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by James Fester
National Faculty

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Topic tags: Project Based Teaching Practice: Design & Plan


April 26, 2017
Interdisciplinary Projects: 3 Protocols for Finding Curricular Connections

by James Fester
National Faculty

Much of my coaching time involves helping individual teachers brainstorm or develop great projects in their own subject area, but more and more I find myself working with teams of teachers who want to try and plan a big, interdisciplinary project that encompasses multiple, seemingly disparate, subject areas. My home district for example has recently made cross-curricular Project Based Learning part of their Local Control and Accountability Plan goals for the state of California, and a strategic priority for every teacher.

There are many other districts where this kind of instructional thinking is already the norm. I have been lucky enough to work with some truly amazing teachers and schools in Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky. Many of the schools in this district show a high level of commitment to interdisciplinary projects and practices, but it’s especially strong at the high schools that offer CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs that combine traditional academics with career pathways such as emergency response, finance, and automotive repair. For these schools, the integration of traditional academics like math and science into CTE courses is crucial because it helps reinforce the authenticity and relevance of what students are learning in the classroom at the same time they make real-world connections.

But this kind of thinking and planning doesn’t just manifest from the educational ether, and getting started with planning collaborative projects is a challenge. A common roadblock encountered when planning interdisciplinary projects is a lack of broad, subject-area expertise. Teachers, especially those at the secondary level, are usually experts in their own subjects but have trouble finding standards-based connections with other subject areas.

With this in mind, here are three tried and true methods for beginning the planning process:

1) Mind Mapping
This method is especially effective for teachers who are already part of a collaborative team or know who they want to project plan alongside. The process begins with each teacher creating a mind map of the major themes and standards they teach throughout the year on a large piece of poster paper. These posters are then hung up on the wall and each teacher take turns narrating their course of study one standard at a time. While one teacher speaks, the others listen in looking for connections to their own subject area. Anytime they hear something similar to what they do, they mark or annotate the speaker’s poster silently to take note of the connection. After each teacher has had a chance to narrate their poster, the team should have several annotations that reveal connection points which can be used as the starting point for fleshing out a great project.

2) Driving Questions Gallery Walk
This method works especially well at staff meetings or with teachers who don’t yet have a designated team or any idea of whom they’d like to collaborate with. It begins with between 15-20 driving questions written on large poster paper and hung on the walls of the meeting space to create a sort of gallery. Teachers are then asked to conduct a silent gallery walk where they read the DQ, consider its possible connections to their own area of study, and write these connections on the poster as a way of sharing them with the rest of the room.

If a teacher doesn’t see any overt alignment, they can offer revisions to the driving question to make it more relevant to their field of study. They then move to the next poster and repeat the process. At the end of this protocol teachers can revisit posters with questions that they felt were particularly relevant and discuss with their colleagues the connections and possible entry points for project planning.

3) Timeline
This planning protocol is designed for smaller teams or pairs of teachers looking for cross-curricular planning opportunities within a specific part of their school year, such as the last semester. It starts with each teacher taking a stack of sticky notes and writing out their calendar a day at a time, with one sticky note representing one day. These notes are then affixed to a wall or a table in a long line, with the partner teacher doing the same so the two calendars are parallel to each other. After the calendars have been written out, each teacher looks at their partners’ calendar and tries to find places where their content potentially overlaps. Teachers are encouraged to look for places where they can move their sticky notes to make stronger connections to their partners’ subject matter or to create opportunities to support a project their partner may be doing. 

See a video of teachers planning an interdisciplinary project here.


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