The middle school curriculum at my school includes one period that we refer to as “Specials.” During this period, the 5th, 6th, and 8th grade students have two days of visual arts, two days of information skills (our fancy term for library class), and one day of performance. Seventh graders have two days of visual arts, two days of health, and one day in the library.
Over the years we’ve tried to find ways to make this disjointed period work. The first step was making sure that the two day classes met on consecutive days. Then there was negotiation about which classes got two days and which would meet only once.
Two days is hardly enough to cover all of the things any teacher wants to cover. And one day? Yikes! But we have all done what we could, finding lessons on which we could collaborate with teachers – researching animals for Life Science or designing sarcophagi to go along with an Ancient Civilizations class. But the individual classes still lacked cohesion, as did the period as a whole.
At the end of last year, both the visual and performing arts teachers announced they were leaving. The head of the Art department called and asked if we could talk. How could we make this period more meaningful for the students…and the teachers?
When the new teachers arrived in the summer (including the new Library Assistant who was taking over 5th through 7th grade), we presented their classes to them as a collaborative project. The curriculum was theirs to design, but please work together. They dove into the challenge with passion.
The beginning of the year started very basically. Visual arts looked at styles of art and particular artists and created pieces in those styles. Performance learned about the music being produced at the same time. Info Skills researched the time period to see how the art and music reflected what was happening in the world.
The year is wrapping up with a Living Museum project. The students talked about the concept of innovation. What does it mean? What makes someone an innovator? They then had to find an innovator of interest to them and research their life. The only restriction put on the project was that the innovator had to be someone who could be easily researched. The choices range from Alexander Hamilton (a choice unsurprisingly inspired by the musical) to Stan Lee, from Josephine Baker to Groucho Marx.
Students researched their innovator (Information Skills), designed their costumes (Visual Arts), and prepared their speeches, complete with their “frozen” stance (Performing Arts). The History and Language Arts classes were also got involved in writing piece of the project.
On Grandfriends’ Day, 5th through 7th grade students will strike their poses around campus and treat our visitors to their life stories. For many it will be their first time giving an oral presentation. And this has been their first really long-term project. The whole process was designed to scaffold the process for a long-term assignment.
It’s been a great year for these classes. Not only have the projects been more meaningful for the students, but the collaboration has made life easier for the teachers as well. All three teachers sat in on one another’s classes to provide extra support as the students worked through these long term projects. When a teacher needed to be out, coverage was easy since there were two other people who knew what was being covered in class and could step in effortlessly. And when someone needed more time for their part of the project, it was as simple as asking if a research day could be turned into a performance day.
As other teachers have seen what these once stand-alone classes have accomplished together, the door is widening to collaborating on more project-based lessons that cross through multiple disciplines.
Now, if we can just figure out how to incorporate the Health class next year….