Thursday, March 17, 2016

Is it cross-curricular?


I was in a PD the other day, and we were asked to provide examples of units that were cross-curricular. A couple of teachers started sharing how this particular math lesson was cross-curricular because the students were reading an article. Other teachers shared lessons that specifically said "cross-curricular integration" and used fancy fonts and colors to identify cross-curricular connections. I started thinking, all this is fine and good, but is something really cross-curricular simply because we added a reading? Is a science lesson on density cross-curricular because the students use math skills to arrive at an answer or perhaps included a couple of graphs? If students draw pictures or build dioramas, can I check off the "art" box?

By now, you have probably figured out that my answer is no. This is simply adding stuff. Even if during a science lesson we claim things like students provided textual evidence for their answers, thus "This lesson addresses CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.1 Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.", unless the skill was specifically taught and assessed as part of the lesson, we cannot say the lesson cross-curricular (or integrated) Science and ELA. It seems really like a happy coincidence. 

So then, what do we mean by cross-curricular integration? A lesson, or unit that is:
  • Based on individual subjects, and their specific standards.
  • Developed by individual teachers, with excellent subject knowledge, working together to connect different subject matters in authentic and explicit ways.
  • Requires sustained collaboration between all participating content area teachers. Not only is pacing of content delivery necessary, but also the teachers involved need to have a relatively deep conceptual understanding of the different subjects being addressed. Going back to our previous example, the science teacher must know just how the "citing of textual evidence" looks like and is taught, while the ELA teacher must be able to explain photosynthesis using the same language as was used in the science classroom.
  • Provides opportunities for students to develop one end product that demonstrates mastery of the content in all the subjects that were considered as integrated. This means for example, that the essay assigned in Language Arts is assessed for craft and structure by said department, but for concept mastery in Science.
In short, cross-curricular integration requires work. This is not something we can do by simply "tweaking" and adding a couple of standards to the list. Let's provide the time for teachers to really develop cross-curricular units. Let's embrace PBL and provide students ways to demonstrate mastery in meaningful ways. The students will reap the benefits!