Friday, March 27, 2015

The Importance of Interdisciplinary Projects

 The Importance of Interdisciplinary Projects
By Jill Jenkins
            Students who participate in interdisciplinary projects have a keener understanding of how interrelated school subjects actually are.  They also find projects more meaningful, exciting and it increases both their learning of skills and acquiring knowledge. Parents often worry that these kinds of interdisciplinary projects go beyond the scope of the responsibility of the school often teaching analysis of historical events and morality.  Some parents have complained that schools should only teach facts and only positive facts because students are too young to be exposed to the darker side of human nature. Teaching students how to think for themselves is the role of school. However, if schools are preparing students to function in the real world and eventually lead the world, they need to be aware of the mistakes people have made in the past, so they are not condemned to repeat them.
 Another problem that schools often face with interdisciplinary projects is that certain subjects are only taught to a specific grade.  For example, United States History is often taught only in 8th grade and 11th grade.  Biology and Ecology is usually taught in 9th and/or 10th grade.  If a teacher was presenting a historical perspective of The Dust Bowl to her history students, they would be in 8th or 11th grade; however, if she wanted to include the Biology or the Ecology teachers to show the scientific effects of this ecological disaster, her students would probably not be assigned to a biology or an ecology class.  Specific novels taught in the English classes that might add insight like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is most often taught in 11th or 12th grade.  Furthermore, the new Common Core complicates matters even more because many school districts have adopted the Gates Foundations Units.  This means that teachers have a list of units that they have to complete during the school year making interdisciplinary projects impossible. Even if the school is not adhering to the Gates Foundation's  units, the Common Core Curriculum is massive.  Teachers have a difficult time covering all of it in the time allotted.  Adding one more project, even if it teaches skills required in the Common Core Curriculum can add stress to teachers, but interdisciplinary projects can increase many students' motivation to learn.  For interdisciplinary projects to work, administrators need to give teachers the support and the freedom to explore changes in the curriculum.

            Collaborating teachers develop more creative ideas while building a sense of community. Teachers do, however, need time during the school day to interact and develop their ideas.  Without enough time to discuss the project, stress will develop which can be counteractive.  Interdisciplinary projects can be developed on any grade level by choosing appropriate material.  Likewise, projects that connect academic subjects to character development can also be developed.  I have included an example of each. Since I taught 9th and 10th grade Language Arts, the examples are geared for those grades, but it does not mean that similar projects could not be developed for younger grades.

Interdisciplinary Project
            This project that would unite math, science, history and language arts. Students would research whether the decimation of the native populations on the Plains from 1860-1900, the destruction of the herds of bison, elk and deer, and farming practices led to the Dust Bowl.  In essence, does the destruction of an environmental niche negatively impacted the area with unintended consequences?  Students could create graphs and charts showing the declining population of Native Americans, bison, elk, and deer. There are a variety of reading material that could be used including:

·      Nonfiction
      o   Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
·      Fiction

·      Films
·      Web Sites
·      Scholarly articles

Non-fiction books could be used in their entirety or selected chapters could be read to give students some understanding of the destruction.  Students postulate a theory and write a paper using evidence from any or all of the sources and finally draw a conclusion from the evidence they have explored.  Furthermore, students could also be asked to find appropriate evidence by researching on-line or in the library.  The evidence is presented to the teacher in a research paper with parenthetical footnotes and to the class in a slide presentation using wither Google Presentation or Power Point Presentation. 

Connecting Academic Subjects to Character Education

The nonfiction books could also be used to discuss how prejudice and misuse of power can lead to more violence.  Students could research modern situations when prejudice and misuse of power have also led to more violence.  By using Chapter 15 of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, the class could discuss the case of Standing Bear vs. Crook where Judge Dundy ruled that an Indian was “person” and thereby had all of the natural, inherent and unalienable rights including the right to choose where he lived; therefore, the military had no right to transport him to a location that he did not wish to reside.  This ruling is a decision that Judge Dundy was proud of the rest of his life and it ultimately changed General Crook’s view of Native Americans.  Afterwards, he treated them with respect and dignity. This decision could be compared to the Emancipation Proclamation that recognized similar rights to Black Americans.  However, just like passing the Emancipation Proclamation did not end prejudice or abhorrent acts connected to it, this ruling did not save Standing Bear’s brother, Big Snake or other Native Americans.  Furthermore, this decision could be a springboard to discuss the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II. A discussion on the negative effects on prejudice is an important discussion in our classrooms today. Also, it could be used as a discussion on bulling.  Every student is a person with rights and no other student has the right to violate those right including the right to feel safe at school.

Teaching projects that connect subjects or projects that connect academic learning with character education can enhance a student’s learning and make school more interesting.  It requires giving teacher the freedom they need to connect their curriculum and approach teaching in new ways.  As a result, administrators should be prepared to explain this type of learning to parents and district administrators. Regardless, the outcomes are worth the stress they create.