Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

SciPlay, So Far

Before the beginning of the school year, we heard from Teachers At Work contributor Shannon Reed about a grant she had received to incorporate playwriting into a high-school science curriculum. Now Shannon returns with an update on this innovative cross-curricular program, which she has dubbed "SciPlay."

Hi, all! I hope everyone has had a great autumn. Here in Brooklyn, we have already celebrated the teacher's most favorite holiday – the End of Daylight Savings Time – and are well into our second marking period. Although it seems like just yesterday that I was sadly setting my clock for 5:45 a.m. for the first time, we're really about 20% through the school year. That's enough time to have a handle on who my kids are, what they do and don't know in English, and what I can reasonably hope to accomplish by the end of the school year. (Sadly, once more, the dreams of teaching basic Latin grammar must fly away...)

It's also enough time to be able to give you a reasonable update on the "Scientific Misconceptions: Rewritten" Project, which I introduced you to here. By the way, I almost immediately found that moniker unwieldy and have renamed it the "SciPlay" curriculum. It's shorter, and I love to stick the word "play" into anything having to do with school – sends a good message to the students! In the SciPlay curriculum, my college Kelli Buck and I are attempting to use core content from her Earth Science class with practice from my Beginning Playwriting class. Our hope is that this combination will help students learn not just the facts about Earth Science (although we'd like them to do better with those, too, come Regents time), but also more about the underlying concepts of science, such as how scientific theory works, and how scientists throughout history have explored it.

I gotta tell ya, this stuff is really exciting. If you want to get right to checking out what we're doing, please feel free to explore the website I'm creating about this work here.

What we're seeing is that this is work that is truly cross-curricular. Readers of this column (or people who'd like to read back through my archives, bless you!), know that I really love me some cross-curricular learning. I've written in the past about the necessity of teaching history as a context for literature, and I've long incorporated fine arts content and technique into my English Language Arts classroom (and vice versa). But this is something new for me – and for us, and, it seems, for many folks: Science and Math have always stood on one side of the gymnasium, while ELA, Fine Arts, and History have huddled together giggling on the other side It's so intriguing and fulfilling to see them actually edge towards the middle of the room and awkwardly slow dance. No one quite knows what they're doing, but it's working!

Time, Fear, and the Kids

Of course, though, right? Cross-curricular teaching and learning make a great deal of sense when we ponder how our minds work. Our world is cross-curricular. We don't walk out of the house and think, "For the next 45 minutes, I'm only going to think about mathematical principles. Oh, wait, is it 10:30 now? Great, now I'll think about literature." Of course not; school imposes its own structure for historical, traditional and economical reasons. However, those reasons may not make much sense in terms of how we actually learn. While there's always an appropriate time to drill down into certain content areas, we mostly likely take in life, our great educator, without parsing it out into classes. Designing our school curricula to more closely resemble this learning process can't help but be effective.

I'm certainly not alone in promoting cross-curricular learning. Entire schools, nay, entire school systems, have been built with this idea. But many schools appreciate the concept but do not put it into practice. Why? I think that there are several reasons for this.

First, time. There's never enough of it. Teachers are hugely busy, and it's very hard to find time to sit down and plan out anything new together. Why are Kelli and I able to do it? Well, we're getting paid to do it. That's key. If more teachers were getting paid to develop curriculum (whether through outside sources or by having specific school-day time, during which they are not responsible for children, set aside to do this work), more cross-curricular work would be happening.

Second, there's a certain level of fear for teachers in cross-curricular work. Previously, I would have been happy to step into a history, fine arts or even physical education classroom. But science? Math? No way. That fear takes time to overcome, and it's difficult. When I walk into Kelli's classroom and don't know half the terms on the board, I feel like I'm back in grad school. And, folks, I don't want to be back in grad school! I'm a teaching vet! An expert! It's hard to take that step back and say, "I really don't know what is happening here. Teach me the ways of the topographical map." But it's very good for me, since it not only increases my own knowledge, but allows me to see places where my students might be perplexed. Mightn't those be the same places where, ahem, I end up perplexed?

And the third reason I think it's hard to create cross-curricular work is the kids themselves. They are, of course, the reason why we want to do this work at all, but they can make it difficult. In my experience, students both want things to be totally different (because school is boooooring) but are highly skittish about change (if the reaction to my new haircut is any indication). Students in a traditional high school, broken neatly into 8 or so periods, one for each core subject, may bemoan the crushing regularity of their day, but they also protest when something different is tried. They can be close-minded, too. (So, to recap – kids are pretty much just like all other human beings.) We have had a few students flatly state that they will never be interested in science, or never want to write a play. Period. So world-weary, and at 16. But it's our job to keep innovating and form a coalition of the willing-to-try, anyway.

None of these are game-enders, but they are serious deterrents to cross-curricular innovation. Just let it be known that it's not always easy. The lack of time, the level of fear and the difficult audience are worthy foes.

But We Persevere

Now, the good news. Planning cross-curricular work is fun! It's an opportunity for teachers to show off to each other in the best way. I swoon over this exercise Kelli gets the kids to do with clear plastic plates and topographical maps, while she is amazed (or so I like to think) about my ability to get the kids to break the fourth wall.

It's also really freeing for teachers who feel their work has become moribund. I love having a new wealth of content to teach. There ain't no Ethan Frome in Science, my friends. Maps, weather, those crazy planets... finding and making connections between that content and what I already do is tremendously liberating and exciting.

