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Deeply Connected, Part One: Interdisciplinary Teaching in the arts@newman Program

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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"The highly structured school with its fixed timetable, isolated subject areas, centralized curriculum, and authoritarian nature is giving way to a new order that places less stress on mechanical rote learning and greater importance on the discovery and exploration of concepts and impressions."

These words come from the editorial pages of our local daily newspaper, the Toronto Star. Before you get too excited and start to tear up your lesson plans and daybooks, though, I should tell you that the editorial is dated September 3, 1968, almost exactly forty years ago.

The idea of interdisciplinary teaching is not new. In fact, in every generation throughout the history of public education on this continent, progressive voices have called for a school system that encourages, and seeks to nurture, deep, connected learning.

Last September, I embarked on a journey grounded in two very strong principles. The arts@newman program (read my first post about the program here) is committed to providing students with a curriculum that is arts based and integrated. In the first year of the program, I found myself "foregrounding" the arts-based aspect of the program. I was part of a team in grades 7-8 with a strongly established rotary schedule in which different teachers taught science, history, geography, visual arts, and physical education as separate subjects. I was able to plan my arts-based curriculum only around math, language, and music.

At the end of last year, I asked if I could gather all subject areas under the arts@newman umbrella, which would allow us to concentrate on the vision of curriculum integration this year.

For me, the real beauty of interdisciplinary learning (and teaching) lies in the understanding that we live in an integrated world. The problems and challenges we deal with outside the walls of our schools require us to draw on knowledge that cuts across a number of subject areas. Our proficiency and efficiency as learners outside the school environment is often dependent on our ability to bring several perspectives to bear on any given situation.

I invite you to join me this year as I embark on this second leg of the arts@newman journey. Over the next several months, I will share the excitement, frustration, and challenges associated with attempting to bring about the vision of a deeply connected set of learning experiences for our students.

Sometime in the very near future, I would love to be able to hold up a passage from an editorial that's similar to the one that opened this entry and declare, "This is happening here and now!"

Please share your thoughts about integrated studies, and read my next post on this topic.

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Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

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Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your comment! I agree that there is much to know in order to be an effective teacher. I also agree that, ideally, this approach is the result of a great deal of teamwork and collaboration.

I do disagree, however, that a teacher needs to be an expert in every single area of the curriculum. In our district, our elementary teachers are generalists, responsible for all aspects of the curriculum. Local initiatives sometimes result in teachers "trading off" subjects but, more often than not, this is done to ease teacher workload.

That said, I have had to work very hard to develop "expertise" in all areas that I am teaching. This has meant doing extra study, subscribing to podcasts, watching videos, etc. I feel pretty comfortable with all of the curriculum expectations/outcomes that I am responsible for.

More than that, however, the deep thinking for me over the past several months is looking for the points of connection between curriculum areas. This process lies at the heart of integrated teaching/learning. Without those points of connection integration really doesn't happen.

As far as the team is concerned, I totally agree! Although I am the official classroom teacher, the first few weeks of the year has seen visits by an actor, an artist, literacy-expert, David Booth, and a graphic designer. I have formed partnerships with a printing company, an architect and an industrial designer. Finally, I am hosting two teacher candidates this term--one with expertise in dance education, the other in visual arts.

My first three and half weeks have been the richest of my career...fully of good learning for everyone, including myself...full of deeper connections, more engaged learning and almost perfect attendance!

That is not to say that the prospect of teaching all curriculum areas should not be taken seriously as a point of concern. For me, however, teaching is not about imparting my expertise to my students; instead, it is about nurturing deeper understanding. And, on that point, I am still a student!

Would love to hear more from you!

Stephen Hurley

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi again,

I didn't want to dismiss Andrew's concerns as frivolous or "not important". On the is this type of conversation, complete with all of the "yes, buts..." that make this a valuable process.

So, I appreciate hearing the objections, as well as the stories of success!

