Making interdisciplinary projects work

Last year, I participated in a book study with my colleagues. We read Educating for Global Competence: Preparing our Youth to Engage the World by Veronica Boix Mansilla and Anthony Jackson. The book was filled with exciting student projects, many of them interdisciplinary in nature, from schools around the world.

In our discussions, I heard comments like, “That would be great if we had more resources.” Or “If we only had the time to plan something like that…” My school is in its third year as an “international school,” and as we continue to transform our teaching and build a shared vision for how to best prepare globally competent graduates, it can feel overwhelming to attempt interdisciplinary projects.

To make large-scale interdisciplinary projects manageable, we have to be creative with the little time that we have to work together as professionals. By getting a jumpstart in the summer and with the flexibility that hybrid roles can foster, amazing things can happen.

I am fortunate to serve in a hybrid role this year, through which part of my day is dedicated to strengthening my school and district’s global education programs. One of my big goals for this year was to coordinate a grade-wide interdisciplinary project that supports students’ development of critical global competencies. I am happy to report that about 300 freshmen in my school just completed an ambitious grade-wide, interdisciplinary project.

Last August, I attended a week-long summer institute called the Local Living Textbook Project Design Lab with a small team from my high school. In addition to me (I teach social studies), there was a language arts teacher, a science coach, and a student. The goal was to use primary sources from local government agencies to develop powerful interdisciplinary student projects. Each day, we were in a different location and spent a couple of hours on a tour or in a classroom learning from experts. We had the rest of the day to create our interdisciplinary projects. During this week, we built the framework for our first annual Water Ecology & Sustainability Team (WEST) Project.

Here are some of the highlights:
•    In January, February, and March, our ten sections of ninth grade world history, language arts, and science participated in the WEST Project.
•    Each language arts class partnered with a class in rural Kenya that was participating in the science component of the project.
•    In January, language arts classes read The Odyssey and analyzed the importance of water in the text. They also started to build a relationship with the Kenyan students through a series of cross-cultural communication activities.
•    In February, the science classes studied the chemical properties of water, tested the water quality in a local creek, and learned how water can be purified. They shared water quality data with their Kenyan partners.
•    In world history, students learned about the collapse of past societies, looking at environmental, economic, and social factors. They also participated in a “Sustainability Conference” simulation as preparation for a writing task.
•    March 1st was our Field Experience Day. All 9th grade students went on one of ten different field trips. Students then debriefed the trips and began to work on interdisciplinary action projects in their language arts classes.
•    On March 19th, students presented their group projects to middle school students and later that evening, displayed their work at a community symposium to kick off our World Water Week festival. To top it off, several of groups with the most impressive action projects were recognized by their peers and earned a ticket to We Day Seattle.

My colleagues and I already have a long list of things to improve for next year’s WEST Project. For example, we have some ideas for how to make the face-to-face collaboration among the science, social studies, and language arts teachers easier and more effective next time. One key is to build the time into existing professional development and collaboration structures in our school.  And we hope to design one or two full days when ninth graders would be released from their other classes to able to work on their projects with teachers from all three disciplines available to advise them.

Overall, we are thrilled with the results of the project. The students were able to make connections between the three classes and developed many real-world skills. It was exciting to watch the students present to community members, parents, and peers at our evening symposium. And many of the students plan to carry their action projects into the spring, volunteering with local organizations.

So, what made this large-scale project feasible? First, two of the three of us who coordinated the project were not teaching full time. We had the flexibility to spend time developing curriculum and to meet with members of the larger team. Second, the week we spent last summer developing the project framework was essential. We had no distractions (grading, planning, meetings, etc.) and we had ample time and space to create. The combination of hybrid roles and an innovative professional development model helped me and my colleagues overcome the intimidation that we felt during our book study last year.

Do you see a project like this working in your school? Do you have examples of successful interdisciplinary projects of your own?

 

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  • Anviti Sinha

    a class 7th student

    This was very helpful.