Blogstitute Week 9: Designing Interdisciplinary Units with Literature

To say farewell to summer and to the Blogstitute, we bring you one last post in our series. This one comes from Steven Wolk, author of Caring Hearts & Critical Minds: Literature, Inquiry and Social Responsibility. In his post Steve talks about the powerful resurgence of interdisciplinary learning and its benefits to students and teachers alike.

Powerful Connections: Designing Interdisciplinary Units with Literature

Way back around 1900, John Dewey delivered a series of lectures that went on to become a famous book titled The School and Society. It’s worth quoting him:

I have attempted to indicate how the school may be connected with life so that the experience gained by the child in a familiar, commonplace way is carried over and made use of there, and what the child learns in the school is carried back and applied in everyday life, making the school an organic whole, instead of a composite of isolated parts. The isolation of studies as well as of parts of the school system disappears. Experience has its geographical aspect, its artistic and its literary, its scientific and its historical sides. All studies arise from aspects of the one earth and the one life lived upon it. We do not have a series of stratified earths, one of which is mathematical, another physical, another historical, and so on. We should not live very long in any one taken by itself. We live in a world where all sides are bound together. All studies grow out of relations in the one great common world.

I would like to say that Dewey’s charge to teach through an integrated curriculum is back. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was really here in the first place. Yes, many teachers during the past century took Dewey’s inspiration and designed integrated instructional units, but as a paradigm of teaching and curriculum—especially in any formal capacity in the middle and high school grades—it is fair to say that school subjects have stubbornly remained within their own disciplinary walls. A few years ago, when my family visited my son’s high school orientation day before he started as a freshman, we spent a little time in a history classroom. I privately asked the teacher if, when students studied history in his class, they might also read a novel about that history, perhaps in their English or literature classroom. He looked at me conspiratorially and let it be known that that would not be happening: the teachers would never agree to do it.

Though the practice of interdisciplinary teaching was never really adopted, the idea is in the midst of a powerful resurgence, fueled in part by the interest in project-based learning, inquiry-based teaching, using technology across the curriculum, and making school and curriculum truly interesting and relevant for students. Many people today see an interdisciplinary curriculum as a foundation for twenty-first-century schooling. To see some exciting and inspirational examples of this in action, check out the projects being done by the High Tech High schools in San Diego ( and the school-community connections being made by Studio H (

One especially exciting piece of the interdisciplinary puzzle is the use of middle-grades and young adult literature as part of integrated units. Imagine the power of students conducting research on the Vietnam War in social studies while analyzing the results of a survey on war that they created and gave in math class, creating a symbolic piece of art about the war (and their opinions about the war) in art class, and delving into Walter Dean Myers’s gritty young adult novel of the Vietnam War, Fallen Angels, in language arts.

Interdisciplinary teaching simply means to design a unit with more than one discipline. At its best, integrated curriculum is coupled with an inquiry-based and project-based approach to teaching. This means designing a unit around an essential question or a set of guiding questions (or theme) that includes at least one in-depth project. For example, that Vietnam War unit could be titled “Was the Vietnam War Necessary?” Ideally, an inquiry-based interdisciplinary unit turns a classroom into a true community of learners who are exploring real questions about the real world by doing real work and reading real texts. Teachers who teach more than one subject can do this in their own classroom, or—and this is often more of a challenge—teachers who are part of a grade-level team can design an integrated unit together. This is what I would like to encourage middle school (and high school) teachers to do: collaborate to design vibrant units that make John Dewey’s “one great common world” come alive.

Twenty-five years ago, when I began my career in education, it was implied that middle school teachers needed to get all of their grade-level team members to participate in order to make interdisciplinary teaching work. Sadly, this probably kept more teachers from trying the idea because, as any educator can tell you, it is truly a Herculean task to get everyone to agree to anything. Rather than fight those battles, many teachers just kept to their own subjects. But teachers certainly do not need all of their team members on board. Collaborating with just one other teacher can open up exciting possibilities for designing dynamic and creative learning experiences. What’s more, many unit topics simply are not suited for all school subjects. Rather than figure out a way to force science into a unit where it does not authentically belong, teachers are better off choosing the disciplines that truly work well for the given topic or theme.

