Interdisciplinary Learning at Roycemore School

For many decades, traditional schools have divided what students learn in school into a few content areas: language arts, social studies, mathematics, science, fine arts, and so on. Of course, outside of school, our lives are not usually so succinctly divided. A simple trip to the grocery store involves reading food labels, calculating prices, and making healthy choices. 

At Roycemore, we strive to make connections between content areas as much as possible. In all Lower School grades, students are taught in thematic units for part of the day. Themes include weather, simple machines, Chicago, rainforests, heroes, and many others. These units cover both basic and higher order thinking skills, as students work on applying their knowledge in reading and writing, math, social studies, science, and art. 

Though our Upper School students are mainly taught in traditional content area courses, students and teachers still work to make connections there as well. A recent example involves an Upper School history teacher working with an art teacher to study and then recreate ancient cave drawings. Roycemore’s signature January Short Term (JST), now in its 46th year, epitomizes the interdisciplinary approach. All Upper School students apply knowledge from multiple content areas when they embark on their 3-week JST project, whether they undertake an individual project or participate in one of the group projects. 

Many Middle School students recently completed a significant interdisciplinary unit around the theme of WATER. Fifth and sixth graders learned about various aspects of water in Humanities, Arc-en-ciel (a unique Art class that is immersively taught in French), and Science, throughout the first quarter of this school year. Students also took various field trips to support this interdisciplinary learning. 

The fifth and sixth grade water unit began with students reading A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. This novel tells the true story of a Sudanese Lost Boy, as well as the fictional story of a young Sudanese girl who must walk a long way for water. While reading the novel in Humanities, fifth and sixth graders created several relevant art projects in Arc-en-ciel, including portraits of the characters, landscapes of South Sudan, and clay Sudanese cows, all while learning new French vocabulary. In fact, all Arc-en-ciel art projects for the first several weeks of school involved water in their creation: a call back to the main theme of the unit. Reading A Long Walk to Water, learning about Sudan, and applying this knowledge helped students understand what water is like outside our own community, and to explore challenges related to water access faced by people in other parts of the world. 

Classes then began to focus on what our own water, and access to it, is like. Students learned about this in many ways at school, including conducting a water filtration lab during science class, during which students also reviewed the scientific method. They focused on the concept during various field experiences outside of school. On the overnight trip to Indiana Dunes, Middle Schoolers conducted water quality testing. A trip to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago also included a water lab, where students learned what microorganisms might live in our water. Lastly, a trip to the Evanston Water Treatment Plant on Lake Michigan helped students understand how our water is cleaned and delivered from the lake to our school and homes. 

All of this water-related learning could have taken place in isolated classrooms at different times of the school year. However, research shows that brains grow best when connections can be made to existing knowledge, and among the varied topics students are learning. The water unit allowed students to apply their knowledge to real-world concepts and to go deeper in their learning. They are now able to make connections to current events, such as the Cape Town and Flint, Michigan, water crises. Students will also be able to make connections to future units of study, such as how water has affected civilizations throughout history – an upcoming unit in Humanities. 

Another benefit of thematic learning is that it models positive teamwork to our students. To plan an interdisciplinary unit, teachers must work together to plan lessons and discuss the theme well before actual lessons are taught. They must make sure all relevant content is thoroughly covered, and that all students are learning at the right level during the various projects. They must work through scheduling difficulties, and even disagreements at times. As a result, teachers implicitly teach students to become more resilient, flexible, and confident learners.

Occasionally, Roycemore is able to make interdisciplinary connections that bring the entire school together. Throughout this week, students around the world, including Roycemore students, will be working to make connections between what they are learning in classes to computer science. The Hour of Code, a worldwide movement to encourage young people to spend at least one hour learning computer programming (or coding), takes place this week: December 3-9. Many Roycemore students will try coding activities during the school day. The week will end with our Hour of Code Celebration on Friday, December 7, from 3:15 to 4:30 pm. All students and families are encouraged to attend.  

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