Interdisciplinary 101

1. Admin Support.

  • At least make sure they are aware. 
  • Will help with parents in the future.

Without a doubt, the place you need to start is by talking with your school administrators.  If they aren’t on board with this type of project, it’s not even worth starting.  While you don’t necessarily need them to complete the project, and it’s possible to work around a lot of structural challenges, you will definitely need them not to squash it.  Any effort on the leadership’s part to promote and provide opportunities for this type of project will be extremely helpful. 

2. Collaborative Time/Schedule

  • You need time to meet with your colleagues…a lot of it.
  • Just do it. 
  • Choose partners wisely.

For even more firepower, see the all that the Edutopia blog has to offer. There’s some powerful stuff from educators, researchers, and professionals in the field.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was finding the time to meet.  For a project we rolled out in September, we began our meetings to design this project in February of the previous year – and we still didn’t have it all done on time!  Luckily, we all had one period a week to meet when we were planning, but the semester we delivered the product, we had to give up our lunch times to connect.  If anything, I hope this guide can act as a starting point, so you can avoid going around and around in your discussions as we did.  It took 80% of our planning time just to reach a point that we could begin drafting a project.  Just start the document and plan the project, then go back and change what you need to.  At least you’ll have something ready to go.

If you don’t have time to meet, it’s possible to work collaboratively via digital tools like Google Drive, but at some point, you’re going to need some serious face to face.  Beg and plead with your school leadership to see if they can make that happen.  You’re product will be better for it.

We all know we need more time.  This is a great article from the Washington Post.  Valerie Strauss pulls from some really good research to demonstrate the need for collaborative time in schools.

Luckily, we were philosophically behind the idea of the project as a team.  Of course, with any collaborative effort, we had to compromise and negotiate.  The point is, you need somebody with whom you are able to do these things.  If you’re forced into a collaborative situation with a co-worker who you know doesn’t see eye to eye, it could be a long semester.

 *Note: The more subjects/teachers you include, the more challenging your planning will be.  Start with two subjects with the goal of adding one addition subject per year.

3. Establish curricular links.

  • If something doesn’t fit naturally, don’t do it.  It will be inauthentic.
  • DOn’t be afraid to re-write your curriculum
  • MYP Next Chapter changes align with this type of project. 

If it doesn’t have a natural fit in the progression of your class or the content you teach, drop the idea of doing a project.  Instead, look at other units within your class that might link with other classes.  If you force it, the kids will know, and nobody will have a good time.  Especially you.

Below is a snapshot of the curriculum overview document we used to establish links in the curriculum.  Of course, once we got into the same room, we could easily discuss the connections, but this was a great place to start.

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If you work in the MYP, the Next Chapter changes in assessment criteria and establishment of Global Contexts will really help establish these links.  Don’t be afraid to completely redesign a unit that makes a good fit.   Our unit was an MYP unit, so we were able to create one unit planner for all of our classes.  This meant we could use the same unit question, significant concepts, and summative assessments.

Below is a a template for the  curricular overview document we used to see where the links in the curriculum were possible.  You can also use the blank template provided below.  It’s a great document to share with your teachers, and really helps make everything visual.

4.  Technology is a must.

  • If your school doesn’t have Google, it should. 
  • Blogs/Websites as digital portfolios have been great.
  • ManageBac and some sort of Laptop program are hugely advantageous. 

If you don’t have some sort of computer lab (at minimum) or easy access to technology in your classes, this project will be very difficult. Have easy access to technology is essential when considering

    1. Teacher/Student collaboration
    2. Student research
    3. Student production of some sort of product.

The tools we found most helpful were Google Drive and other applications in the Google suite along with the WordPress blogs, and ManageBac.  We use WordPress as a school, but there are so many free blogging or web-building sites out there, you could use any of them.

Google: This was an essential part of emailing, creating shared documents to communicate our project requirements, and the students sharing their videos via YouTube links (Google owns YouTube in case you weren’t aware).  Google Docs were great, because anytime we needed to make a change, it would automatically update the Doc the students were using.  It meant there were no “wounded soldiers” floating around online, and it let us control what information was put forth. Below is the promotional video from Google promoting Google Education.

WordPress: Again, you could use any blogging platform you’d like, but having students produce a site with their research, products, and reflections was absolutely invaluable.  They fought the idea because it was hard, but now that they have it down, I think they “like” using them as digital portfolios.  In all honestly, I think the blogs actually became the primary product, not the machines we set out to create.  Consider using Blogger, Weebly, Wix, or Tumblr as alternative web building and blogging sites to get your project going.

ManageBac: Our school uses ManageBac with a integration.  ManageBac was great for setting the calendar, checking for plagiarism, and gave us another tool for disseminating information or answer questions.  It also allowed us (as teachers) to make sure all of our due dates and messages aligned.  If you teach at an IB school and you don’t have ManageBac, you should definitely try to convince your leadership to try it.  It’s invaluable.

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Laptops: Our school runs a 1:1 Macbook program.  If we didn’t have these, I don’t think we could have done this project.  If you don’t have a 1:1 program, you MUST be able to have common time with your students and a ton of common planning time.  By having a 1:1 program, we were able to get around some of our time limitations, and it made it very easy to put the information, tools, and other requirements into student’s hands.

5. Decide on a Product.

  • All subjects should contribute to make a whole project.
  • The visual representation of the process, learning, and reflection will probably be the most valuable product. 
  • Front-load content to give students needed skills to complete a product. 

