“If you ignore the jargon and start with what feels like real learning for both you and your students, and you maintain a growth mindset, it will just happen.” – Amanda ChambersOf course it also comes alongside a lot of learning, iterating, collaborating, reflecting and growing. So today, instead of sharing a How-To on how to go about designing your own integrated place-based unit, we thought we’d take you on a journey (over five years) and share how our 9th & 10th grade faculty succeeded in designing a unit that checked all of the boxes amidst the challenges of turnover, time, diverse learning needs, parents and all the other educational demands. *If you aren’t familiar with our Place-Based Education principles, take a look at them here.
It all started with Brad Pitt…Do we have your attention now? In all seriousness, it was the book A River Runs Through It that served as the impetus for what has now become an annual end-of-year 9th and 10th grade integrated unit. When we heard from our current science teacher, she mentioned that throughout the entire school year, “Our English teacher at the time, Carin, had said we would integrate our discipline’s units and then all of a sudden it was May and we had no more time to simply talk about doing it. So, she said A River Runs Through It and I said water chemistry! And then Drew, the social studies teacher, said…let’s incorporate dams! And then Scott, the PE teacher, said…we can do fly fishing! And then Heidi, the art teacher, said…let’s add in watercolors!” That first year, their entire plan was to get students outside and learning about their local waterways. And, that’s it. “The focus was broad to say the least and we didn’t have an inkling for any sort of singular thread. We did meet with local experts. We did get into the community. We did use the Community as Classroom. But, students were never really required to apply any of their learning and we did not require any sort of final product. Students were never asked for their input about anything. The experience was most certainly not rigorous. What we did have was excellent weather and a lot of fun.” So, Year 1: Community as Classroom. Check!
Fun in the Sun, Only BetterGoing into Year 2, our faculty knew they wanted to repeat the “Fun in the Sun” from the previous year’s integration, only this time more purposefully. This lead to the design of a unifying theme for the unit: Ecotones and the Human/Wild Interface. And it was good. So good that the teachers chose to present on their success in the organization’s annual Place-Based Education Symposium. Using the classic Pink Floyd prism as an analogy for their design, the faculty demonstrated how they took the singular theme of ecotones, and separated out the concepts into discipline specific learning. “We weren’t yet using an interdisciplinary approach, but what we were able to accomplish was making the learning completely Inquiry-Based. Admittedly guided inquiry as we as faculty provided the big questions, but still solid inquiry. The learning was grounded in observing, asking relevant questions, making predictions and collecting data in order to better understand our local world. Additionally, it was this year that we were able to incorporate the three points of the place triangle.” So, Year 2: Inquiry-Based. Check! Check!
Flipping the PrismIn Year 3, our faculty started planning early, “like, really early.” In doing so, they had the time to define a singular learning target for all students.
Learning Target: I can communicate knowledge and understanding of a local water issue through an integrated lens using a variety of academic skills“Year 3 culminated in what we called the ‘Water Symposium’ and was a chance for students to share their learning around a local water issue. In doing so, students also shared how they were able to use knowledge, understanding and skills gained from three of their main core classes to meet the learning target.” While our faculty had called their unit Interdisciplinary starting in year 1, year 3 was the year where all students were accountable to the end product and were held within their Zone of Proximal Development throughout the process. So Year 3: Interdisciplinary Approach. Check! Check! Check!