March 5, 2020
by Mark Segal, Upper School director
Editor’s Note: On the first Thursday of each month, you will find a guest Head’s Message here from one of MPA’s division directors. We hope you enjoy reading their thoughts and reflections about life at MPA.
When I was in second or third grade, I defined mathematics as something I did daily from 9:45–10:30 AM. My focus should have been on the addition and subtraction problems written on the blackboard or mimeographed handout, but instead it was on the upcoming recess where my friends and I played competitive games against one another. Educators rarely explain to students and parents why the school day is designed as it is. It should be no surprise then that students and parents look at the arbitrary divisions for English, math, reading, social studies, world language, science, art, music, and physical education and begin to define the subject areas as separate bodies of knowledge with little connection to one another.
As I moved into middle and upper school, the subject matter separation became even more noticeable as the academic areas were forced into independent time frames taught by individual teachers. It is no wonder that many middle and upper school students (including me 35+ years ago) complain that school is irrelevant to the larger world. In the real world, we do not wake up in the morning and do social studies for a specified time block. Over time, adolescents begin to recognize that in “real life” we encounter challenges and situations, gather data from a number of resources, and problem solve to generate solutions. The fragmented school day does not reflect this reality.
Conversely, Mounds Park Academy teachers work hard to provide opportunities to their students to learn by making connections between ideas and concepts across different academic disciplines. This type of teaching is called interdisciplinary education. Students learning in this way are able to apply the knowledge gained in one subject area to a different subject area as a way to deepen their learning experience. According to the National Council for Teachers of English, “educational experiences are more authentic and of greater value to students when the curricula reflects real life, which is multi-faceted rather than being compartmentalized into neat subject-matter packages.”
Taking an interdisciplinary educational approach is something that MPA has done for a long time. In fact, some of the most memorable MPA assignments and projects are based upon this methodology. The third grade brings a beautiful example of interdisciplinary teaching with the Parade of States. Students study the regions of the United States during the first trimester in preparation for their research of a specific state. All curriculum areas, including specialist classes, have a connection to the Parade of States work during the third trimester. Students read books, learn and apply the research process, create maps and posters, learn songs, and study the economic resources on their selected state. The project culminates with a presentation of their work for the broader MPA community. In the Middle School, the sixth grade English and social studies teachers asked students to read “Silver People,” a story of the people and societal impact the building of the Panama Canal. Students then wrote poetry that explored themes of social and environmental impact, and explored themes of sustainability and humanity. While in seventh and eighth grade, the Science and Design and English classes combined efforts for their Future Cities Project where this year’s theme focused on water quality and vulnerabilities. Faculty taught about urban planning, city ecosystems, economics, world water vulnerabilities, and cutting-edge technologies while students read “A Long Walk to Water,” a story that follows two 11-year-olds in Sudan; one who fetches water daily from a pond that is two hours walk from her home and the other who becomes a Sudanese “lost boy” while searching for a safe place for his family while covering the African continent by foot.
Author and College of DuPage professor Casey Jones shares that, “interdisciplinary study allows for synthesis of ideas and the synthesis of characteristics from many disciplines. At the same time, it addresses students’ individual differences and helps to develop important, transferable skills.” Critical thinking, communication, and analytical skills are important and continually developing at all stages of life. It is due to this that next fall all members of the Class of 2022 will participate in an inaugural interdisciplinary American Studies program that will blend the 11th grade U.S. History and English courses. American Studies will meet all year with English and history meeting every other day, and students will earn credits in both English and social studies with portions of the work counting in both classes. This course aims to inspire students to explore through reading, writing, and research the tensions and complexities of U.S. history and literature. Taking a chronological approach beginning with indigenous cultures and continuing to the present day, the course will provide students with a core understanding of the nuanced history of the United States through literature-based units. We are confident that this approach to teaching U.S. history and American literature will give students a deeper and more engaging experience than they could expect from a single-discipline approach.
Taking an interdisciplinary approach allows students to realize that there are a variety of perspectives that can be presented in an effort to understand most course material. Thus, students are able to find interdisciplinary exploration more compelling and appealing which, in turn, promotes engagement and learning. And, isn’t this what we are striving to achieve daily at MPA?