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Curricular Conversations in Elementary School Classrooms: Case Studies of Interdisciplinary Instruction

Arthur N. Applebee, Robert Burroughs, and Gladys Cruz


Teachers develop interdisciplinary activities to provide students with a more connected and cohesive curriculum.  However, teachers need to carefully consider the kinds of conversations these activities foster.  The writers provide case studies from elementary classrooms to illustrate the issues and concerns surrounding the implementation of interdisciplinary curricula.

Applebee, A. N., Burroughs, R., and Cruz, G. (2000). Curricular Conversations in Elementary School Classrooms: Case Studies of Interdisciplinary Instruction. In Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Challenges to Implementation, Sam Wineberg and Pam Grossman, Eds., Teachers College Press

Chapter 5

Curricular Conversations in Elementary School Classrooms:

Case Studies of Interdisciplinary Instruction

Arthur N. Applebee, Center on English Learning & Achievement

Robert Burroughs, University of Cincinnati

Gladys Cruz, Center on English Learning & Achievement

This report is based on research supported in part under the Research and Development Center Program (award numbers R305A60005 and R117G10015) as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. The findings and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the funding agency.

In this chapter, we will examine issues of interdisciplinary instruction from a perspective that treats curriculum as creating domains for conversation, and instruction as the ways in which we help students enter into those domains. In approaching curriculum as domains for conversation, we are interested in particular in the kinds of conversations that the curriculum is designed to foster and support. (We construe contributions to the conversation broadly to include contemporary and classic texts in a variety of media, as well as the contributions of the teacher and students.) These conversations are the vehicle through which a student learns to enter into the various universes of discourse that our society values--to read, write, and talk about current and ongoing issues in history, literature, science, or the arts, for example. Effective entry into such conversations requires knowledge of content as well as knowledge of appropriate ways of knowing and doing within each domain: The facts must be right, and the arguments and evidence must be appropriate, bridging the dualism of “knowing how” and “knowing that.” From this perspective, the teacher plays a crucial role not only in organizing the curricular domain within which the conversations will occur, but also in mediating between the language of the classroom and that of the larger conversations to which the classroom domain is related (Applebee, 1996)--typically, the conversations that take place within the academic disciplines.

In earlier studies, we have examined the features that create continuity and coherence within the curricular domains within discipline-based classrooms (Applebee, 1996; Applebee, Burroughs, & Stevens, 2000; Burroughs, 1999; Stevens, 1999). We found that two mechanisms were important. One had to do with the overall structure of the conversational domain--the extent to which issues and topics were related to one another, allowing new understandings to be developed and enriched over time. The second had to do with the conventions for participating in the conversation: Curricular conversations gained coherence from a stable set of expectations about the roles of the participants, the issues that were considered discussible, and the kinds of argument and evidence that would be accepted as convincing. These underlying domain conventions vary greatly from discipline to discipline, and even within subareas within the same school subject--they define genres of speech and writing (Bakhtin, 1986) that govern all aspects of participation. (See also Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; Grossman & Stodolsky, 1995; Herrington, 1985; Langer, 1992; McCarthy, 1987.)

The Interdisciplinary Continuum

What happens, however, when traditional discipline-based activities are replaced by integrated or interdisciplinary approaches to instruction? Such approaches have been widely advocated in recent years(Beane, 1997; Jacobs, 1997; Tchudi & Lafer, 1996) but have been difficult to evaluate, in part because they include a wide variety of different configurations of curriculum and instruction. At one extreme an interdisciplinary team may be used simply to describe an organizational approach in which a set of subject area specialists (usually math, science, language arts, and social studies) share pastoral responsibility for the same group of students but develop and teach their disciplinary curricula independently. In such cases, the curricular conversations that are developed remain firmly within the traditional subject areas. At the other extreme, an interdisciplinary team may develop and plan a totally new curricular domain that draws on concepts and addresses issues that span or even go beyond those of any of the contributing subject areas. Entirely new conversations may result, as, for example, in environmental studies.