Additionally, the kids — sometimes despite themselves — enjoy it. After a presentation of scenes taken from plays that have significant scientific content, we asked the students to write detailed responses about what they had seen. A number of them stated something along the lines of, "I thought science was boring and theatre was interesting. Now I see you can put science in theatre and it becomes more interesting." That's learning in action, captured. And the day we handed them play-dough? Well, that was a good day.

Plus, as a personal bonus, I find that my own interest in science is waking up. As I mentioned here before, my science knowledge is shallow and mostly based on informative signs read at National Park venues while on vacation with my family. Now, though, I am beginning to understand more, and become engrossed by scientific writing. I'm a little bit addicted to "The Universe" on the History Channel. I read, and enjoyed, The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, a great book about the periodic table. It's good to use my brain in new ways. I really don't think I have anything else to say about Ethan Frome.

What We Recently Did (and Things You Should Think About Doing, Too)

As I mentioned, we recently presented an Afternoon of Scientific Scenes in our school library to two of our classes. The bulk of the work on this fell to JM, our wonderful teaching artist from Vital Theatre Company. He worked with a group of professional actors to stage four scenes from scientifically-themed plays I gave him. (You can find the titles of the plays and more information on this project, including the fabulous way we introduced the plays to the kids, on our website). We felt that doing this would give our students a basis for discussion about how to use scientific material in plays, as well as models for doing so. We can tell already that this is going to be effective. Whether students were captivated by the unusual language of a playwright (Caryl Churchill's short, sharp phrases were quite new to a group most familiar with Shakespeare, Wilder and Williams), or interested in how effectively Bertolt Brecht was able to get across Galileo's theories about how the universe, almost everyone was intrigued by something in the presentation.

Getting kids out of the classroom and into a place where things are different is important. The new environment becomes a place where teachers and students can explore together, on different ground than usual. When I go into Kelli's classroom, or vice versa, we're always doing just that: invading each other's space, and it's a little odd for everyone involved. But getting out into a new space, like a theatre, shakes everyone up, in a good way.

Please don't despair if you are not a theatre person, with theatre friends and theatre school partners. You can still do interesting things outside your classrooms too. I don't know what resources you have, but I know you have them. At my previous school, my chief resource was that we were on the beach (great for creative writing, soundscapes and reading... On the Beach). Prior to that, my school had a wealth of artist parents – we took several wonderful field trips to paint in home studios. And the school before that was very small and lacking in many resources... but one of my students' parents ran a local soft pretzel franchise. You can do a lot of stuff with pretzel dough, my friends. You have resources: look for them, and use them. If you're not a teacher and you're reading this (hi!), you might think about reaching out to your nearest school to offer whatever resources you have. Doing so could have a large impact on some students' lives.

What We're Doing Next

Next up for us is to try to combine scientific research and playwriting. We're exploring the question of a scientist's moral boundaries. Our focus questions are: Is a scientist responsible for the results of his or her scientific work? Does a scientist have a moral obligation beyond pure science? This is an issue that arises time and time again in scientific history. Galileo's proof that the sun was the center of the universe angered the Roman Catholic Church and disturbed peoples' understanding of humanity's place in the cosmic scheme. Fritz Haber's work on a fertilizer led to gas warfare. Perhaps most famously, Albert Einstein's theories lead to the atomic bomb. There are dozens more stories similar to these.

Any of these men (and a great many female scientists) would make great topics for research papers and essays, but we're going a different route. Now, we still want facts-based, grammatically correct writing that can be judged by a rubric. However, because we know that great drama can come from conflict, we're going to ask our students to research and explore some of these men and the choices they made (or abdicated), and then, instead of an essay, to write scenes and monologues.

We've already asked the students to write scenes, and they were very successful at this. In our introductory exercise, after Kelli had worked on scientific theory with them, we asked them to write a scene in which a character formed a theory based on observation and then tested it out. (Again, examples and more on this on the website). I've also asked them to write monologues already. After we read Act I of The Crucible, I ask the class to write a monologue in the voice of one character, blaming another character for beginning the Salem Witch Trials. I think that, given this background, our students will be comfortable writing in either format, and the addition of research should be an effective scaffold for them.

Or maybe not. We'll see. It's a work in progress, this curriculum, and we want to give ourselves permission to fail. It's bound to happen. I just remember the wise words of Albert Gore, Sr., a Senator: "Failure can serve as well as success to shake the soul and the glory out." Whether through failure or success, we surely hope to shake some of our students' glory out.

As we enter the holiday season, may I wish to you and yours some calmness and brightness. Light a candle, read a book, learn a new word and enjoy this lovely season, one of my very favorite times of year. I'll be back in December with a new column. Until then, let me know what you think of this one.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 30th 2010, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Theresa K.
Shannon, I find this topic fascinating both in my role as preschool teacher and as grandmother. I've long done cross-curricular planning, as that is the basis of preschool learning. Just recently I've developed some preschool programs tying science and literature, for example reading Flora's Windy Day and discussing wind and air using a wind bag to demonstrate the Bernoulli principle The idea has been very well received at the area preschools. I think the cross-curricular idea fades as the children get older, and I'm glad to see you and Kelli bringing it back. I'll be interested to see how this all develops.
Friday January 13th 2012, 7:07 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
This is a great article, Shannon! I agree with Theresa K.-the cross-curricular idea does fade as the children get older. It's an interesting concept...I'd like to see what you do with it. Again, great article!

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Shannon Reed shares news of her innovative cross-curricular project.
Teaching historical context in the language arts classroom.
Shannon wraps up her tour of sources providing historical context for teaching literature.