Severn 7th graders have been engaged in the usual rigorous learning in their core subjects this academic year, working on projects like research papers and self-portraits, reading and discussing novels, and understanding the impact of historical events. But thanks to an interdisciplinary initiative, there is a single unifying theme running through the coursework in four of those core classes, giving additional purpose and weight to what they are learning. In History, Art, Science, and English, 7th grade students are exploring the topic of what it means to be human, and more specifically, their journey to becoming the person they are today.
“The point of this cross-curricular unit is to have students ask, ‘How did I become the person I am today?’” said Carrie Ball, Middle School Science Teacher, who is one of the team members responsible for the design of the unit. “Middle school is already an essential time for student growth and understanding of who they are, so it made sense to ask them to think more deeply about how they got to this point in their lives.”
After initially landing on the idea of identity and what it means to be human as the unit’s theme, the team of teachers worked throughout the summer to finalize the details. One question that they kept front and center during the planning was this one: what does interdisciplinary learning look like when it’s done really well?
“The answer was that interdisciplinary learning is at its best and most authentic when it’s done in little bites throughout the year, instead of just one big lesson all at once,” said Mike Curran, Middle School History Teacher, also one of the team members.
That means that while it’s an integrated unit, each teacher had the flexibility to teach their specific piece of this on the timeline that made sense for them. As a result, the topic has been coming up at different times within the grade 7 core subjects. For Will Tweed, a current Severn 7th grader, this approach has indeed added value to the topic. “Sometimes we learn a topic, and then right away we jump into the next thing,” he said. “But this allows me to be introspective and more thoughtful, and to understand what makes me, me.”
The unit will be tied together with a final project, which is a magazine that each student will create titled “Becoming….” The magazine will be an exploration of their own life up to this point. Drawing inspiration from Time Magazine’s annual Person of the Year issue, the cover for each student’s magazine is a self-portrait. The inside pages will reflect on the experiences, events and relationships that have shaped their lives so far. The unit will conclude with an event where each student will showcase their final magazine.
Tweed has found the interdisciplinary unit to be both fun and meaningful. “A lot of times students will ask, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ And it’s a fair question. This unit demonstrates how it all ties together, giving it a purpose. That’s important because if you don’t know why you’re doing something, you don’t always want to do it.”
Appreciating the Complexity of Being Human
The interdisciplinary unit kicked off in January with an all-class field trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to visit the human origins exhibit, which offers visitors an immersive, interactive journey through 6 million years of scientific evidence for human origins, and the stories of survival and extinction in the human family tree. According to Ball, the field trip really helped to bring to life the question of how our early ancestors evolved to Homo sapiens.
While there, students teamed up to complete a research packet for science class, which formed the background information for an eventual research paper. In this way, students were developing critical academic skills – research, writing, making connections with evidence, and presenting information in a clear and concise manner – while at the same time engaging with the broader concept of identity.
“Students were really engaged with the idea of where we come from and our journey through time,” said Ball. “7th graders always have questions about human evolution -- it’s inherently interesting to them. Now we’re challenging them to weave in new skills and new ways of approaching it."
“It’s about valuing similarities and differences, and appreciating the complexity of being human,” Ball added.
A Classic Assignment with a Modern Twist
In Mike Curran’s History class, the essential question is always, “who are we to people?” In his class, students have tapped into this unit by identifying one topic or event or moment that is most meaningful to them, and exploring how it has changed their outlook of the world around them. “Students come from all different backgrounds and who they are is inevitably shaped by their family history,” he said. “But every one of them can find a story or a historical figure they can connect with or draw inspiration from.”
Because the unit is so student-centered, they have the latitude to direct it. For example, they could choose an event in history that has family ties for them, or an historical figure that they simply find inspiring.
“Becoming who you are is complex,” Curran said. “There are a lot of things at play beyond you and your individuality, and we want them to make those connections to understand what has shaped and influenced their families and them.”
“The magazine is a classic assignment with a modern twist,” he added. “It gives cultural relevancy to a project that could just feel like busy work. It’s a final product that I think they’ll stumble upon later in life and be glad they did, because it will connect them back to this time, what was going on in this period of life, and who they were then.”
Know Thyself, Inside and Out
In Madison Schoeberlein’s Art class, the featured assignment came easily. When the idea is to create a magazine with the student at the center, it is only logical that the student would be featured on the front cover. But instead of including a picture, Schoeberlein decided it should be a self-portrait. And instead of a self-portrait that portrays only what each student looks like on the outside, this one also represents who they are on the inside, revealing more about them as a whole.
