How to make cross-curricular teaching part of your plan

The typical school day splits into chunks of time based on subjects. In elementary grades, you might have math, then spelling, then language arts and reading, followed by recess, lunch, music (or some other supplementary/arts class), science, and social studies. Younger students like and need this predictable flow. They’re usually trained in how to get out their books and materials at the beginning of the class period and how to put them away at the end.

Middle school students learn how to transition to different classes for different subjects. High school students are usually blessed with the opportunity to choose elective courses that they’d like to take.

Organizing the school day by subject tends to be the most straightforward way to manage a large number of students and to ensure that they’re each given the opportunity to study and learn the necessary skills and information in each discipline.

In many ways, organizing subjects like this is simply a matter of practicality. However, there’s a downside.

Segmenting a school day into these isolated subjects can suggest that one area of study has little (if anything) to do with the rest, and that the material that students are learning in one class has no relevance to any other parts of their lives. Since there seems to be no other use for that information outside of the 45-minute time-block, why should they bother learning it at all? The sight of a shining letter “A” at the top of their homework doesn’t motivate every student.

So, is there a better way? How can we show students that the learning process isn’t as isolated as it seems during the school day — that, in reality, it consists of many interconnected pieces?

alphabet-class-tech-cube-Photo Pexels web
Photo: Pexels

The answer: Cross-curricular teaching

One way to show students the relevance and interconnectedness of learning is through cross-curricular teaching.

Merriam-Webster  defines cross-curricular as “relating to or involving different courses offered by a school.” In her book “Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation,” Heidi Hayes Jacobs defines cross-curricular teaching as “a conscious effort to apply knowledge, principles, and/or values to more than one academic discipline simultaneously.”

Regardless of what definition you follow, the goal of cross-curricular teaching is to bring together seemingly isolated subject areas by incorporating the knowledge and skills of one area into the work done in the others. As we’ll see shortly, there are many ways that you can do this.

7 steps to create interesting curriculum connections

Cross-curricular teaching sounds like a great theory, right? But how is it actually accomplished? How do you begin to utilize it in your weekly and daily plans without chaos taking over?

1. Communicate with supervisors

Before you even consider implementing this at the classroom level, you’ll need to talk to your supervisors. They may already have a system in place to support cross-curricular teaching. If not, share your desire to incorporate other disciplines into your class period, and get their feedback to see if it would be feasible. There may be logistics (such as grading) you’ll need to work out.

It’s worth noting that this conversation is probably more important at the middle school and high school levels, where you’re teaching one or two subjects (as opposed to every subject, which is the case with most elementary school teachers).

2. Create a concept map

If we want our students to see and understand the connections between various subject areas, we need to make sure that we can see them. One way to do this is to create a concept map with your objective. For example, if your objective is to have the students write a persuasive essay, then write the term “persuasive essay” in the center of your paper and circle it. Then, brainstorm all the curriculum connections you could incorporate into the project. For example, the students could create a survey of their classmates’ opinions on the topic and graph the results (math). You could have the project based on real issues that people faced in the past (history). The students might read books about their topic (reading fluency, comprehension, or literature), create visual aids (art), and, of course, demonstrate good grammar, spelling, and handwriting (or typing) skills.

Kid learning on a map with an adult
Photo credit: Lonely Planet

3. Integrate those subjects

Using the concept map developed above, begin planning concrete ways that you can integrate other skills into your main lesson and use those skills to reinforce your lesson objective. For example, you could reinforce a math lesson by having students write their own story problem, read a piece of relevant poetry before a history lesson, or give a brief history on a particular science concept before delving into the technical material. For example, you may give an overview of the development of meteorology as an introduction to a unit on weather or show the progression of submarine technology before launching into a unit on oceans.

4. Plan thematic units

Thematic units take one central idea and apply it in various ways to many subject areas. History, geography, and science topics are particularly fun to do this with. As an example, let’s suppose you’re planning a thematic unit around World War II.

For reading, you could cover such books as “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, or “Night” by Elie Wiesel. Spelling and grammar could center around the historical facts and/or the words and concepts in the literature. Writing assignments could also align with what is being learned and would provide an opportunity to dive further into the topics.

Geography might center around the countries involved and where the battles took place. To relate the subject to math — and, more importantly, to show your students the practical applications of math — you could briefly discuss the role that cryptography played in World War II. As for science, you could focus on the newer technologies of the day (such as the atomic bomb) and how they impacted the war and our modern-day lives.

5. Combine lessons

Rather than having separate time slots for each subject, you could teach and grade those different lessons together in one sitting. For example, in one 45-minute class period, you might share some information about World War II (history), have the students take turns reading aloud from a book set during that time (reading/literature), and then have them compose a response (writing). A diary entry about someone in World War II might count toward a writing, literature, and history grade. If you require grammar concepts to be present in the writing, the paper could also count toward a student’s grammar grade.

6. Engage in project-based learning

Projects are great ways to teach and encourage students to utilize multiple skills. Rather than teaching the students all about World War II yourself, you could divide the class into groups and have each group research and present information about their chosen topic. Some of the cross-curricular tasks could include finding, reading, and summarizing both nonfiction resources and historical-fiction books; making a map of the war, noting any locations that played pivotal roles; creating a timeline with the most important events; and utilizing posters or PowerPoint to present the information.

You could also give each student or group a Classcraft quest to complete that would include cross-curricular activities and assignments. These could easily count toward grades in multiple subjects.

If you need more inspiration, check out our previous article on project-based learning ideas. We’ve even got a step-by-step guide for project-based learning.

Group of teachers working together
Photo: Google Edu

7. Collaborate with other teachers

If you only teach one subject (or a few), there are several great ways to collaborate with other teachers.

One art teacher, Amanda Heyn, asked her elementary teachers for a list of some of the topics they were planning to cover each month and then planned her art projects to align with the classroom lessons.

In an Edutopia article titled “Deeper Learning: Why Cross-Curricular Teaching is Important,” Ben Johnson discusses three ways that teachers might collaborate:

In Aligned Collaboration, teachers get together and plan out their year so that they are teaching related themes at similar times. For example, the history teacher may plan to teach about the Middle Ages at the same time the English teacher covers literature from the Middle English period.

In Cooperative Collaboration, instructors agree to help each other teach the material and maintain a consistent approach. For example, essays written in history would follow the format taught in the English class, and any math performed in science would match concepts taught in math. This would mean, for example, that math instructors should also teach significant figures; this is a topic typically covered in chemistry class that students resent because they don’t yet understand its importance. Teachers may also borrow resources from each other and can even jointly teach the material.

With Conceptual Collaboration, instructors join forces to teach closely related concepts. In one class period, the history teacher may present information about the Middle Ages while the English Teacher introduces the Middle English period. This approach can be particularly fun for both the instructors and the students. It’s a great way for everyone to bond and learn in a single setting!

Benefits of cross-curricular teaching

The more connections that the mind makes, the better it is able to learn and retain information. Cross-curricular teaching helps students make more connections and gives more meaning and relevance to the subjects and skills they are learning. And while you may not be able to answer the question of “Why do I need to know this?” to complete satisfaction, you can at least begin to show the students that the things they are learning do have practical applications beyond an isolated classroom.

Photo: Google Edu

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