At the Center on English Learning and Achievement, we have defined an interdisciplinary continuum that highlights some important variations from one program to the next (Adler & Flihan, 1997). As depicted in Figure 5.1, at one end of the continuum are curricular domains that simply correlate related subjects: Literature may be correlated with history, for example, by teaching both chronologically. In these cases the curricular conversations that take place in each subject will proceed quite independently of one another, each illuminating different facets of the shared superstructure (the history, arts, and literature of the Middle Ages, for example). In the middle of the continuum are curricular

domains in which important concepts are shared across disciplinary fields, though discussions continue to be located within one or another of the independent disciplines. Social studies and English classes, for example, might both explore concepts of justice during the Middle Ages. At the other end of the continuum are reconstructed curricular domains that merge concepts and understandings across disciplines in order to create curricular conversations that go beyond disciplinary boundaries (as in the New Historicism, which would merge the discourse of history and literature in the Middle Ages in a way that moves beyond the meanings typically constructed in either field).

The interdisciplinary continuum as presented in Figure 5.1 is an abstraction that can be helpful in program planning and evaluation, though we are finding that in practice different parts of a curriculum--and different participants in an ongoing course--may fall at different points along the continuum. In some of our case studies, the curricular domain has shifted over the year from correlated toward reconstructed--and sometimes sharply back again toward the end of the course when external examinations (almost always disciplinary in focus) begin to loom.

The present chapter draws on one extended and several shorter examples of interdisciplinary curricula drawn from our studies. Using case study methodologies, we have studied individual classrooms over extended periods of time, exploring through interviews with teachers and students, classroom observations, and analysis of classroom work the ways in which curricular conversations were defined and enacted within each classroom (see Applebee, Burroughs, and Stevens, 2000; Applebee, 1996; Stevens, 1999; Burroughs, 1999).

In the examples that follow, all of the teachers involved felt that they had successfully aligned a variety of disciplines to create a more coherent environment for teaching and learning. As we will see, however, in each case there are significant questions about how successful these curricular domains were in fostering coherent and cumulative conversations.

Interdisciplinary Conversations in a Fifth-Grade Team

Our first example is a fifth-grade team working to create a curricular domain that would represent shared knowledge on our continuum. Matt Grey and Ernie Green worked as a team with about 50 students at White School in Riverhill, New Jersey. (All names and places are pseudonyms.) Grey was the language arts and social studies teacher; Green was the science and math teacher. Typically, the students had two hours of language arts/social studies per day and two hours of science/math per day, although that varied depending on how each teacher had structured a particular unit. In addition to creating separate language arts/social studies and science/math curricula, Grey and Green also created "team units" where students integrated all four subjects. Within these units, the curriculum was organized to highlight shared concepts across the subject areas.

Conversational Domains in Language Arts and Social Studies

In Grey's language arts/social studies curriculum, social studies drove the conversations, perhaps because Grey was trained as a high school history teacher. In an early interview, Grey was explicit about his intent to let social studies drive the curriculum:

I just want them to develop [a] kind of process. I’m also using language arts to build understanding in science and social studies. The students are reading historical novels . . . [and] gain insight into the characters . . . and they are also understanding the time period more than just reading the textbook. (Interview, October 6)

Though Grey had a language arts curriculum apart from social studies, the study of novels was embedded within historical conversations, rather than literary ones, raising issues of what is lost, as well as gained in such combinations.

There were two major conversational domains in Grey’s social studies curriculum. The first concerned Colonization, the second, the Revolutionary War. We will use Colonization to illustrate how this classroom worked.

Colonization.   From September to March, Grey’s students talked about colonization and colonial life in various ways. As a backdrop to colonization, they began by studying various Native American tribes and tribal life, discussing such topics as what makes a society, divisions of labor, living conditions, gender roles, and "discovery" as a relative term. From Native American societies, students moved to talk about different regional colonies. They compared the English and Spanish colonies; they studied the "lost colony" of Roanoke, Virginia; they studied the southern colonies; they studied the Puritans. As they talked about each different region, they applied many of the concepts they had discussed in relation to Native Americans.

