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Creating an Interdisciplinary Unit for Elementary School Pat Haughney

These are the three most important goals to keep in mind when you are creating an interdisciplinary unit:

  • Set curricular goals tied to your learning standards

  • Keep the unit fairly simple; don't try to include too much
  • Have fun - it's the most efficient, interesting way to teach!

The stress in education today is on clear-cut, assessable objectives. I begin my units by consulting the curriculum guides for each subject I want to include and determining just which objectives I can meet with this unit.

Once I have identified the objectives, I begin to define the specific activities that will help students meet them. I make sure that each part of the lesson is tied to one of the objectives and that I have a clear idea of how I will be able to determine if the objective is met. Remember that many good teachers have created lessons that can be easily adapted to your needs. Check out the unit guides available at teachers' stores, consult lessons on the web, and ask veteran teachers for suggestions. I would suggest using a spreadsheet at this stage in your planning. Each objective can be placed in an individual cell and the activities that are intended to help students meet the objective are carried across the spreadsheet.

The biggest mistake I made in my first lesson was trying to do too much. I created a wonderful lesson that combined rocks and minerals (science), maps (continent formation), and language arts. The problem was that I stayed at school until 8:00 each night to pull this massive effort together. I then stayed even later to assess each step of it. Lessons can be wonderful and simple. Tenure laws have changed in Illinois so that new teachers must work four years before they are tenured. That is way too long to try to make each lesson a masterpiece. Good lessons are clear, concise, and can be supported.

Finally, have a good time planning these units. The beauty of an interdisciplinary unit is that it helps students make those important connections in the curriculum. An extra bonus is that interdisciplinary units ease the stress of transition time in the classroom. I found that discipline problems were cut in half in my third grade class when my students did not have to start and stop many times throughout the day.

Here is an example of a fun unit we created for K-6 students:

The Butterfly Garden
Students in K-6 were invited to participate in a project with the Chicago Academy of Sciences to research the problems contributing to the declining monarch butterfly population. These students met as a group once a week to conduct Internet and printed media searches, construct Web pages, and plan a butterfly garden. This project generally addressed the Illinois Learning Standards targeting problem solving, applications of learning, communications skills, using technology, and working collaboratively. Specific targeted Illinois goals included the following:

    Language Arts
    • Students will comprehend a broad range of written materials
    • Students will write in a well-organized and coherent manner for a specific target audience
    • Students will locate, analyze, and apply information
    • Students will understand and apply the scientific method
    • Students will demonstrate comprehension of the link between science, technology, and society
    Social Sciences
    • Students will understand environmental history
Students were able to demonstrate that they met these goals through a variety of final products. These included the web pages, letters they sent to environmental groups, and the butterfly garden they planned and planted.


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