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Crossing the Boundary – Reading Across Disciplines

From a cognitive standpoint, the greatest disservice done to students was to compartmentalize disciplines. Yet the industrialized model of education—with separate subjects as a core principle—persists to this day.



It is beyond refute that learning is interdisciplinary; nothing happens in isolation, especially when it comes to cognitive growth and normal brain development. Healthy brains develop by making literal connections between neurons throughout the brain and body via electrical and chemical impulses and secretions (yes, in case you didn’t know, there are even neurons in your digestive tract). The formation of memories is nothing short of miraculous. It happens holistically. Increased heart rate during a stressful event encodes information in the brain and body. Viewing the cardiovascular system as separate and discrete to the brain is an illusion. This is a thought paradigm that limits medical advances. This is also a fitting analog to the current state of education. To present learning as a progression through separate subjects is wrong. In fact, it is destructive.


Despite this understanding, public schools are still structured the same way they have been for nearly a century and very little headway has been made to remedy this despite well-intentioned and theoretically sound practices.


At the end of the proverbial day, the math teacher teaches math, the science teacher teaches science, and so on. Many teachers do make heroic attempts to plan interdisciplinary activities, but these amount to a small fraction of instructional time in any given academic year. In my school, there are some excellent activities such as USO day where an entire team of eighth graders and their teachers dress in period costumes, make presentations, and do activities popular in the early twentieth century. But this happens once a year with a few weeks of lead-up time at most.


I begin the year by informing my sixth-grade students that language arts is not a subject; rather, it is the foundation for all learning. We navigate academia through reading, writing, listening, and speaking. They understand this idea readily, but they don’t always grasp the implications (especially at the middle school level). The skills learned in language arts are transferrable to other “subjects.” Students must be reminded of this and they must receive explicit instruction in how to bring a particular reading or writing strategy to bear in science, or social studies. Even mathematics has become heavily text dependent as of late. Therefore, reading in math is now an essential skill. Science, math, and social studies teachers must provide explicit instruction in applying language arts skills in their respective disciplines. Unfortunately, they are rarely trained to do so.


A two-fold shift is required to remedy this problem. One: students must be shown how to think holistically to align their mindset with current research and a more useful philosophy of learning; two, educators must abandon the artificial constraints of compartmentalized disciplines and become mutually supportive, despite the institutionalized structures that impede teaching and learning.


This is nothing new and I am not the first to deliver this message. There was a big push in the late eighties and early nineties for interdisciplinary education but we seem to have dropped the thread. Cognitive research has vindicated this approach, which is slightly ironic as it is usually educational trends which lag behind the science.


One thing has remained constant in the outdated industrial model of teaching and learning however: there is incessant pressure to deliver content. From my experience and from countless conversations with colleagues, this pressure often supersedes whatever approach is currently being touted as best practice. It is no wonder why the interdisciplinary approach never fully took root.


We have created an artificial divide between academic subjects that must be bridged. Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan asserts that readers are best served by enabling them to cross disciplinary boundaries and I fully agree.


Text coding is one such reading tool that is useful for bridging the gap. Social studies teachers can support readers in their classrooms by encouraging them to explore emotional responses to texts. Text-coding for emotional responses is particularly effective in determining an author’s purpose, identifying bias, and determining credibility in sources.


Text coding is a form of annotation where a reader draws a symbol and makes a note in the margins of a text. Text codes anchor a reader’s thoughts to the author’s words and engage student in the process of reading.


An easy way to start is to ask your students to make a list of reactions they have while reading. They may express surprise at a startling statistic or even shock. They might agree or disagree with an author’s opinion or be embarrassed by the revelation of a startling detail.

Make a master list of the best responses. Next to each reading reaction, draw a simple symbol such as a check mark for agreement or an X for disagreement. Make a smiley face with mouth agape to note surprise or shock. Your students are familiar with emojis, so use them. These are the codes.


As they read an article or text, prompt your students to text code whenever they have a reaction and write a few words as to why they reacted in a particular way. Then they should share their reactions with a seat partner before engaging in small-group or whole-class discussion.


These reactions are rich with teachable moments. The students will have done the important work of values clarification as they react to the issues and opinions stated in the articles or texts. They will have noted differences of opinion between themselves, their partners, and the author. Reflecting on their reactions will lead them to an understanding of the author’s purpose. Was the author attempting to persuade the reader (I was shocked to learn that…) or make a well-reasoned argument (the author makes a good point here…)? Emotional responses also help determine credibility: did the author feel believable, likeable, or worth reading?


Their reactions are fertile ground for discussion and reflection and they are also springboards to writing. They can formulate arguments or counter-arguments and engage in debates. They can make connections to their own lives. The possibilities are wide open.

I encourage you to explore the strategy of annotating and text-coding to assist your students in crossing interdisciplinary boundaries.