The whole conversational domain was framed by a fairly elaborate software package entitled "Decisions, Decisions: Colonization" (Tom Snyder Productions, 1996). Using video, print, and computer software, this simulation guides students through some of the decisions involved in founding a colony. During the course of the simulation, they run into a native population, they don't find energy sources, and they struggle with the pressures exerted by return-hungry investors.

Students played this simulation about half way through the fall semester after they had studied Native American tribes, but before they had studied colonization. The "decisions" format became a way of focusing conversations about colonization. Grey explained his approach as:

We will speculate about what happened at Roanoke where a colony disappeared. We will talk about the theories of what happened and then we will take our criteria from "Decisions" and apply them to Roanoke and other colonies. (Interview, December 21)

At the end of March, when Grey moved away from topics of colonization, he had his students run the "Decisions, Decisions: Colonization" simulation again. His intent was to see how their notions of colonization had changed with the benefit of real historical data to reference:

[Students] gain a bit of a historical perspective from the book that comes with the software. . . . Then we are going to go into the textbook and cover all the topics we talk about in "Decisions," using them as criteria for judging the decisions the other colonists made. . . . At the end of the program they evaluate student decision-making and give certain scores. We will save the scores and then two months later see how we do with the historical perspective. It is one of those few times when you can actually show the kids how a historical perspective can help make decisions. (Interview, December 7)

It is important to note here that the simulation was not a substitute for the study of history. Rather, it was a place to begin the study of history by providing students a frame for their conversations about history, though admittedly a frame that stresses using history for other purposes.

Language Arts.   Grey often integrated the language arts part of his curriculum with the social studies curriculum. For example, almost all of the novels that students read through the year were tied to themes developed in the social studies curriculum. Novels like Squanto, The Double Life of Pocohontas, and Constance, for example, were read during the early units on Native Americans.

Grey did think of himself as having a separate language arts curriculum, however, and here he focused on what we have called “domain conventions”: These are the strategies and ways of knowing that are appropriate within a given conversational domain. As he explained in an early interview:

The main thing I want to stress this year is active reading strategies, where students are really thinking about what they are doing, thinking about the reading process. Doing some predicting and previewing before they read, developing guidelines or deciding what they want to know, and using that as a guide throughout the reading so they are not just reading words but they are searching for something. (Interview, October 6)

Strategies like predicting, making inferences, and drawing conclusions were highlighted for the students to help them become more expert participants--in their reading, writing, and discussion. Grey tied this focus on process to the social studies curriculum as well. He was most interested in getting his students to see "processes" involved in studying history:

I'm getting them used to the way to study history and historiography basically. What types of materials are primary and secondary sources and how to look at things and debate them. . . . My main concern is that they look at historical fiction as a source to gain insight into characters’ views but also look at things like the electronic encyclopedia, biographies and straight textbooks and really be able to draw their own conclusions. (Interview, March 31)

As with the simulations, Grey used the novels as an aspect of his social studies curriculum, not as a substitute. For example, in the colonization conversation students read a letter from Columbus to a Spanish friend. Grey framed the conversation to focus upon the issue of reconciling an author’s perspective in interpreting documents.

Though the novels were integrated with the social studies conversation, they were also dominated by the conversation and limited by it. The focus was almost entirely upon the novels as settings for historical events and as contexts for imaginative insights into past lives as they were represented in fictional characters. Grey also often paired the reading, writing, spelling, and grammar activities of the language arts curriculum with the social studies unit.    

Conversational Domains in Science and Math

Green’s integration of the science and math curricula mirrored Grey’s approach to social studies and language arts: One subject, in this case science, drove the curricular conversations, but throughout, Green maintained a consistent emphasis on the conventions that govern scientific conversation, emphasizing what he called "learning how to be a scientist." In fact, this emphasis on the processes of science and mathematics provided the underlying coherence within his curriculum.

