July 2019
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MileStone is Expanding its Curriculum!
What is Interdisciplinary/Cross-Curricular Teaching?
Interdisciplinary/cross-curricular teaching involves a conscious effort to apply knowledge, principles, and/or values to more than one academic discipline simultaneously. The disciplines may be related through a central theme, issue, problem, process, topic, or experience (Jacobs, 1989). The organizational structure of interdisciplinary/cross-curricular teaching is called a theme, thematic unit, or unit, which is a framework with goals/outcomes that specify what students are expected to learn as a result of the experiences and lessons that are a part of the unit.

There seem to be two levels of integration that schools go through: The first is integration of the language arts (listening, speaking, reading, writing, thinking) (Fogarty, 1991; Pappas, Kiefer, & Levstik, 1990); the second involves a much broader kind of integration, one in which a theme begins to encompass all curricular areas. 

Interdisciplinary/cross-curricular teaching is often seen as a way to address some of the recurring problems in education, such as fragmentation and isolated skill instruction. It is seen as a way to support goals such as transfer of learning, teaching students to think and reason, and providing a curriculum more relevant to students (Marzano, 1991; Perkins, 1991).
5 Successful Cross-Curricular Teaching Ideas
The wisdom of the crowd is frequently more powerful than that of any one individual. In American education, it has been a struggle to replace "close the door and teach" with collaboration, peer observation and feedback, and group lesson study and design - but it is gradually happening, and it is potentially transformative.

Collaboration is hard, however. Collaboration requires trust, support, and a relentless focus on student learning. True cross-curricular collaboration, in which teachers at the same grade level collaborate across the content areas, requires a smart and purposeful approach to succeed. Here are a few cross-curricular teaching ideas to help you be successful in your school or district. 

  1. Make the Time: Jim Croce famously wanted to put it in a bottle because it is without question the most precious commodity: time. We live in the era of the "time-pressure paradox," in which demands on your teachers' time have only increased because they are actually more productive and doing more than ever before. Strong leadership is needed to carve out meaningful blocks of time with which teachers may collaborate. Middle schools have famously embraced various teaming structures, including interdisciplinary teams. Two schools in Illinois used their interdisciplinary planning blocks for very specific purposes: monitoring homework and supporting students' social-emotional needs. An interdisciplinary grade-level team in Maryland shared that their principal allowed them to collaborate and determine the entire structure of their instructional day. In each case, these schools were creative and purposeful about how they blocked off time to meet. Don't be afraid to collaborate with teachers to blow up your master schedule and do something different.
  2. Build Effective Co-Teaching Teams: Cross-curricular collaboration isn't just about large teams of teachers. You can achieve collaborative benefits by encouraging and supporting effective co-teaching. Co-teaching can take on many forms. Six commonly cited models are: One teach, one observe; station teaching; parallel teaching; alternative teaching; teaming (co-instruction); and one teach, one assist. When it's not done purposefully, it can become "my kids" and "your kids" and directionless. When it's done well, it can be a powerful tool to support adult cross-curricular collaboration as well as student learning. In a healthy co-teaching environment, the intervention specialist can have the opportunity to work with colleagues at grade level across the curriculum, not just with one teacher in one classroom. Also, co-teaching can be expanded beyond the typical content area/special education model. For example, you could create modified blocks of time during the day in which grade-level English language arts classes are paired with other content areas, creating opportunities for content area co-teaching, interdisciplinary units, and more.
  3. Set SMART Goals: When teams of teachers sit down at grade level to impact student learning, goal setting is important. Teams should collaboratively set SMART goals - goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant/Rigorous/Realistic/Results-focused, and Timely/Trackable, and adhere to them with fidelity. As an example, a cross-curricular group of grade-level teachers might decide to set a SMART goal around the implementation of literacy across content areas with the desired outcome of improving student ACT scores. They can then meet to develop common language, common rubrics, and common approaches to teaching that will help meet the goal. Powerfully, students will see all of their grade-level teachers implementing a common approach to literacy across the content areas. It's easier for students to be all-in when they know their teachers are.
  4. Empower Teams Through Your Learning Management System: Teachers are busier than ever. Support them by wielding the asynchronous power of your learning management system (LMS). It's not always possible to build common planning time into the master schedule for all desired groups of teachers, especially at the high school level. An LMS can help with that, as teachers across the content areas can access materials and discussions at their convenience. In addition to specific professional work-groups, grade-level teachers can be added to each other's classes for the purposes of collaboration, help each other develop class materials, and participate in class discussions. Instead of using the LMS just for file storage, class calendars, and other boilerplate functions, expand its use to find ways teachers can work together to improve each other’s practice.
  5. Provide Ongoing Coaching and Support: It can't be emphasized enough: Cross-curricular collaboration is tough! It will not happen in isolation and it will die a painful death without adequate support. A powerful way to think about the professional culture and climate you want to create is "an ecosystem of support" in which no one person is solely responsible for implementing and/or sustaining professional growth. Imagine the following ideal scenario: A building principal works with teachers to define the building's cross-curricular focus and goals and to build time into the day to make it happen. Then, as the program rolls out, she engages teacher-leaders and instructional coaches in a drive to support cross-curricular collaboration through systematic peer observation, feedback, modeling, and other ongoing, job-embedded professional development opportunities. Teachers need to be shown the requisite skills and supported as they put them into action. Just saying "go forth and be collaborative" won't work.

Implementing and sustaining a vibrant culture of cross-curricular collaboration takes time, effort, purpose, and relentless follow-up by both individuals and teams. When you see it come to fruition and professional conversations, lesson study, and, ultimately, increased student learning begin to occur, you know it was worth it. So be bold and work for transformation. Go forth and collaborate—the right way!

Have you used any of these cross-curricular teaching ideas? Let us know on Twitter @MileStoneEdu

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