One way I would like to keep improving my practice is by connecting to different content areas on a regular basis. We all tout that we make real world connections in our classrooms, but the real world isn’t split into subjects. By connecting the curriculum, forming cross-curricular projects, constantly collaborating with core teachers, and connecting lessons even if just through conversation, we can provide students with a more authentic real world experience. I want to be able to reference the work that students are doing in other classes because that connection will provide a pathway for transfer from subject to subject. If every teacher was able to say, “I know what you did last period,” then the material that is covered would have a way to coexist and breathe in a much more organic, meaningful way.
This also applies to the use of technology in the classroom. It’s not enough to just have the students using technology, there needs to be a clear purpose and understanding for why that technology is being used. James Paul Gee backs this viewpoint in his discussion of technology use, “Digital media should extend, supplement, complement, or augment deep real-world experiences and interactions” (p. 208). Having students research, invent, or connect ideas from more than one core subject area through technology will enhance their learning experience. Students will then be able to start making their own connections between subject matter, enabling them to navigate a world that will constantly crisscross.
How do you actually accomplish this in a classroom? There are many constraints that appear immediately. How do I get my co-teacher onboard with my plan to infuse different subject matter? How do I convince the freshmen math, science, and social studies teachers that sharing what we are teaching and forming cross curricular goals is worthwhile for students? After trying a few projects that crossed the core content boarders, I believe that having a clear vision is essential for persuading other teachers to join in the learning process you envision. If I give a colleague a clear, concise outline of what I plan to do, then there is a much better chance that they are willing to cooperate. Last year I was able to have a 2 week group work project where students simulated different forms of government in their language arts, social studies, and science class through the rule of their class tribes. Gee touches on this by stating, ” People need to learn in contexts where something is at stake for them, where what they are going to learn matters to them, and where they understand why it is important, worthwhile, and a valuable use of their time” (p. 209). The assignment ended up really resonating with students because they saw the daily connections between their lesson across 3 classes.
Another reason this project went so well I believe is because it illustrated the 8 elements of a good project that Martinez and Stager mention in their book Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering the Classroom:
Purpose and Relevance: The purpose of our project was to teach students about different forms of government through the implementation of class tribes, where one group member was the chief and the rest of the group were the civilians or ‘littluns’ in conjunction with Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
Time: Students were given 2 weeks to explore and work as a group/government in their language arts, social studies, and science classes. This gave them ample time to assimilate to tribe life, test the boundaries of their government, and reflect on whether it was the best form of government. They were also able to make meaningful connections from their tribe life to the characters and government systems established in the text.
Complexity: “The best projects combine multiple subject areas and call upon the prior knowledge and expertise of each student. Best of all, serendipitous insights and connections to big ideas lead to the greatest payoff for learners” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, p. 58). This was prevalent in the way students responded to the assignment and the end of unit feedback that was received. It made me want to continue to struggle to establish more cross-curricular assignments.
Intensity: This project was intense because it pushed students outside of their comfort zone, was continuously part of classes over an extended period of time, and made them think about a world larger than the one they lived in.
Connections: “During great projects students are connected to each other, experts, multiple subject areas, powerful ideas, and the world via the Web” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, p. 58). Students were able to connect their ideas with multiple subjects, form ideas that were very powerful, and use the web as a tool to foster learning and curiosity. Next year I would love to add the element of Skyping with expert historians or authors to add to the experience.
Access: Students were able to access the internet as needed on the class laptops and also on their own devices. They were also provided with 5 different teachers who could provide them with assistance throughout this project. That network of mentorship, feedback, and support would not be available if each teacher stuck to their own content area and did not collaborate.
Shareability: Students were constantly sharing their tribe life experience with each other, their other teachers, and the upperclassmen. Their enthusiasm and willingness to talk about the assignment showed the level of engagement. Making different parts of the experience visual and shareable experiences added to the project.
Novelty: This project definitely had a novelty aspect to it. Students who were chief wore Hawaiian style leis as symbols of power, the tribe life was carried out in 3 different classes over 2 weeks, and students who broke tribe rules had to complete punishments such as writing a Haiku of their glorious leader or writing their bell work with their opposite hand. Novelty is always a great way to engage students in an activity. Nothing says that you cannot have a little bit of fun while you learn.
These 8 steps help teachers create cohesive, effective project based learning. When students engage in each step they will be part of an experience that will highlight their critical thinking skills. Technology and project based learning are only effective as simulations of the real world if you are including several subject areas.
Gee, James P. (2013). The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
Martinez, Sylvia L., & Stager, Gary S. (2013). Invent to learn: making, tinkering, and engineering the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.