In the wrap-up interview at the end of the year, Green addressed specifically the problem of content and process. He emphasized the critical thinking and problem solving that his curriculum was intended to foster:

Yes, there are certain fundamental truths, certain fundamental formulas in math, especially in the elementary level, that are very important. . . . [But] at our level we either get them very excited about continuing with science or we turn them completely off to it. So being able to act like a scientist, first of all they learn better and secondly it builds an excitement for learning. . . . Knowing where to find the answers is more important in science now. So we are doing less things now but we are doing them better. (Interview, June 14)

It is worth noting here that Green, like Grey, construes his subject matter more broadly than science or mathematics. As Grey seemed to stress a more generic group of thinking skills than “historical thinking,” Green here also stresses a more general kind of critical thinking or problem solving than a specific form of disciplinary thinking. Given their goals, it is not surprising that neither Grey nor Green were conducting disciplinary conversations in their fullest sense.

Integrating Conversational Domains

Grey and Green further integrated their curricula in special units that they created in tandem. A unit on Exploration is a good example. The unit lasted about 3 months, focusing on 3 different explorers, one each month. The first month focused on Columbus; the second on Matthew Henson, an African American colleague of Perry's; and the third on astronaut Sally Ride. The exploration unit as a whole had strong ties to the social studies conversations about colonization. Topics such as "exploration," "discovery," and "clash of cultures" were often discussed within the colonization domain. The integration that they achieved is evident in the projects and activities created for the Columbus unit. In one project, the students created "boats" out of a 6-inch-square piece of aluminum. They were told to create the best flotation device to hold a "treasure" of pennies. The boat that held the most pennies was the winner. The project was based on the idea that Columbus's ships had limited space and that bringing back treasure to Spain was a primary goal of exploration. Green commented that this was also a good lesson in surface tension. He also had students compute the range, median, mode, and mean number of pennies in each class. As Green explained,

The range, mode, and median became meaningful because they began to realize things like, the average [mean], wasn't just a term. It meant something to them because now, "I fell below the average.” Also the range. If they saw they were in the low range, who brought the average down, who brought it up. (Interview, October 7)

In terms of our interdisciplinary continuum, Grey’s and Green’s curricula are a good example of an emphasis on shared knowledge, where the disciplines are distinct yet mutually supportive. In this case, the strongest connections had to do with the conventions underlying the curricular domain--the shared concern with appropriate strategies and processes. Other parts of the curriculum reflected what we have called correlated knowledge, as when Grey used stories by and about native Americans in conjunction with the study of the period of colonization.

Some Other Examples of Integration

Grey’s and Green’s emphasis on processes of understanding created a context in which the work going on in four separate disciplines reinforced some conversations but neglected others. In this section we will discuss three additional examples: An integrated kindergarten curriculum where the disciplines did not play a significant role; a correlated first-grade curriculum where the interdisciplinary ties sometimes interrupted rather than reinforced the curricular conversation; and a correlated fourth-grade curriculum in which the connections among subjects were evident to the teacher but went largely unnoticed by the students.

All of these classes were part of the Rockville (New York) Academy of Arts, a magnet school with a curriculum that focused on art, music, and the study of languages. The school served a multicultural student body: 48% of the students were classified as white, 44% as African American, 6% as Hispanic, and the remainder as Asian.    

Extending Everyday Concepts

Elba Gomez taught a full-day kindergarten class of 21 students, basing her curriculum on the language arts series adopted by the district.  This was organized around themes drawn from children’s everyday knowledge and experiences, including such topics as “All about Me” (focusing on self-awareness, names, feelings), “Family” (families, relationships), “Color is Everywhere” (color awareness), and “In the Barnyard” (barnyard animals, rural areas).

