Saturday, June 15, 2013

Integrating Disciplines in Middle School

Hmmm . . . I thought it was time to post something about how to "cross the line" between subjects in my classroom(s).  This is something that I've wanted to do since I started teaching middle school, and something that I have done in medium-sized and small ways over the years.  I'd like to start planning/playing with ways to do this in larger, more meaningful, and more useful ways next year.  

After all, as I have been telling people, your seventh year of teaching is supposed to be your best year.  And this is going to be my seventh year.

So, I'm going to talk a little about how our school day is set up, and then talk about what I've done to integrate disciplines, and then talk about some other ways to integrate (I hope).

My school is a 6-8 middle school with "teams," in the sense that students are assigned to a small group of teachers from whom they receive all of their "core" instruction in reading, math, science, and social studies.  For example, my 7th graders attend my reading class, my teammate's math class, and then either my social studies class or my teammate's science class.  (We trade science/social studies groups every six weeks.)  There are 20 minutes of "flex" time at the end of the last block class that we use variously for intervention, extended instruction, silent reading, or other related activities.  Then, at the end of the day, students have a "home base" period of forty minutes with a "home base" teacher - usually a core teacher, like me.  

Of course, the students don't spend the entire day with their "team."  The first three periods of the day - in the case of seventh graders - are "exploratories."  All students have gym class during one of those periods.  They attend two other classes that change every trimester (12 weeks).  So, a student might have Technology, Gym, and Art for the first three periods of the day before they come to Reading, Math, and science/social studies.  

This is the gist of the schedule - there are a lot of complications for bilingual or IEP students.  

So, I'm sure you can see where we throw in the "integration."  Typically, we experiment with cross-disciplinary learning in "flex" or "home base" time.  There are two problems with this.  First, all of our bilingual students are in extended bilingual reading/communications class during flex time, so any instruction given during this time will exclude them.  Second, many of our optional music programs (band, orchestra, chorus, and the various offerings within each of these) pull kids out of home base two or sometimes three times a week for practice.  So, often we are missing several members of class during home base.  And those days vary - some students miss four out of five days a week of home base, because they are in band and chorus, for example.  So, no matter how awesome the activity is that we offer, we will not be able to reach all students, except on Friday.  And that's not a very effective amount of instructional time - 40 minutes a week, at the end of the day on Friday.  

We've done a lot of "study skills"-type lessons, and some "learning how to learn" lessons on things like concept-based learning (big ideas, essential questions, facts vs. concepts, etc.).  We've done some technology lessons to help familiarize students with the tools (Garage Band, iMovie, Keynote).  We've also done some basic literacy skills practice with things like summarizing.  We also talk about current events (most often via CNN Student News).  But we tend to shy away from rigorous instruction because so many students are pulled out, and because it sometimes can be perceived as "punishing" students for participating in activities like band, something that I really believe in and want to support.  

So far, the best use of this time has often been some kind of "study hall," where teachers have the flexibility to work with students who need a little extra help.  We've also experimented a little with peer tutoring during this time, though the pull-out programs often limit our human resources and have limited our effectiveness with this program.  This is something that we really want to develop more, regardless of other initiatives.  It's a really cool idea, and many students have expressed an interest in being tutors.  (Though often very few seem interested in being tutored.)

So, what are some ways that we can combine disciplines better?

We've started teaching reading strategies in science and social studies classes.  For example, I teach annotating strategies and assign annotation in social studies class.  It helps students deal with the abstract ideas in our economics curriculum, and it helps me see their thinking more clearly as they are trying to make sense out of the text.  This often slows us down, but I think we are getting better results from a slower, more methodical approach with unfamiliar, abstract ideas like the "invisible hand."  (I try not to call it that - with so many language learners, metaphorical terms can really be misleading.  There is no giant hand that directs markets.)

Two (related) big ideas that seem appropriate here are project-based learning and genius hour or 20% time (also called Google time).  The former focuses on larger, multi-disciplinary projects through which students are learning as they work, and applying the learning to a larger context, as they would in a real project outside of school.  The latter is based on a business practice at Google, where employees are given a significant chunk of their work time to pursue their own "pet projects" that they care about, then present those projects to managers.  The idea is that students will be much more engaged - and learn much more - if they choose the topic and are given adequate time, tools, and support to learn about it.  

I've pledged to try Genius Hour again this year, and I hope to work on several projects over the course of the year.  I'd also like to give students much more time and more opportunity to share and collaborate on these projects.  

Are there other, medium-sized ways to work across disciplines?

I think the "academic" or "study skills" approach is valid, but that it shouldn't be merely limited to the "home base" or "flex" time we have at the end of the day.  We have common academic vocabulary lessons, focusing on words like "specific" that are useful in almost all disciplines.  This is a good way of synergizing, and helpful for students and teachers.  Looking for opportunities like this can really be helpful.  I taught a lesson on brainstorming, for example, during home base.  This type of thing can really be helpful in several classes.  Research skills can really help, as can note-taking.  

So, I think the answer is to look for medium and large-scale chances to integrate.  

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