As John Dewey wrote, life is integrated; school separated it. The only reason teachers need to design interdisciplinary units is because they teach in schools that divided the knowledge into separate classes in the first place. Life does not separate knowledge into neat categories walled off from each other. Even when experts work in their field, they aren’t limited to just their discipline of expertise. Scientists write, bakers read, every teacher engages with math, naturalists working in the field use art, and we see science every time we check the weather report. Life is far more interesting when it is integrated.

Bringing different disciplines together helps students make powerful connections. They see how knowledge and ideas and information relate to one another and how we can use different knowledge to see the same idea or topic or question from different perspectives, which cultivates critical thinking. Interdisciplinary teaching also opens up wonderful possibilities for creative teaching and learning. No longer are teachers limited to just one school subject. Once we connect a good novel to science, entirely new teaching and curriculum ideas open up. And, on an extremely practical level, interdisciplinary teaching creates new (and interesting!) options for satisfying the Common Core State Standards. Imagine students reading Operation Redwood in language arts and reading informational texts, such as a National Geographic article, in science about the science of trees and a New York Times article in social studies on the politics of the logging industry and environmental conservation.

Interdisciplinary teaching allows students—who have widely differing interests and strengths—to connect to topics they may not have an initial interest in. One student who loves to read fiction but has little interest in history can be motivated to learn about the Vietnam War by reading Fallen Angels, while another student passionate about visual art makes those connections through the art project, and yet another student connects to the war through his or her love of math and the survey project.                                

There is a unique power to using literature as part of an interdisciplinary unit. Far too often students see books—and especially novels—as strictly a “language arts” or “English” or “reading” thing. Although teachers would not want to risk hindering the enjoyment of a good story or turning a good book into an endless array of school “exercises,” they can most definitely use an integrated curriculum to help students make powerful connections from a book across content areas. Good literature connects to life, and one interdisciplinary unit designed with a book situates that life into the story of a handful of people, helping readers to climb into our interconnected world.

The quality, breadth, and diversity of middle-grades and young adult books teachers can use as part of interdisciplinary units are extraordinary. Never before have teachers had so many astonishing historical novels to connect to social studies, such as Never Fall Down, One Crazy Summer, Between Shades of Gray, Daniel Half Human, Chains, Milkweed, Jefferson’s Sons, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and The Lions of Little Rock. Language arts teachers can collaborate with a science teacher using books such as Half Brother, BZRK, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Life As We Knew It, The Carbon Diaries 2015, Operation Redwood, Exodus, and Carl Hiaasen’s novels such as Hoot and Flush. Some books, such as Ellen Klages’s The Green Glass Sea—which is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the building of the first atomic bomb—could be connected to both social studies and science. It can also be connected to reading nonfiction, such as Steve Sheinkin’s recent and outstanding award-winning book, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.                   

Just about any book can be connected to art by designing a good art project in response to it, which also allows (and challenges) each student to communicate his or her unique meaning and connection to a book. We can connect books to music too by pulling themes and issues from literature and having students listen to related music. For example, in my Social Studies Methods course I’ve had my students read Gary Paulsen’s harrowing short novel about slavery, Nightjohn, and then watch the emotional video of the jazz great Billie Holiday singing the famous song “Strange Fruit” about lynching in America.

A group of my graduate students designed an integrated inquiry unit for our class about the Middle East that brought together social studies and literature as well as music. One of the first unit activities was having students read the lyrics and then watch the music video for the song “War Again” by the popular Israeli musicians Balkan Beat Box. For literature, they read Deborah Ellis’s powerful nonfiction book of interviews she did with Israeli and Palestinian children, Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak. After reading the book, they had students literally connect with children in the Middle East through

One final suggestion for creating interdisciplinary experiences is using realistic fiction to make connections across the curriculum—which really means we are connecting that book to life. For example, when I’ve had middle school students read Paul Volponi’s novel Black and White and Walter Dean Myers’s Monster—both books involving our criminal justice system—students looked at data, graphs, and mathematical infographics on the incarceration rate in the United States and other countries. We also looked at data and graphs on teenage pregnancy when we read Virginia Euwer Wolff’s exceptional novel in verse, Make Lemonade.

Each good book creates its own world that we can use to create dynamic connections to the real world and across the curriculum. That “one great common world” awaits.

We hope you enjoyed this year’s Blogstitute. This week’s winner of a free book is Jessica. You can still receive 20% off and free shipping on any Stenhouse book by using code BLOG at checkout. See you again next year!

2 comments August 14th, 2013

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