Gomez introduced 16 of these themes over the course of the school year, using them as the focus for conversational domains that integrated work in all subject areas. As Gomez described it,

If the theme is ‘Family’ or ‘Pumpkins’ or so forth, all the books will be based on that theme, and then I’ll try to extend that to the other areas such as math and science. For math . . . we could graph how many members are in a family, where the child falls in that family, if they be youngest, the oldest, and so forth, and we try to make it more natural for them to learn. (Interview, October 26)

Focusing on everyday, familiar experiences, the kindergarten themes elaborated upon these experiences by generating as wide a variety of connections as possible. Gomez talked about how she planned her activities for the theme ‘Color is Everywhere’:

Our theme right now is colors, so during literature . . . we’ll do color books, color poems, color songs. During art, we’ll do color mixing. During social studies, we can read about an artist, and talk about the colors they use, and so forth, so what I’ll try to do is use that same theme throughout the curriculum and integrate it so everything we do kind of ties together. (Interview, November 6)

Gomez organized her classroom around learning centers (e.g., writing, housekeeping, blocks, art, math and science, reading, listening, and the rug--6 at a time, with the topics changing somewhat over the year). Students were broken up into six different groups, and each group would get to spend 15 or 20 minutes at each center and then be rotated. Activities at each center were tied to the theme. During a theme on pets in April, for example, we observed the math and science center set up to make pets with paper towel rolls and other materials (feathers, straws, paper). The reading center had books about animals; the writing center had posters about animals, divided into land, air, water, and underground animals--students cut pictures from magazines to complete the posters, or drew their own pictures and wrote about them. There was also a pet shop where students role played buying and selling as shopkeepers and shoppers.

Integration of this sort adds depth to children’s everyday knowledge and provides a context for many separate reading, writing, and discussion activities. It provides a sense of coherence to these activities, but does little to promote conversations with any continuity over time. Instead, the curriculum remains a collection of relatively isolated conversations and activities, each related to the common topic but not related in any fundamental way to each another. As Jacob, a student in Ms. Gomez’s class, described what they had done during the last theme of the year: “Learn stuff about bears. . . . Like we made a bear. And yesterday we got to bring home the Three Little Bears thing. And we got to do all different kinds of stuff. . . .”(Interview, June 7)

Although the teacher labeled the various activities in her classroom with traditional content-area labels (math, art, reading, social studies), the focus remained on familiar concepts drawn from the everyday world--“stuff about bears.” Many of the subject area associations the teacher made were arbitrary, as when she associated reading about an artist with social studies. Because such curricula do not reflect any systematic approach to subject area knowledge, it seems best to follow Gardner and Boix-Mansilla (1994) in treating them and the conversations they foster as pre-disciplinary rather than interdisciplinary in emphasis. Such curricula may provide an appropriate transition from the conversations of the home to those of the school, but they seem different in kind from curricula that reflect systematic understandings. Indeed, framing such a curriculum as interdisciplinary confuses rather than clarifies what is happening.  It leads, for example, to questionable associations between particular activities and their supposed disciplinary roots (reading about an artist as a social studies activity, for example).

Correlations that Interrupt Conversation

Although cross-disciplinary connections are designed to enrich and strengthen students’ understanding, this only happens when they are planned in a way that supports rather than interrupts the curricular conversation. Martha Holmes’ first-grade class of 25 provides an example of the difficulties that sometimes arise.

Holmes saw literature as the foundation of the curriculum, “the main thing that has to be discussed and taught in school. Literature does not stop or start with language arts. Again it is across the board” (Interview, November 30). Holmes used the themes in the literature series provided by the district to define her conversational domains, and rearranged the units in her science and social studies materials to correlate with those in literature. This meant, for example, that Holmes ignored the internal order of a social studies curriculum that began with the self and worked its way out to the world, placing the various units instead where they worked best with the sequence of themes in the language arts series.

The kinds of relationships that resulted were evident in the activities and discussion around Judy Delton’s Two Good Friends. Holmes correlated this language arts selection with social studies work on “Friendships, chores, responsibilities, environment . . .,” science on “Food, day/night, weather, environment . . .,” math on writing “cookie/friendship recipes, fractions, measurement,” and writing (“Write about a good friend. Make cookies or something you like to share with your friend and bring it to class.”). By using the language arts stories for the entire year as the frame, she was able to juggle the units and concepts to be covered in the other curriculum areas so that by the end of the year, she could feel confident she had covered all of the curriculum in all of the subject areas (Interview, June 7).

