Rethinking What's Possible for Cross-Curricular Teaching

When we look for opportunities to collaborate across the curriculum, we find them.

September 05, 2014
Chad Sansing
Classroom teacher
Shelburne Middle School
Staunton, VA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

Every spring, I get the itch to start planning next year. With the end of the school year in sight, my mind starts spinning like a centrifuge, separating out what I want to keep and what I want to leave behind in my teaching and learning. Spring is when I reimagine myself and my classroom in response to the success and failures of a year; it's a time to think ahead while stuck in those slow-rolling days of review and testing.

Then summer flies, and school begins again. Pre-service week, with its meetings and mad dashes, leaves little time for expansive thought. The room needs setting up, and the materials need sorting, and the Wi-Fi is back up, then down, and up again, while the line at the copier never gets any shorter. It can seem like a daunting task just to get back to where school left off, let alone to go past everything we've ever done before.

But that's school -- a space of tension where we live between tradition and reform, between liberation and "reform," between expectation and ambiguity, and between what seems possible and what is really possible.

I mean that both ways. Sometimes, what is really possible is less than what seems possible to do. Projects, relationships, schedules -- not everything goes according to plan.

However, sometimes what is really possible turns out to be much more than what seems possible at the start. Little throwaway lessons turn into inquiry-driven units. New perspectives reanimate interest in a class text. A struggling community walks together into the right year and thrives.

I think that cross-curricular teaching is one of those of unexplored areas of our profession that promises more than we think it can reasonably deliver. It's tough to find time to plan together. It's tough to plan together when we're assigned time to write assessments together. It's tough to write assessments when we're assigned time to go over data together. So much of the work we're asked to do as a team arrives as an agenda, but that doesn't mean we can't compose cross-curricular agendas of our own. What should -- and really must -- be different in this work is that we ask it of ourselves and gift it to ourselves.

As hard as it is to push the boundaries of what seems possible in school, we teachers and learners, together, best know the spaces that exist in those boundaries for work that feels different -- for work that feels like it belongs to us adults and kids working through school together. The more we network those safe spaces for curiosity and connection-making, the better we'll feel about our shared endeavor and the more deeply we'll learn about content and community.

So this year, I'm setting a goal for myself to plan across the curriculum with colleagues from a variety of content areas. I'm fortunate that, in my new technology teacher job, I get to partner with a neighboring science teacher to help kids build things like light, rubber band-launched skimmers that we can take into several subsequent lessons:

  • We can measure the force we need to launch them different distances with spring scales.
  • We can study simple machines by creating obstacles out of inclined planes and running our skimmers over them.
  • We can study sound by designing instruments to mount on the skimmers and "play" by launching the skimmers with different amounts of force.

We also want to partner with music teachers to study acoustics, sound production, and digital musicianship. We're working with colleagues across the building in civics and language arts, as well, to help kids evaluate how they can use the design thinking, engineering, and technology in our courses to propose their own interdisciplinary projects in humanities classes.

Approaching cross-curricular teaching feels a lot like approaching teaching and learning in general: When we look for opportunities to collaborate across the curriculum, we find them. It feels just like looking for a new text, game, or approach to try in any of our classrooms -- it's a way of looking at our work that we can own in the spaces we know exist between this meeting and the next, between that standard and the kajillion others, and between what seems possible and what is still really, wonderfully possible in school.

I hope this year brings us exciting and energizing opportunities to work together in our buildings and across our networks. Let's talk and keep some hopeful impossibilities alive.

"(im)possible - 282/365" by Niklas Morberg. Used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.