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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Interdisciplinary + Hands-on = Learning

Although common core and state standards are neatly organized by content area and skill, the real world and life are not so simply segmented. When children are taught skills in isolation, it is not always easy for them to see the relevance. Such lessons are the "work" in schoolwork for many kids. Interdisciplinary lessons, however, are often more connected to a child's experiences and, therefore, more likely to lead to mastery of skills and transfer of learning in new situations. Add creative hands-on elements and the lesson will not only be met with enthusiasm, but may result in a memory to be recalled many years in the future! The idea of "work" can be replaced with "play" and be more productive and engaging for many students with more productive learning outcomes as a result!

There are many ways to make lessons interdisciplinary and hands-on. I want to share one example that is based on a lesson from Math Excursions 2, by Donna Burk, Allyn Snider, and Paula Symonds. I have used both the first and second grade books from this series published in the early 90's with great success! The books are available on Amazon as used books. (I left my copies behind for my teaching partners when I retired!)

The lesson I will be sharing is based on the story The Gingerbread Man. With obvious connections to literacy standards, the project provides opportunities to read multiple versions of the same story, discuss point of view, setting, and characters. The entire lesson is based on creating a new ending for the story in which the Gingerbread Man is not eaten by the fox, but instead escapes across the river only to find other gingerbread people who have created a new community! The concept of community has strong ties to social studies standards as well! The lessons in the project take children through the roles of individual, group, and community members as they learn to think beyond their own needs to the collaboration necessary for a successful community. Collaboration leads to additional literacy standards as children practice skills of speaking, listening, and teamwork. If all of that is not enough, this is actually a math lesson! Measurement, money, geometry, and other critical thinking skills fill the lessons. The authors of these amazing books seamlessly weave math into a hands-on project that captivates children! Over the years, I had many parents tell me they were saving boxes and materials for their children to create villages in their own homes after the project ended. 

As with many teaching idea books and experiences, over the years, I modified the lesson to meet the learning needs of my students. The video at the end of this blog was created in a year we made some changes to the lesson. Whether or not you teach it exactly as designed in the book is not really the point. I did that, as well, with tremendous success! I actually can imagine this same lesson being carried out on computers with students using Minecraft to collaboratively create a virtual town! I have watched my grandchildren work together from multiple devices to create communities while sitting on couches in my living room! There is a time and purpose for that as well. One of the strengths of this idea for seven year old children, however, is the hands-on use of materials. When children are allowed time to create, they grow in ways we can only imagine! The class in the video was allowed to direct the creation in their own way. They opted to elect government and had great debates about what was and was not needed in their community. They learned to take a stand, defend their position, and compromise. They did all of that while I observed and resisted the temptation to interfere. The resulting Gingerbread Village occupied a large area of our floor space. As a result, we spent a great deal of time on the floor and out of our seats during the project. There were times actually designated as "time to just play" in the village. It was immediately obvious that they were so passionate about their play that it still had purpose and "play" time was actually a continuation of the learning. 

The cost of doing an interdisciplinary hands-on project for me involved writing notes home in advance asking for milk cartons, boxes, etc. Gathering literacy materials based on the story. Giving up traditional time at desks to work on the floor. Modifying lesson plans to combine the necessary content areas to meet the needs of the project. The willingness to assess in a nontraditional way and to sit back and observe as the students took charge of their learning. In fact, I enjoyed the project as much as the children, and from a teacher point of view, learned as much as they did! I'm quite certain the custodian was grateful when the village was finally removed from our classroom, but the children were sorry to see it go! I'm quite certain many still remember it even after years have passed!

The books presented here are simply one example of a way to initiate interdisciplinary hands-on learning. They are now only available as used books! I'm certain there are new materials available as well. The best ideas, however, may be hiding in your imagination, or in that of your students. Ask yourself, "How can I teach this material in an authentic way that engages children in a real-world scenario? How can I involve them in creating or experiencing learning without a text book or worksheet? How can I make this learning a part of their memory for life? What content skills and concepts can I connect? How can we make this fun?" I hope this blog inspires many teachers to try a project in their classroom! Listen to the children in the video as they reflect on their work:

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