This approach, while covering the various curricula in a relatively systematic way, created problems of its own. The first stemmed from the somewhat tenuous connections that sometimes resulted from rearranging curricula that had originally been developed and organized with quite different concepts in mind. The stretch from friends to food to environment around “Two Good Friends” is typical of the kinds of extrapolations that were necessary, producing conversational domains in which some of the between-subject connections were strained at best. In the classroom, this created real discontinuities and distortions in the conversations that resulted. For example, in another series of lessons, the curriculum was correlated with “Beatrice Doesn’t Want To,” a story about a girl who doesn’t like to read and is unhappy about going to the library with her brother. The social studies activities that were linked to this story had to do with “Buildings, historical sites, businesses, services offered. . . .” The following excerpts from our field notes describe the lesson that resulted.

[After some preliminary vocabulary and spelling work, Holmes began just after 9 a.m.] to talk about the story and the library and how the library is the place that everyone can go and use. Then she asked the children about other buildings a town or city has for people and wrote them down on the board. She then shows them a sheet of a town with streets and different buildings and tells them they will do that sheet later on. . . . She then asks what is important for Ms. Holmes to ride around on the streets. Students reply:

S1:   A stop

S2:   A light

S3:   A sign

She then tells the students they were right about signs. She then continues to talk about signs and says that a stop is like a period, a yield is like a comma: “You have to slow down.” She then draws a “no smoking” sign on the board.

[The no-smoking sign is the beginning of an activity in which the students draw and write about their own “don’t wants.”] Ms. Holmes says they are doing this activity because they are reading the story “Beatrice Doesn’t Like To.”

At 11:15 she sums up the activity and relates it to the story they are reading and to signs. She then talks about signs. (Cruz, Classroom observation, March 14)

Although the teacher was clever in constructing transitions as she moved from one part of this lesson to another over a two hour period, the materials she was covering from the social studies curriculum were not related in any fundamental way to the story the class was reading or the writing they were doing. The continuity Holmes created was an artificial one that did not help the students enter into the conversation; indeed, the resulting class discussion was largely monologic (Nystrand, 1997), with students limited to giving brief answers at the points that Holmes had scripted.

This kind of correlation also resulted in some confusion on the students’ part about what they were studying and how it related to anything else. In interviews, they had a clear sense of what they were doing for reading and writing, but had trouble talking about science or social studies. Danny told us that they spent the most time on science, social studies and math because

Danny: Ms. Holmes mixes science, social studies, and math all up. . . .

Cruz: How do you know she mixes them all up?

Danny: Because she told us. . . .

Cruz: What is mixing it up and how does she mix it up?

Danny: I don’t know how she mixes it up she just mixes it up. (Interview, June 8)

Danny’s “mixes it up” is an ironically accurate description of how Holmes constructed her curriculum, as she struggled to find connections among curricula originally written with very different curricular conversations in mind. Although it is clear that Holmes intended her interdisciplinary curriculum to enrich the concepts and understandings of the individual disciplines by building on connections among them, the gap was too large and the resulting conversations were sometimes simply “mixed up.”

Correlations that Get Lost

In any classroom, curricular conversations operate at several different levels: As a formal plan for what will be discussed, as a set of activities and experiences that are negotiated among teacher and students, and as a set of understandings that students come away with. Although ideally there will be an obvious and natural connection among these versions of the curricular conversation, that is not always the case: Conversations that frame the teacher’s planning may not be enacted in the classroom, and things that seem obvious to the teacher may go unnoticed by the students. (Conversely, students may make connections and create conversations that the teacher had not thought of.) Intended conversations across disciplines are as liable to these kinds of slippages as are other aspects of the curriculum. Victoria Winters’ fourth-grade class at Rockville Academy of the Arts illustrates this kind of problem.

