Interdisciplinary Planning and the CCSS (5 Steps)

It is always a good day when I have an opportunity to focus my attention and energy on working with teachers to design new curriculum and to simply “talk instruction.” The summer is an ideal time for these types of conversations since the building is quiet, the daily stresses that go along with the grind of the school day are eliminated, and everyone feels a sense of renewal as the start of a new year approaches. I recently worked with @careim2 and @meghalberg to plan a two-day Common Core (CCSS) interdisciplinary curriculum development session for the 16 members of our school’s 9th grade team. As an IB World School, taking an interdisciplinary approach when examining (and implementing) the CCSS not only makes sense, but is logical in that the CCSS are closely aligned across the disciplines. This concept is transformative in that it challenges teachers (and ultimately students) to see the interconnectedness between the disciplines while pushing them to move beyond the isolated subject-to-subject approach that is typical in so many American high schools.

Despite our IB focus, many of our experiences from the two days are universal in nature and can easily inform any team who is charged with the task of designing an interdisciplinary curriculum around the new CCSS. Given that, our five “takeaways” are as follows:

1) Where Do We Start?: There is nothing more striking than the overwhelmed expressions that invariably fill the room when a thick packet of new learning standards is passed out for the first time. Questions such as “where do we start?” are typically asked before digressing to easier and more comfortable conversations about “what we already do.” Prepare for that! When getting started with a task that is as involved (daunting?) as interdisciplinary curriculum design using the CCSS, the most important approach for any facilitator is to open by encouraging the team to…

2) Think With The End In Mind: The work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe on Understanding By Design (UBD) was ahead of its time 15 years ago and is still the most logical approach to designing interdisciplinary lessons and units around the CCSS. The idea of planning “backwards” and thinking with “the end in mind” is a critical process and must first occur for teachers within their respective discipline before ultimately leading to a larger focus on potential points of intersection across the disciplines. Essentially, teachers must reflect on who they are and what they value with regard to their own discipline before thinking about how they can connect with others. To facilitate this process, we had initially planned to use Atlas as our primary tool for writing and developing our essential questions, but soon shifted gears and found that it was much easier to…

3) Work in Google Docs: While there are countless benefits to using Atlas as a tool for designing, storing, and sharing curriculum maps, Google Docs is superior in its ability to allow teachers to collaborate, edit, and update their curriculum in “real time.” This was an invaluable aspect of the process as it allowed all teachers to have a direct hand in writing and articulating the essential questions and “big ideas” of each course. It also provided us with the ability to “share” the work of each respective discipline as we prepared to…

4) Establish Interdisciplinary Connections: Perhaps the greatest anxiety that teachers were feeling as we entered the process of designing an interdisciplinary curriculum around the CCSS was that it would result in the creation of large-scale interdisciplinary units that would integrate activities from each subject area in a superficial and forced manner. While large-scale units are one way to go and can certainly be meaningful if done well, we focused our attention on identifying both thematic and skills-based connections as they related to each discipline and the CCSS. In doing so, we divided into two teams (English/social studies & math/science) and began the process of developing a pacing calendar in Google Docs that identified the key CCSS along with the unifying enduring understandings and essential questions for each unit. In addition, we had rich discussions around the “non-fiction” reading standards that are highlighted in the new CCSS and the implications that those standards now have for all teachers. Perhaps the greatest takeaway in this regard is that the CCSS in ELA are “everybody’s business” and do not fall exclusively on the shoulders of our English teachers. This above all else solidified our position that an interdisciplinary approach is best in addressing the CCSS, but still left us with one remaining question…

5) Where is the IB in the CCSS? As noted in “Why IB?” (7/22/13), IB Schools continue to find themselves in a position of strength with regard to the implementation of the new CCSS as the IB was one of five programs that the developers of the CCSS looked to as an example of exemplary learning standards. In closely analyzing the CCSS with my team, we found that both sets of standards are designed to build strong content knowledge and skills while emphasizing the importance of reasoning and communicating from various perspectives and across the disciplines. Both the IB and the CCSS also value independence, conceptual understanding, and the strategic use of technology and digital media. In that sense, American schools will be far better off for adopting the Common Core. However, the importance of looking to the IB, particularly when designing interdisciplinary curricula, cannot be overlooked as the IB Learning Standards continue to serve as the “model” for preparing students who are internationally minded and interculturally aware. This above all else is what is needed as we strive for the  creation of a better and more peaceful society that continues to become more interdependent (and interdisciplinary!) with each passing day.

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