Stephen Hurley

Stephanie Webb's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a nearly new elementary teacher, I admire your efforts to integrate subjects. I often feel that my instruction is only in preparation for the test. I have gifted students who seem bored with the same routine. I would love to be able to help my students make the connection across the curriculum.

Is this something you started on your own or were you working with a group of people who shared your concern?

Kimberly Copenhaver's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, seem to be lucky to have an administrator who wants us to integrate our subjects to create a deeper understanding of curriculum. Last Spring, we put together a mini-Olympic unit. We read about the History of the Olympics, did math activities that dealt with math, and culminated the activity with the students creating their own Olympic event and having a field day with those games. It was a lot of fun, and the kids really enjoyed it.
The biggest problem that we ran in to was that some teachers did not want to participate because they had too many curricular objectives to meet. Do you have any suggestions about how to get more people on board?

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your comments. This has been something that I initially started on my own last year. This year, I have taken my grade sevens to grade eight, and there is another teacher who has taken on the grade seven cohort.

That said, our district is looking at expanding the model across a number of schools. We're now in the process of negotiating what that will look like. I'll keep you posted!

As far as your situation is concerned, you may want to look at starting something on a small scale. Try, for example, looking for connections between a couple of curriculum areas. Don't feel that you have to transform your whole teaching context overnight.

But, once you starting playing with it, the excitement that can built around the connections will be contagious!

Stephen Hurley

C. Richardson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello! I am an educator at the Kindergarten grade level in N.J. I absolutely think that the integration of subject matters on a regular basis is well overdue. When students can see the relevance of course materials throughout the curriculum, this lends a certain validation to what is being taught. We, as educators, then stop teaching the "subjects", and start teaching our students. When material is presented in different ways during the day, it in essence is being reinforced. This leads to a more "well-rounded" student that is able to appreciate all subjects and the importance of each one.

Lorie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I am able to integrate, my 2nd grade students are able to make more connections of their own and retain the information better. I have been reading about the importance of making the curriculum relevant to students, too; I agree that we must integrate the curriculum and help students see the real world value of what they are learning. I admire your efforts toward an integrated curriculum for middle school, because it is certainly difficult enough at the elementary level. It is all too easy to get locked into traditional ways of teaching, whether they are effective, or not.

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Kimberly,

I think that teachers are drawn to this type of approach for a number of reasons. I believe that the increase in student engagement is pretty compelling for many. When students start to come to school early, when an entire class doesn't flinch at the sound of the recess bell because they are too involved in what they are doing, and when parents call to ask why their child is so excited about the work that they are doing, then other teachers begin to become interested in what you are doing.

In my own situation, frequent communication with other colleagues--at staff meetings, divisional meetings, etc.--has been extremely important. This helps others begin to understand what we're trying to do. It also makes me look less like the enemy and more like a colleague.

Also, make sure that your students get out to the rest of the school community with what they are doing. Invite other classes into your room to participate in some of the activities.

In short, try to make the work that you're doing as transparent and accessible as possible. Sometimes those that are reluctant are really saying, "I don't think that I could do what you're doing." In addition to being innovative, I think that it is our job to be invitational!

I would love to hear what others have to say!


Amy Boone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 7th grade Science. I very interested in what you are saying about overlapping the subjects. I, too, think that students would learn more if could see how each subject is related to each other and rely on each other.

CathieC's picture

I love the Toronto Star editorial you quoted. Unbelievable that this was written in 1968 and yet for the most part, the pedagogy of many educators has remained the same over the years.
I am fortunate to be teaching in an environment in which integration is not merely accepted but encouraged and I do this while following an inquiry based process. There are challenges in facilitating this type of learning journey for both educators and our students, however the benefits are many. The most important for me has been viewing my role as a facilitator of discovery for lifelong, independent learners.
Good luck to any educator attempting an integrated learning program; I personally believe it is more reflective of life outside the classroom and prepares students for the 'real' world.

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