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Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

Learning Remix! Interdisciplinary Lesson Plan Ideas for All Grades

By Jennifer Gunn

Schools across the nation are doing some amazing interdisciplinary project-based learning. There are tons of impactful ways to meld skills and content-areas together in unique pairings. Novels in math class? Experiments in English? Poems in history? Why not? Who says that subjects have to stay separate? Here are some fun ways to mix it up and make real interdisciplinary connections for deeper learning.

Why we need a learning remix

Here’s the thing. In the real world, knowledge isn’t isolated into tidy buckets. Many scientists use history, engineers use artistic design, artists hypothesize and experiment. In school, we tend to learn and teach subjects in segmented disciplines, but who says that’s the best and only way?

“Only in school do we have 43 minutes of math and 43 minutes of English and 43 minutes of science. Outside of school, we deal with problems and concerns in a flow of time that is not divided into knowledge fields,” says Heidi Hayes Jacobs in her book Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation. “It is not that schools should avoid dealing with specific disciplines; rather, they also need to create learning experiences that periodically demonstrate the relationship of the disciplines, thus heightening their relevancy. There is a need to actively show students how different subject areas influence their lives, and it is critical that students see the strength of each discipline’s perspective in a connected way.”

Interdisciplinary work also brings together colleagues, working across content lines, to collaborate and create more layered curriculum than they would if they were working alone. Finally, students may enjoy learning more when topics are authentically connected to other subjects and to real-life applications. Says Hayes Jacobs: “Students engaged in interdisciplinary learning often find the content more exciting and relevant, especially if teachers can connect the disciplines not only to each other but also to the past and present in a way that relates to students’ lives.”

Reading in math class? Absolutely.

Math problems are full of words, and focusing on literacy can help improve a student’s ability to make sense of word problems. It can also help demystify math by connecting it to the real world. For example, students can tie their learning of prime numbers to the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time where the main character uses primes to label chapters. Reading the book in math class improves literacy and brings math skills to life by showing a real-life application for a skill learned in class.

“There is a real-life application of almost every form of mathematics. It does not mean that every student will use every piece of mathematics that they learn, but it does mean we can show them how we can use that bit of mathematics to understand and explain something around us,” says teacher Matt Kitchen. “I want my students to learn to write slope-intercept form equations, but even more, I want them to see that you can use that equation to make projections in business when you know your profit per customer and a monthly loss. Then students can say, “They probably shouldn’t open this business if they need 200 customers a day to break even.”

Through the use of fiction in mathematics, students can practice invaluable literacy skills while also seeing the practical applications of math — which may alleviate math fatigue and choruses of: “Will I ever use this?”

Resources: Fiction that includes math


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Science in humanities class? Why not?

Science doesn’t live in a vacuum. It’s all around us. It makes everything in our world possible, so why not connect science to something like U.S. history or English?

For example, students could read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is about a poor black tobacco farmer in the 1950s whose cells were taken without her consent only to be sold for billions and used to conduct research and create vaccines. Students can learn about the history of ethics when it comes to using disenfranchised people from a lower socio-economic status for medical experiments and scientific advancement. A study of the book can also tie into projects about medical science, genetics, experimentation — all while becoming better readers and critical thinkers.

Resources: Fiction and nonfiction books that connect to science

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Poems in history? Yep.

It’s said that poems began as a means of passing oral history from one generation to another. At the core, poems are lyrical expressions of the human experience, capturing a historical snapshot of the essence and sentiments of a time. Despite tradition, the study of poetry doesn’t have to live solely in English class. Using poetry to understand the emotional realities of history can deeply impact learners, and help them develop an empathetic understanding of the past.

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” powerfully conveys the struggles of post-slavery America through the lens of still-oppressed African Americans. Or “O Captain! My Captain!” dramatically and metaphorically tells of a nation’s grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln. Teachers can also have students write poems about history — encouraging them to assume the point of view of someone experiencing a historical event.


Transitioning to interdisciplinary work

It’s easy to compartmentalize learning for students. In math, we tend to stick to skills and problems. When it’s time for science, we tend to stick to labs and concepts. History can be limited to dates, events, and movements. And English can be boiled down to reading, writing, and analyzing texts. Whether you drizzle a little bit of interdisciplinary learning into your own classroom or work with a colleague to design something more large-scale, the benefits are profound.

Interdisciplinary teaching needs three things to happen and remain sustainable: “talent, time, and treasure,” according to Susan A. Gardner and Sherry A. Southerland in their article “Interdisciplinary Teaching? It Only Takes Talent, Time, and Treasure.” Talent refers to teachers who are willing to try something new, take risks, and be open-minded. Time refers to the need for planning and reflection time to build and maintain an interdisciplinary learning plan. And treasure refers to any necessary funding that may be needed for the project.

Collaboration is one of the most significant ingredients to interdisciplinary learning. “Probably one of the greatest benefits to team teaching is the opportunity and necessity of becoming a reflective teacher,” says Gardner and Southerland. “What was done in isolation before is up for scrutiny as well as admiration in front of teaching peers. For example, when our teaching team sat down for debriefing sessions, we often talked about pedagogy, and those who had been immersed only in their content before had to think about how that content was being delivered to students.” Sounds like some awesome deeper learning for teachers and students. Interested in co-teaching a lesson or unit but not sure where to start? Check out our co-teaching strategies.

What you need to start your learning remix

As you come up with unit and lesson plan ideas, consider the following three things to get started with interdisciplinary learning and teaching:

  1. How can I bring a totally unexpected skill or modality to my content area to deepen learning for my students?
  2. How can I work with a colleague from another class, grade, or subject area to create an interdisciplinary project?
  3. How can I connect academic learning to its real-world applications so students understand its value and purpose?

Once you get going, consider these tips for building successful project-based learning units and try to carve out time for reflection so that you’re able to learn and improve every time you get creative and mix it up.

Jennifer Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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