Thursday, June 12, 2014

Thinking Outside of the Box(es)

     When I was a little girl, I thought that everyone's stomach had compartments for all the different foods.  Upon consumption, the green beans would fall into the green bean compartment while the meatloaf and mashed potatoes fell into their separate receptacles.  Admittedly, I was a weird kid, but you can't deny that cafeteria trays may have contributed to the misunderstanding.


     As a teacher, I've noticed that students -- and not just the weird ones -- tend to think this way about the different academic disciplines, most likely because the subjects are taught in separate classrooms by different teachers.  Once, back in the 80s, my 7th grade Honors English class freaked out the week I asked them to create charts and graphs illustrating different environmental concerns.  Although the assignment tied directly into our study of The Martian Chronicles, the students rebelled: "THAT'S SCIENCE STUFF!"  A similar uprising occurred years later when I assigned a class to draw floor plans of the house in Whispers from the Dead. "WHAT?  THAT'S NOT --"  English stuff.  I know.  

     Presumably to erode such boundaries in thinking, school districts switched from content area departments to interdisciplinary teams. Comprised of one teacher per core academic discipline, teams were given an additional planning period to create cross-curricular explorations of such questions as "What is 'social justice'?"  It was a great idea -- except that it never happened.  Not in my school, anyway. In no time at all, administrators expected academic team teachers to use that time for handling behavioral concerns.
   
     So here we are in the new millennium, still serving up content in discrete helpings, just like the cafeteria food.  Compartmentalized thinking continues to thrive and not just between the academic disciplines.  I'm starting to see it happen within my Language Arts classes, so much so that I've begun to address the issue directly:

"Remember, students, I am NOT teaching you this one passage.  We're reading this passage to practice finding the main idea of any nonfiction text. Apply this skill in Science and Social Studies, too, okay?"

     Imagine my relief today while reading "Chapter 5:  Generalized Language" from Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading:  

"Most important, plan the generalizable language in your explanation [of a characters' behavior that contrasts with the kind of behavior one would expect].  You want students to be alert to contrasts [in everything they read], not simply to learn about [the specific character named] Luke."

    So I'm not just imagining things!  (Always good to know.) Apparently, Drs. Beers and Probst have also noted students' tendency to pigeonhole skills and information.  Even better, they've provided some tools to help our students spread out their thinking.  If you haven't yet read these great new ideas for working with student readers, I suggest you look into it.  While I'm at it, maybe I'll see who's up for a little interdisciplinary planning!