By Kathy Thayer
Teachers are busy. We plan, grade, and provide students with extra help or a shoulder to lean on. We talk with parents, coach teams, advise clubs, lead committees, and participate in professional development. And we constantly think about how to more effectively meet the diverse needs of our students.
As an 8th grade English/language arts teacher, department chair, and data coach at Mount Vernon Middle School in Ohio, I’m keenly aware of the challenges my colleagues face in finding the time to complete all that teaching demands—and do so consistently well. We’re always looking for ways to improve. At the same time, we also need to find supports that make teaching easier. As the saying goes, we should work smarter, not harder.
During the past four years, our school has adopted Ohio’s new learning standards using an interdisciplinary approach. We want to better engage students and enhance their learning by creating powerful connections between subject areas. We also want to leverage our collective skills and share the lift of teaching students to these higher standards. In other words, we are trying to make our teaching better and easier. Here are a few examples of what we’re doing to achieve these goals:
Sharing the responsibility of reading instruction. Ohio’s new standards demand close textual reading in each subject area. Our challenge is that science and social studies classes are scheduled for 42 minutes per day. Time is already tight for teaching the subject area scope and sequence, as well as trying to include student-driven experiments and project-based learning. In contrast, our English/language arts and math classes are scheduled for 84 minutes per day—double the amount for other content areas.
It was apparent to all of us that the ELA department had the class time and the instructional background to lend our colleagues a hand. We now spend part of our ELA classes introducing students to the complex texts they will be grappling with in social studies and science. This provides students more instructional time in complex reading and we also meet the ELA standards for teaching informational texts. Now, when students arrive at their science or social studies classes they are already comfortable with the new, complex texts and are prepared to dig deeper into its meaning with their content teachers.
Using tools that help us plan lessons collaboratively. When we began our interdisciplinary approach, co-planning wasn’t always easy and there were times when we struggled to create focus and consistency across classrooms. Then we were introduced to the Literacy Design Collaborative, a national network of educators who share a common instructional framework and tools for assignments and lesson design. We use the LDC tools to co-design assignments that capture the shared literacy standards for implementation in different classrooms. The tools create a consistent form and a concrete way to develop and implement our interdisciplinary approach. Whether it’s LDC or another tool, it’s important to find a solution that saves time and improves the quality of assignments and lessons.
Teaching skills multiple times, in multiple classes, through multiple teaching styles. Our educators also share the teaching of specific literacy skills our students need. We identify common skills, build or borrow lessons (called “mini-tasks” in the LDC design system), and teach those skills in each subject area. For each interdisciplinary module‐such as The American Revolution or Plate Tectonics—students engage in related mini-tasks in each class. Through multiple teachers, within various topics, and in different ways, students continually learn and practice important skills, such as researching, annotating, note-taking, creating graphic organizers, and outlining. Our teachers save time by sharing mini-tasks and instructional strategies, while our students benefit from the transference of content and from the multiple opportunities to learn a skill in different ways.
Recognizing students’ own connections across subjects. Facilitating student’ connections across subjects is a quick but powerful way to recognize and reinforce student learning. Students are excited to talk about the connections they make and we provide them class time to share their findings. I also use an interactive bulletin board titled “Building a Strong Foundation,” where students share their connections for everyone to see. One of my students recently reported that she found a source that she was already using for her research within the bibliography of another source. This quick connection of information allowed her to prove the validity of her sources. Without placing an emphasis on the importance of making connections, this brief association may not have occurred. It’s easy on our part and it deepens student learning.
Co-grading. We also share the lift of grading student products. As students complete interdisciplinary assignments, they submit their work on Google Drive. Depending on the content area, the ELA and science or ELA and social studies teachers provide students with feedback using a common rubric, such as those found in the LDC platform. For student projects on a science content standard, for example, our science teacher evaluates the controlling idea, related reading or research, and content understanding of the work, while I do a close reading of the students’ focus, development, organization, and conventions. We split the work and tap into our areas of expertise for feedback to students.
Finding the common thread. These days, every school is managing multiple continuous improvements efforts. A way to make sense of it all is to find a common thread that can connect each of the efforts into a coherent plan. For us, finding a resource like the LDC platform that supports lesson design has become that thread: It helps us collaborate, plan, and improve our instruction within our interdisciplinary approach. The system helps us set a common goal around literacy instruction and allows us to discover places through shared assignments and lessons where we can connect our disciplines.
These are the strategies that are working for us, but there are sure to be others that fit other teachers and schools. It’s important to note that it does take time and commitment upfront to work more collaboratively, but, ultimately, it brings us to a place where teachers share instructional responsibility and students receive multiple, coordinated supports that enhance learning. It’s really a win-win.
Kathy Thayer is an English/language arts teacher and department head at Mount Vernon Middle School in Mount Vernon, Ohio. She has a master’s degree in administrative curriculum and professional development and is currently pursuing principal licensure.