Winters was responsible for teaching language arts, social studies, science, and math to her 25 fourth-graders; they had other teachers for a variety of other subjects. Winters sought to correlate the various subjects she taught around five themes that were explored in turn during the school year: Learning about Nature; The Iroquois; Children Respond to Adult Problems; Special Abilities; and Reading Books for Skill and Pleasure. As the titles suggest, the subjects that could be integrated easily varied from theme to theme. The curricular domain for the study of the Iroquois, for example, drew primarily on social studies and language arts. Planned activities included readings on early America and the Iroquois from the social studies text, Indian legends and tales (collected from the library) that students read and retold to the class, a visit from an Iroquois story teller, vocabulary lessons around words drawn from the theme, activities in which students made birch bark baskets and their own dioramas of Iroquois life, and a culminating presentation to parents.

Winters was aware that connections could be strained, and saw no reason to force them:

I just feel like it’s quite enough that I can bring the language arts and the social studies together--and from things I’ve read--I mean the way they would bring the math in is to say you know there were seven Iroquois braves and three you know how . . . (laughs). I feel I can make better use of my time than to recreate math problems using those vocabulary words. (Interview, December 8)

With other themes, other subject areas became part of the domain. In planning “Learning about Nature,” for example, Winters included science activities on green plants, social studies lessons on land and climate, and math activities collecting information from graphs. Instruction in subjects that did not fit well with the theme of the moment continued, but (unlike Martha Holmes) Winters did not stretch to make connections when they did not occur easily and naturally in the material to be covered.  

Yet in spite of the careful correlations between subjects that Winters laid out in her planning, the conversation broke down into separate subjects in the classroom itself. Although activities within the separate subjects were linked by topic to the overall theme, in the classroom there was little writing or discussion across subject boundaries. Separate textbooks (or sometimes trade books) were used for each subject, in separate time periods, and discussions remained focused on the activity at hand. Winters clearly saw her curriculum as cumulative and reinforcing, but the conversations that were enacted undercut her larger goals.

In interviews, the students in this class saw little connection among the subjects, responding to a question about what they were studying with a list--science, social studies, math, reading--and an elaboration of the current activities within each subject. The correlations that Winters carefully built in were rarely articulated as the curriculum was enacted, and thus never became part of the conversations in which the students were involved. After talking with Kathy about the different activities she had been doing in Ms. Winters’ class, for example, we asked her if any of them were related:

Kathy: Well in Spanish and Music you can sing songs in Spanish. I think that is it.

Cruz: Do you think reading and writing are related?

Kathy: Well you have to know how to read to write and you need to know the alphabet to write words and sentences. (Interview, December 19)

In a similar interview, Alvin was less willing to be led:

Cruz: Have you noticed any connections or relationships between the activities?

Alvin: No.

Cruz: Like is reading related to social studies or is reading related to writing?

Alvin: No. (Interview, March 27)

In this case, between-subject correlations that provided some sense of coherence to the curricular domain during the teacher’s planning did not carry over into the curricular conversations that the students experienced. Presumably the benefits that are claimed for interdisciplinary curriculum did not carry over either.


In these examples, we have used the concept of curricular conversations to sort out some of the complexities that arise in interdisciplinary curricula. By one set of criteria, all of these curricula could be considered to be interdisciplinary, and in the casual vocabulary of the classroom (in which school subjects and their disciplinary roots are rarely disentangled) all of the teachers certainly considered them to be so. Subject areas were aligned in a variety of ways in the teachers’ plan books and activities, and related concepts, processes, or themes were introduced in parallel across the subject areas. On the other hand, if we judge interdisciplinarity in terms of the conversations supported by the curricula, the picture looks very different. As Matt Grey and Ernie Green worked to develop shared knowledge across disciplines with their fifth-graders, the conversations that they generated tended to use one subject to support and enrich the other (language arts to support history; math to support science). Martha Holmes and Elba Gomez, in their attempts at correlated curriculum, similarly used the framework from one subject (in their cases, literature) to structure the curricular domain, subordinating other subjects to it. The particular choices made by these teachers may have resulted from their own interests and academic majors, but the subordination of one discipline to another is a frequent complaint in such combinations (for reviews, see Adler & Flihan, 1997; Applebee, 1974).