When we set out, we thought our machines would be the product.  In reality, it was our blogs.  Decide what you want to product to be, but our experience was that our most important products were the blogs where the student’s processes and research were recorded, and the videos they made (which went on to their blogs) for their project reflection.  The machines were great, but didn’t need to be functional to demonstrate a well done project.

cropped-RightBAEven if you are limited with technology, there are still a lot of great product ideas.  Other products could include a novella, children’s book, video, portfolio, or a student performance.  Whatever creative idea you have, it can probably be done.  The point is, that you should pick the product you want them to create, then work backwards (begin with the end in mind).  It’s good teaching, and just good life practice.

Pretend that your project is a car.  Make sure that each of your subjects are the wheels that the care rides on.  If you have a flat tire, it’ll be a long semester.  If you’ve got your product decided on, try having each of your classes work separately on the content needed to create their section of the project.  In the end, you can put all of the pieces together, and the product is complete (are you rolling?).

In this case, make sure the subjects drive the production of the project, and don’t let the project dictate the subjects.  Our experience was that an interdisciplinary approach worked best when students could put all of the different subject parts together to create something, rather than pull different subject contents from a certain project.  In the ideal world, the other approach would work, but this isn’t Candy Land.  It replicates the real world, too.  I don’t want an engineer to learn about bridges while building one.  I’d really much prefer she learned how to build them before actually doing it.

What’s most important is that all off the different subject parts go into one project or product to demonstrate and reinforce the interdisciplinary links.  If students don’t see the links, it’ll be another long semester.

6. Develop some sort of monitoring/mentoring plan for students.

  • We tried mentoring, and it didn’t really work.
  • Break project into small pieces.
  • What do you do with students who self-destruct?

We tried to assign mentors to students and create a document for them to document their meetings.  We wanted students to be encouraged, monitored, and caught before they enjoyed their new found freedom to the fullest.  We failed.  In our experience, we’ve never seen a mentoring program that really works.

One idea that did come out of this project was to identify students we thought demonstrated the self-regulating and independent habits to succeed.  We’re currently putting on trial a program that gives them the freedom and flexibility under which they are clearly able to thrive.  What to do with the rest?  We’re open to ideas.

Here’s an example of how we tried to track our students and support their independence.

The idea of the “classroom without walls” really didn’t work.  Most students didn’t have the skills to organize, plan, and discipline themselves enough to make choices that would best serve them.  With a transient population, we needed to establish a program to make sure we gave them to tools to be successful before we threw them into the middle of this project.

Like all long term projects, it’s a very good idea to make sure you’re breaking down the project into several smaller parts.  We broke ours into four, but having at least one due date per week would be advisable.

7. Create a system for periodic reflection from students and teachers.

  • An altered version of the MYP PP Process Journal worked.
  • Students will give you great feedback, but what do you do with it? 
  • Teacher reflection is just as important as the initial collaborative effort, and needs to have time dedicated. 

In the final section of our project, we decided, better realized, that we needed some way to get the students to reflect and record their successes and failures.  We ended up adapting part of the MYP Personal Project Process Journal for the last few weeks.  It would have been great to have used it from day one.  It could lead to meaningful conversations and learning experiences for students regarding their ATLs.

As teachers, it was also great to get sincere student feedback regarding the project.  As part of our collective reflections, students were honest about what they liked, and especially didn’t like.  We found Google Drive to be the best way for this, but even just discussing with your kids what they like could work at minimum.

It would have been great if we’d had had the time as teachers to formally reflect and come together at least once a week as well.  While we had our weekly lunch time meetings, they were more logistical.  Some weekly time would have helped us identify what students felt and how to better help them achieve success.  At minimum, one large chunk of reflection time is needed at the end of the unit to make the changes necessary to get the project going in the right direction for the next year.

8. Communicate with parents – they’ll freak out, or be very happy.

    • Expectations and reactions will vary depending on culture of the parent.
    • Most will be openly supportive.
    • See #1

Below is the letter we sent to parents introducing the project. Our experience was the you should communicate this with them a bit before you introduce it to the students.

And then there are the parents.  Kids are funny.  Parents are funny. Teachers are funny.  Actually, people are funny in general.  Just remember the old saying:

“You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

It’s very important that you go on a PR blitz and let the parents know what’s happening before you unleash the fury of your project on the students.  Some parents will love it, some will be concerned, and some will hate it (they won’t say it right way, but you’ll find out later).  You’ll do some really cool things, but you’ll also make mistakes.  Most parents will see that you’re trying to create an awesome learning experience for their child, so they’ll support you, but this is where it’s also essential to have admin support.

While they may not help much during the process, and they might not defend you against parents, you definitely don’t want them taking the parent’s side if they’re upset.  Make sure you’ve communicated everything about your project to anybody you think might be remotely interested.

9.  Give students a chance to show off their work.

            • It’s what really brings the project together, and could be the real learning experience for students.
            • Involve parents and school community.
            • Science fair or exhibition idea would work well.  

We had grand plans for a Personal Project like exhibition.  Appropriately, it snowed the week of, and we just couldn’t pull it off.  We set up a visual display in the school foyer, and it did the job, but giving the kids a chance to show off their work and explain it to others is a great way to reinforce the learning that took place during the project, get other students thinking about this type of work, and give the students a chance to take pride in what they have done.

It also doesn’t hurt having the students understand that all of the work they are producing will be seen in public.  I know I tend to work better under pressure.

Another cool idea would be to have students present their findings to a panel of teachers and/or parents.  In the end, it’s just important that they know their work is valued, important, and people care about it.


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