Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning: Possibilities in the Remote Environment

Interdisciplinary Study

Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning: Possibilities in the Remote Environment

By Linda Wolvek lwolvek@teachingmatters.org

The magic of social media (on its best days) has enabled me to stay in touch with many of my former students and colleagues. For two decades I was a high school English and Humanities teacher working in an interdisciplinary thematic team-teaching program known as Humanitas. I recently had a text conversation with a former student, Lupita, and we were talking about what she remembered most about being in high school.

“That’s easy,” she said. “I remember how you and Mrs. K (my teaching partner, one of the best social studies teachers to ever grace a classroom) taught us interdisciplinary lessons and projects combining English, US history and government.” She recalled the time when we were studying the Great Depression and I had the kids read parts of The Wizard of Oz as an allegory while Mrs.K taught the historical, economic and social implications of the film in terms of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. “You taught us the MLA format and we had to use it in both of your classes, with both of you helping us to learn it really well.” Lupita observed, “Everyone I know who was in Humanitas is thriving today. Because you two teachers worked so well together and were so committed to us, you kept believing in us. It might have been rocky at first, but Humanitas polished us into Diamonds.” 

     I’ve also been chatting with former colleagues and administrators who were involved in interdisciplinary teaching and learning. My former colleague Bonnie recalled very high attendance rates (“85-90% daily – in an urban high school – the kids wanted to come to school and learn because of how interconnected everything was”). Teacher collaboration was at the forefront of our interdisciplinary program, and the way teachers worked together was something that many administrators had never experienced before. A principal friend, Regina, who was part of an interdisciplinary teaching team observed, “Teacher collaboration vs teaching in isolation —lessons came alive due all the brainstorming and ‘what if’s.’ Teaching in teams also allows for risk taking and reflecting . No way around it- what worked? What could we do differently? What’s next? Those were the questions we constantly sought to answer.”  Another friend and former colleague, Kimberly, noted, “One of the great advantages of a rigorous interdisciplinary education is that the culminating assessments feel far more valid. Students demonstrate their understanding with cooperative projects and composition rather than through standard objective tests.” Kimberly’s interdisciplinary work included having kids “read Brave New World, and my biology teacher partner had our students explore genetics and modern science with regard to Huxley’s visionary speculations from 1931.” Because most of the students in Humanitas were language learners, they were able to reap the benefits of the interdisciplinary focus on literacy across the curriculum. This focus helped to build background knowledge in multiple contexts.

     Now it’s true that this was in pre-COVID days, but it got me thinking about how we might infuse interdisciplinary instruction into remote or blended learning – and whatever  classrooms may look like in September, the infusion of interdisciplinary teaching and learning could be a huge boon for students and teachers alike. It might even allow teachers in different content classes to combine their grading and assessment on assignments that blend the two subjects in powerful, engaging ways. Again from Kimberly: “Interdisciplinary work gave students the opportunity to deeply explore the human experience with questions such as ‘Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?’” This is the work we did with our students– not Honors or AP students but all of the students. We shared the teaching with rigorous devotion to big ideas and their connections, and our previously identified ‘average’ students rose to great heights of success. 

     It took a tremendous amount of creativity and planning, and we were lucky enough to have a supportive administration who made sure that we had common planning time every day. In today’s educational setting, that planning would be done remotely through platforms like Zoom or Google Meets and could be done synchronously or asynchronously through the collaborative power of Google Docs. Our process would always start with an essential question or an enduring understanding and then we would look at it through the lenses of our subject areas, with an eye toward opportunities for connection, overlap, or parallel emphasis. For several years we had an additional team member, an art teacher for example, and we expanded our thinking out into the artistic world for connections. We were giddy with enthusiasm and bursting at the seams to share our planning with our students, who knew that we loved them and wanted them to thrive. The challenge was to get all the same students into the same classes with the teams of teachers, and have them rotate among us during the day. That way we had continuity and everyone was part of the same program– our beloved “Humanitas” family. Truth be told– it was a programming nightmare! But with remote teaching, it might be possible to create groups of students with the same teachers into smaller sections who could work together in break-out rooms in Zoom, working collaboratively on interdisciplinary content. Then the teachers could co-create a rubric that encompassed the expectations for both subjects, and students would be able to submit a single in-depth project that would “count” in both classes. Students’ work might then be showcased for others to see through a virtual gallery walk or other form of virtual public presentation. The possibilities are exciting to consider. And this just might be a silver lining– something that so many of us are yearning for in this time of uncertainty. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning could become a hallmark of some “good new days” in education.

For more information, please get in touch: support@teachingmatters.org

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