On the other hand, Matt Grey and Ernie Green were quite successful in engaging their students in conversations about parallel processes of understanding within the four subjects they taught, helping students enter into meaningful conversations in a variety of domains. The development of these conversations was supported by a shared emphasis on the domain conventions appropriate to each subject, in particular the ways of making sense in social studies, science, language arts, and mathematics, as well as on broader processes of problem solving that the teachers saw as holding in common across these domains.

Focusing on curriculum as a domain for conversation, rather than on curriculum as body of knowledge or content, also highlighted some of the ways that well-intentioned efforts to make connections among subject areas can sometimes work against coherent curricula, disrupting conversations or serving to organize material for the teacher without making the connections evident to the students. Thus, Martha Holmes reorganized all of the content from her language arts, science, and social studies curricula into thematically related units, but because she was focusing on curriculum as content she was unaware of the extent to which her rearrangement worked against coherent conversations within and across the contributing disciplines. As a creative and energetic teacher, she carried her class with her, but it took immense effort because she was working against the very structures she had created to make teaching and learning easier.

Other issues raised by these case studies have to do with the notion of disciplinarity itself, its relationship to subject areas, and the ways in which disciplinary knowledge evolves over time. School and college subjects are at best loose amalgams of disciplines: science, math, English, and social studies have many contributing disciplines with different histories, vocabularies, and ways of gathering evidence and validating claims. In elementary school classrooms such as those discussed here, much of the effort is directed toward developing broadly-based literacy and language skills that provide students with the resources to enter into new conversations that go beyond the knowledge they bring from home and community, but the alignment with disciplines is very general. Even in the fifth-grade example, where the subject area frames are most distinct and even taught by separate teachers, the underlying emphasis on general strategies of language and learning is very evident.

One way to view the development of disciplinary understanding across the school and college years is to see it as the elaboration and differentiation of increasingly specialized genres of language use (Bakhtin, 1986), genres which carry with them a wide range of expectations about appropriate content, use, and organization. These genres (“discourses” in James Gee’s [1996] sense) evolve out of the genres of home and community as students learn to participate appropriately in the conversations of ever more specialized academic domains (Applebee, 1996). From this perspective, the simple explorations of elementary school science, math, social studies, and language arts can be seen as legitimate precursors of the highly specialized disciplinary and interdisciplinary explorations of the graduate school and university, in a developmental process in which, for example, the genres of elementary school science will evolve into those of high school biology, physics, and chemistry, and those in turn into the highly specialized genres of such areas as spectroscopy (Vande Kopple, 1998). It is possible to superimpose interdisciplinary connections at any point in this development, but we need to be sure that we do so in ways that will strengthen students’ abilities to participate in an increasingly broad range of conversations, clarifying rather than muddying their knowledge of the conventions of language, content, and argument appropriate to the relevant genres.

In looking at these cases, we have raised more questions than we have answered, and these questions in turn remain to be considered as we examine other efforts at interdisciplinary work in elementary and secondary schools. In constructing interdisciplinary domains for conversation, it is clear that many frames for such curricula privilege one subject, and reduce the others to ‘enrichments’ that may indeed enrich students’ understandings of the superordinate discipline but that do not necessarily help them enter into the diversity of disciplinary conversations. On the other hand, given the variety of courses and teachers that students will encounter over time, such emphases may balance out, and the distortions may be more than compensated for by the motivation and enthusiasm that interdisciplinary curricula often seem to engender.

More importantly, perhaps, these cases illuminate the variety of levels on which interdisciplinary curricula function and make it clear that if such curricula are to begin to achieve the benefits that are claimed for them, they will have to be conceived from the start in terms of the conversations that they are designed to foster.


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