For this assignment, she worked with the students on both learning the correct mathematical proportions of drawing a face, and learning more about themselves using the Meyers-Briggs personality test. While this is something she has done before, the integrated unit created a natural introduction of the idea of self-exploration in her classroom. The final self-portrait had to include not just their physical representation, but also the letter types from the personality test.
“The personality test really gets them thinking about themselves,” she said. “Even if they disagree with what the test showed, they think about it. We also talk a lot about how this test isn’t the be-all, end-all, it’s really just revealing tendencies that can be helpful to be aware of as you get to know yourself.”
Schoeberlein also likes the fact that this unit reinforces another important concept she likes to teach -- the idea that art is the first form of written communication, older than the written word. So in addition to the self-portrait, students in her class also worked on a cave art project, which relates back to what they learned in science class about early humans as cave dwellers and how they communicated with symbols and drawings. “Art relates to absolutely everything we do all the time,” she said. “I hope that this type of collaboration helps students realize that, and to find something they can use in the real world.”
“A lot of this unit is about self-expression – getting them to think about who they are and how to portray that,” she said. “Art is an important form of self-expression. For some people, they find they can more easily express themselves this way.”
‘You have to be a good thinker’
Like his colleagues, Middle School English Teacher Daryl Walsh enthusiastically endorsed identity as the unifying theme for this collaboration, as this tends to be the central theme in most of the literature they tackle in 7th grade. The Outsiders, The Wednesday Wars, and Animal Farm are all on the class reading list, and each one offers the opportunity to delve into the overall idea of identity in unique ways.
“It’s important to understand that you’ve been shaped by outside forces and what those are,” said Walsh. “What I want them to understand is that they weren’t just born the complex person they are right now.”
His lessons also explore the idea that while it’s important to think about who you are and why, it’s equally important to get outside of yourself, which is where empathy is developed. “It’s the idea of looking inward and trying to see why, but also looking outward and asking, ‘How do my actions and words affect other people?’” said Walsh.
One sub-theme that he finds particularly compelling for 7th graders is the idea of fitting into expectations set by others. For example, in The Wednesday Wars, the students come to realize that the main character was shaped by society’s expectations of him and wasn’t really such a bad kid. This translated to an exercise where students explored the expectations placed on them, both good and bad. “It’s important that they understand the forces that are steering them, so they can decide if they’re okay with that,” he said.
For Tweed, that lesson really hit home. “I had never really thought about it before, but I realized that people are expecting me to do really well in life,” he said. “But thinking about this has also helped me to be less stressed out, because I’ve realized I’m in a pretty good place and should enjoy it.”
Walsh also relates this back to the importance of education – the underlying message from another novel, Animal Farm -- imploring students to recognize that they can really only take the helm of their lives by mastering reading and writing. As Walsh explains, this book deals with the power of language in determining identity, illustrating through the text that if someone does not have a command of the language, then their identity can be determined by those who do.
“You can be a follower, or you can call your own shots, but if you’re going to take control, what skills do you need? Well, you have to be a good thinker,” he said.
A Unified Purpose
“The value of this unit is that it creates a synergy for the kids to know that more than one teacher is thinking about this topic,” said Walsh. “It becomes, ‘So wait, I’m getting this same lesson from four different directions? This must be a big deal.’ The concentrated effort lends significance and weight.”
Current 7th grader Claire Brown agrees. “I find it fun having the subject come up in four of my classes,” she said. “It makes it so you can learn the most about yourself in many different ways. It’s also helpful with our overall learning because we are able to connect and relate to things we learn in other classes.”
While Walsh would have taught some of this content even without this interdisciplinary unit, he feels that the collaboration has sharpened his lessons into a unified purpose. “The conversation around this in class is really great,” he said. “It helps the students to better analyze characters in the novels. They see them in a different light. They are now automatically giving a second look to the villains in the literature, questioning whether the experience with society's expectations, assumptions, and even stereotypes influenced their development. They’re building empathy.”
And while they’re still learning the academic skills required to succeed, they are also discovering important information about themselves – where they came from, what or who has influenced them, and what they reveal to those around them.
“Knowing yourself is a critical component for emotional intelligence, which helps with every single subject and with relationships, careers and life in general,” said Schoeberlein. “I’m proud that we can work collaboratively to guide them towards making these connections.”