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Designing Interdisciplinary Units

Supporting Success

Designing Interdisciplinary Units

Teachers as Curriculum Developers

When the team designs a new integrated unit, their first priority is to create a learning environment where synergy occurs. Because of their own understanding of the value of teaming, the teachers want students to experience the benefits of an effective team process and work hard to integrate authentic tasks where teamwork is essential.

Deciding on the "what" comes first. The team begins with the district curriculum and state standards and looks for alignment of concepts between content areas. They firmly believe that curriculum should be student-generated as much as possible within the guidelines of established standards. They would rather introduce fewer concepts and explore the depth of each concept than teach more concepts with less exploration. Using the standards as a guide, the team has developed four project based units for the year.

"We always seek to answer the infamous question, 'When are we ever going to use this?' We create situations in our classrooms where students are required to investigate long-term problems using a group process to accomplish what they cannot do alone."

    -Theresa Maves

Teachers Planning the Project

It's a Wild Ride grew out of a roller coaster unit that Theresa had done in her science classes for two years. It was originally a two-week culminating activity to a unit on Newton's Laws of Motion. During a summer institute in 1999, the team decided to expand it as an interdisciplinary unit and incorporate it under a year-long theme of Community. They scheduled the unit for the end of the year, presenting it as an aspect of community they called "Beyond the Basics"—a study of what society has developed for pleasure and recreation once basic needs are met.  

Based on experience, the team has learned that it is necessary for one subject area to lead any interdisciplinary unit they develop. They try to arrange for a different subject to lead each interdisciplinary unit. This helps to divide the workload and leadership responsibilities among the teaching team throughout the year. When groups are required, it is beneficial to have one subject class form the groups from their classroom. This gives the student teams a common place and time to meet and plan.  During Roller Coaster Split days (see Phase 5-Learning that Works) student groups were formed in language arts so they could plan their Proposal Request before dispersing to their job roles.  After the split days, the student teams return to the language arts classroom to synthesize their information for the presentation.

Planning for Inclusion

All special education students are included in the project.  Often project-based learning is a natural fit for inclusion students.  Since project work is open-ended, little adaptation is needed.  Teaching assistants are placed in the rooms to help facilitate groups that have an inclusion member. During roller coaster split days, severe inclusion students pair up with a specially selected student to share job roles.  For example, co-researchers can each write their own articles at their own level and include them under the same magazine cover (see Researchers at Work--Working Together).  

Most of the extensive adaptations occur during Phase 2-Investigating to Build Foundation Knowledge (Learning that Works), when students are taught specific skills that support the project.  For instance, special education students are not required to work with all the force and motion formulas.  They may learn speed, distance, time, and momentum, but not acceleration and kinetic energy formulas. The at-home roller coaster project rubric (see Phase 4-Learning that Works) can be adjusted to individual students’ needs by requiring 3 elements instead of 4 and making fewer calculations.  In addition, the science teacher forms afterschool groups for students who need more support than what their home environment has to offer.

Designing Interdisciplinary Units

Quote to Note

"One of the biggest advantages to working on a team is just the support you get from the other team teachers. . . in terms of ideas about how to make your curriculum more meaningful."

Meile Harris