement Here': Teaching Yann Martel’s Life of Pi across the Curriculum” by Steven H. Bills, Lisa Bond, and Janet Cascio

For these teachers — of high school English, math, and science, respectively — Life of Pi (Knopf Canada, 2001) is a Swiss Army knife of tools to engage many different kinds of students. With its many-layered representations of religious beliefs and behavior, text dense with literary allusions, and knowledgeable writing about tigers and other natural phenomena, the book lends itself to a wide variety of exploratory angles. It was made into a movie in 2013, transforming into another kind of “text” for students to analyze.

A table called the “Catalogue of Cross-Curricular Opportunities” is the centerpiece of this essay. In it, the authors point out opportunities for applying Life of Pi to instruction in everything from business and commerce to zoology. For each subject area, the catalogue gives a key quotation from the book, lists possible topics for students to discuss or research, and summarizes selected student work from the authors’ nine years of collaboratively teaching the book.

“Historical Fiction in English and Social Studies Classrooms: Is It a Natural Marriage?” by KaaVonia Hinton, Yonghee Suh, Lourdes Colón-Brown, and Maria O’Hearn

This essay looks closely at the four authors’ experiences in an online study group on disciplinary literacy — what literacy and literacy instruction look like in different content areas. Historical fiction emerged as a focal point for this group of English/language arts, history, and social studies teachers. Reading material consisted of research and theory on disciplinary literacy, along with several young-adult historical fiction titles as case studies,

The relationship between historical fiction and history is, naturally, complicated. In The Allure of the Archives (Yale University Press, 2013), a recently translated and republished meditation on primary-source research, historian Arlette Farge draws a line between “writing history” and writing historical fiction. She argues that the former can be a truer way to “bring history to life,” as characters in the latter are primarily the author’s creations — as they would be in any fiction.

Hinton and her co-authors are happy for their students to approach historical fiction as historical argument, introducing additional angles to the question of its limits and possibilities as a discipline.

“The Living Book Project: A Portrait of Collaboration” by Elizabeth Baumann Kelso and Lauren Kaushansky

Using nonfiction bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010) as a starting point, Kelso and Kaushansky initiated a kind of book conference for students. The Living Book Project — combining musical performance, readings from the book, and workshops to foster wide-ranging conversations related to the book — took place in April 2013. The project brought together “240 students from nine high schools, a partnership between a university and a public school district, and one book.”

Other contributions to the January issue provide details on:

• music and film production in a math class; • "multimodal learning" in English and biology; • a toy theater class co-taught by staff from creative writing and school theater technical departments; • and, inevitably, teaching The Hunger Games.

While reading books in non-literature subjects as literature is a well-established practice, the essays here delve further into the challenges and benefits of crossing curriculum to collaborate.

Follow @awickner on Twitter for more K-12 books, libraries, and literacy news.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.