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"X" tending Your Curriculum

Thompson, Michael. (1997). "Believing the Truth IS Out There: A Science and Math School Uses Language as the Heart of Its Curricular Connections." English Journal. v86. n7. Pages 98-102. November 1997.

Reveiw and comments by Chuck Downing, Ph.D.

Did you ever read something, enjoy it, but not know exactly what to do with it? I can think back to some of my experiences in "Masterpieces of World Literature"" as an undergraduate at San Diego State University for a couple of ancient examples. However, more recently, I read an article in the National Council of Teachers of English Journal that brought back memories of Ibsen and Goethe. (Well, maybe not quite as bad as those memories, but...) I was drawn to the article by the abstract in the ERIC database. It informed me that an interdisciplinary team of teachers had decided to use the television series X-Files as a format for teaching in a math–science school. As I read, I discovered the school in question is the California Academy for Math and Science (CAMS) in Carson, California. I was intrigued as to how any teacher group might incorporate anything from that science fiction series into serious curriculum. So I read the article.

An interdisciplinary team of an integrated math teacher, a history teacher, an English teacher, and integrated science teacher involved their 130 students in the "experiment." Most of Thompson's article consists of reproductions of the actual materials used with the students in the project. (The materials are clever and complete. I would use them in a class of my own on a similar project.)

Thompson begins his article with a scathing condemnation of "truly ugly [interdisciplinary] projects on the order of Frankenstein's pathetic creature" (p. 98). He states:

In fact, we'd personally investigated a number of these unhappy though well-meaning attempts to force connections between disciplines where none truly existed, efforts usually centered around some singular literary work, historical event, or scientific discovery. But the results were rather hideous, with at least half of the disciplines involved lacking meaningful involvement with the others, despite often valiant efforts to force themselves to somehow fit together (p. 98).
I don't know of too many facets of society (besides school) where components of life are broken down into "disciplines" such as science, mathematics, and history. Most of the life we live is inherently interdisciplinary. Since I like the idea of interdisciplinary work in school, I almost stopped reading the article when Thompson drops the hammer above. However, he continues to bemoan the lack of expanded English components in such scenarios. Once I understood his complaint was discipline-based, I continued reading.
The "X–Files" assignment described in the article is this: Your mission, if the National Security Agency (NSA) allows it, is to establish an X–File on a particular realm of communication outside our normal systems of oral and written communication (p. 98).

Teams of up to four agents (students —all from the interdisciplinary cohort, but not necessarily from the same class period), were required to produce a briefing dossier. The dossier had to include 25–30 pieces of evidence including charts, photographs, a research article, and one primary source (p. 99). A list of questions was provided for students to prompt their thinking. (See Figure 1.)


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