Interdisciplinary By Structure

Many schools talk about interdisciplinary teaching. What’s different about it at Watkinson — and why has it become such a priority?
Strategic Plan Primary Intersection
GOAL AREA 1 (Academic Program) / GOAL AREA 2 (Inclusive Community) / GOAL AREA 3 (School as Community, Community as School)

We know from experience that the students are always excited — literally excited — when something happens in one classroom that connects to something that happened in another classroom,” says Upper School English Chair Christina Bernbach. “‘Oh!’ they say. ‘We were just talking about this in [blank] class!’ And the great thing about Watkinson and the block schedule and our mindset is that we can say, ‘Yeah, that is a connection, let’s talk about that’… as opposed to saying, ‘Yes — and we don’t have time for that.’”

But off-the-cuff conversations aren’t enough, either. As Watkinson developed our five-year strategic plan, the creation of robust interdisciplinary courses and learning experiences emerged as a priority. “Progressive educators and thoughtful people everywhere naturally think and work this way,” says Bernbach — a response to the top-down industrial model of education, which focused on standardization, efficiency, and testable (not necessarily valuable) results. “But in a lot of schools I think the structures aren’t there, and the leadership isn’t there, to make interdisciplinarity a realized curriculum.” And the stakes are high, she says. “Look at what the world is today. Internet, globalization — everything is interconnected. Everything has wider repercussions. And so if we don’t move thoughtfully and intentionally towards interdisciplinary work then we’re not teaching kids how to navigate the current world.”

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Bernbach emphasizes intentionality, she says, because it would be easy to fall into the trap of innovation for its own sake, a rush toward a loose patchwork of meaning rather than deep understanding of a complex system. Superficial connections are not the goal here. Furthermore, says Bernbach, change for the sake of change can be disruptive — and not in a hip, “move fast and break things” kind of way.

“Look,” Bernbach says, “you can connect anything if you’re thinking big. If you’re studying history then why not study math and statistics in order to understand economies? The connections are there to be made. But because we’re working with teenagers — and parents of teenagers, who want to feel a degree of certainty and stability — we’re not going to completely explode the way things have been done without a very substantial grounding. Our goal is to be as explicit and as digestible as possible” — and to create a workable model for further growth and development.

The pilot program: Ninth- and Tenth-Grade Humanities

Rather than trying to connect every subject at once, then, Watkinson has made the decision to pilot the initiative by connecting English and History in a series of Humanities seminars for the ninth and tenth grades. “Parents understand that these subjects are quite connected, so they’re ready to get behind this initiative without worrying that their kids are some kind of guinea pigs,” says Bernbach. “‘The Humanities,’ as a concept, is a perfect proving ground for launching this way of teaching and learning and thinking — a way that will work, in the long term, for other subjects and topics that might take even more planning to connect.” The Humanities pilot will help teachers figure out what’s required in terms of planning (both by themselves and with their colleagues), support, timing, communication with parents, and benchmarks for reflection and assessment.

The importance and the impact of storytelling

The Essential Question we started with in planning the courses was, ‘What is it about humanity that needs to tell stories? What is the importance of storytelling, and what is the impact of storytelling?’

Anyone who has spent any time at Watkinson has heard about “Essential Questions” — the big questions that can shape a project, a unit, a course, a year, a life. Naturally, Bernbach and her colleagues began designing their Humanities coursework with this in mind. “The Essential Question we started with in planning the courses was, ‘What is it about humanity that needs to tell stories? What is the importance of storytelling, and what is the impact of storytelling?’ Because, if you think about it, that’s what the Humanities do, right? Tell the story of humanity — in fiction, in histories, in documentation, in works of art. All these different ways to tell a story, and all these different kinds of stories. So, yes, we’ve started with a very very big concept. But the planning also has to be specific, because we can’t just present enormous ideas without grounding them very explicitly and intentionally.”

It’s no coincidence that storytelling is also one of the five main pillars of the strategic plan. You can read more about Watkinson’s storytelling initiative here, and you can hear more stories by paying a visit to the Watkinson Story Vault.

Careful and intentional change

More than anything else, Bernbach continues, asking intentional questions is what has defined the past few years for her, as exemplified by the process of creating and implementing the strategic plan. “Why am I doing what I’m doing? That’s the question leadership is continually asking us, and that’s the question we keep asking ourselves. I spent a full year before this year, which is when we’ve really been planning the Humanities classes, just thinking about The Odyssey, which I’ve taught for 25 years, and about why I teach it. And I’ve realized that maybe I used to teach it because I thought it was important for kids to know Greek mythology — but that’s not why I teach it now.”

Here’s where she and her colleagues landed with their planning:

The next chapter in the story

The “three curricula” of the Humanities pilot means that this is no shallow endeavor. That’s why Bernbach feels good, she says, about the changes she and her colleagues are making. “There may be people who worry that we’re going to lose the literature or some of the traditional things you think of when you think of an independent school curriculum,” she says. “But we’re finding so many opportunities to do new things that are going to be relevant and meaningful to the kids but also always incorporate foundational, important, and even traditional learning. We’re doing The Poisonwood Bible, yes, which is a change, but we’re also doing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — and both of these texts will inform and deepen the meaning of the other, not to mention enhance the study of imperialism and revolution that we’ll be tackling. It’s really exciting. It’s just more and more of what we’ve always wanted.”  

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Strategic Plan Feature Focus

Teri Schrader talks about:

Embedded in the Vision

Christina Bernbach talks about:

Interdisciplinary by Structure

Ryan Reese talks about:

Redesigning the Senior Year

John Crosson talks about:

Long-Term Donor Partnerships

Jenni French talks about:

Strategic Engagement Around the City

Jenny Katz-Brandoli talks about:

Starting the Storytelling Engine

Teri Schrader talks about:

Professional Learning Communities

Read about:

The 5 Goal Areas of the Strategic Plan