As part of a fellowship with Communities for Learning, I have been thinking a lot about the potential for interdisciplinary courses. I have been a team-teacher in a freshmen Humanities class (combined social studies and English) for five years, and I see a lot of possibilities in that curriculum, but have little chance to execute all that I want to accomplish. Partly that’s because I do not have a common prep with my social studies counterpart, which means all major curriculum redesign is done over the summer before we actually get to meet our kids and truly understand what they need as unique individuals and as members of a class with an equally unique group dynamic. But, I feel that there is something larger, something in our culture, that inhibits a true blend of curricula on a large scale.
I have been trying to implement some interdisciplinary work in my other English classes with some success. This year, I co-planned a unit with my good friend, Trese Lang, that combined her physical education curriculum with my Honors English II coursework. And, every chance I get, I work with my school’s incredible librarians. Last year, I teamed up with Heather Hersey to team-teach a unit about learning, and that turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. All of these partnerships relied completely on my drive and the volition of my colleagues, and although it is encouraged fundamentally and pedagogically by my school’s administration, there is little systemic support for true collaboration among subject areas.
The effects of the disconnection are clear. So few subject area teachers are aware of the curricula, the goals, or the work produced in other disciplines. Skills taught in one period are not reinforced in the next, or even worse, they are rejected. As a result, students see little reason to carry English outside of English class, science outside of science class, history out of history class, and so forth. That’s when we all get the questions like, “when will I ever use this?” Maybe this is idealistic, but I would love for students and teachers to be able to see English in math and science in history, physical education in art, and more importantly, to understand how all of the subjects work together to make up life as a whole. Very rarely do we only use English or math or health in the “real world;” all school subjects interconnect, but we don’t teach students to see that.
During my initiation to the Communities for Learning fellowship, we examined Ellen J. Langer’s work with the idea of mindfulness. One of the most relevant takeaways for me was considering the difference between asking “can I” and “how can I?” Rather than looking at this as a seemingly impossible task and complaining about all of the obstacles that stand in the way of interdisciplinary work, I want to explore the steps I can take increase it.
So, the question is, how do we overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of these relationships? What structures need to be a part of our institutions to encourage teacher collaboration and subject synthesis? If you’re a teacher or student, what do you need to make this happen? If you’re an administrator or parent, what support can you give?