George Lucas Educational Foundation
Integrated Studies

A Month-to-Month Guide to Interdisciplinary Instruction

Teacher collaboration across disciplines provides middle school students with work that reinforces learning and develops their research and writing skills.

September 21, 2021
Allison Shelley / American Education

Revision and organization are essential parts of schoolwork but can be challenging for both teachers and students. I teach English, and a few years ago, my social studies colleague and I developed a portfolio process that shows students the value of revision and the power of organization by integrating technology. By providing opportunities and specific directions to archive and harvest from their work, we helped students develop lasting habits of organization and revising.

Collaborating Requires New Planning and Grading Methods

This collaborative integrated project requires a different approach to planning and grading. Early in the school year, we met after school and created a timeline for the different phases of the project. Before each phase, we planned together to identify tasks like creating materials, presenting mini-lessons, and posting assignments. Then we worked independently on those elements, sharing them with each other as we drafted.

While students worked on each weeklong phase of the project, we worked with them in both their English class and social studies classes. Students had access to the rubrics we developed to assess research, content, analysis, and conventions for each paper. When papers were completed, we graded a few together with those rubrics to build consistency, and then we divided the rest of the grading in half.

We both used the resulting grades in our own class’s gradebooks. Although it took about an hour to plan together for each phase, we found that the reduced grading saved us time. Besides that, we found that collaborating made our research and writing lessons simply better. Working simultaneously among our students allowed us to share observations with each other, reflect, and then modify instruction immediately or in the future to better differentiate and respond to student needs in content or skills.

The project spanned the school year as students developed their knowledge and skills. Over the years, my colleague and I reflected on what worked well and modified the project to fit our students’ needs and the rhythms of the school year.

Create a Month-to-Month Timeline

Last year, the following timeline worked well for us.

In October, students chose from a list of people who were influential in American history from the early exploration of North America through the end of the American Civil War. Students studied that person intermittently throughout the school year. In both Social Studies and English class, students conducted research to build background knowledge about their person and then wrote three research questions about the person’s influence. After more research, students wrote a paragraph in response to each question.

In November, we directed them through organization and revision. Students created a Portfolio folder in their Google Drive and moved their research notes and paragraphs to those folders. We provided mini-lessons about informative essays (thesis statements, introductions, conclusions, and transitions). Then students integrated their archived paragraphs into a thesis-driven essay of at least four paragraphs.

In January, organizing and revising continued. Students moved their informative essays into their Portfolio folders, then reflected and revised using their rubrics and our comments. After that, we used models of argumentative essays to show students how to mine their research notes, consider what their person might have done that was controversial, and finally write a research question about that issue.

Before doing additional research, students harvested information from their notes and essays that applied to their argumentative thesis statement. We encouraged them to reuse as much of their existing content as possible for their new essays and modeled this process for them—showing examples of informative and argumentative essays that shared content. Students were often surprised that they were allowed to reuse their existing content, thinking that was “cheating.”

In February, we archived work and got creative. Students added their argumentative essays and notes into their Portfolio folders and reflected and revised again, using teacher feedback. In the next phase of the project, they wrote a historical fiction piece based on a true event from their person’s life. They were encouraged to use any resources they had already found or developed. As they completed this work, students commented that they understood their people and their circumstances in a deeper, more personal way, saying these historical figures suddenly seemed like real people.

In April, we played with “horizontal history”: Students researched what was occurring in the arts, science, or technology during their person’s lifetime and how those events might have impacted or been impacted by their person. Students added paragraphs about their findings to their Portfolio folders.

In May, we hosted a history celebration to end the project. With a teacher-provided template and using their previous research, students created a Google Slides presentation highlighting the influence and lasting impact of the figure they had studied all year. Students presented their slides to their classmates, focusing both on their person and their own learning. Even during the presentations, they continued to make connections among the historical figures their classmates had studied.

Final Project Template
A template for students to fill in with information about the American historical figure that they researched during the school year.
pdf 36.14 KB

This portfolio project deepened student learning in social studies and strengthened their skills in research and writing. Students became experts on their historical figures and realized how history is connected and reverberates across years and continents. Through scheduled, purposeful organizing and revising, students developed lasting learning practices.

The project continues to open our eyes to different content and styles of instruction. It operates like integrated, authentic professional development. As we work and reflect together during the project, our teaching repertoires evolve in ways that carry over into our instruction throughout the year. It’s made us more curious, inspired, and open to change. When one of us finds an intriguing idea or piece of research, we share it and consider together how we can use it to improve learning in our classes.

What started as a way to help students develop writing, researching, and organizing skills has turned out to be an integral part of their learning in seventh grade and onward, with the unexpected benefit of being ongoing professional development for their teachers.

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Filed Under

  • Integrated Studies
  • Teacher Collaboration
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School

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