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Inside the Classroom: Engaging Students through Interdisciplinary Collaboration

By Tonya Davis

Tonya Davis is an 8th grade English teacher at Friendship Blow-Pierce Middle school in Washington, DC. She recounts her first year of teaching Wit & Wisdom and how introducing rigorous texts in the classroom can spark engagement and learning for all students.

It was the fourth quarter at Friendship Blow-Pierce Middle School, and my classroom was full of 32 excited and energetic eighth graders: the school year was almost over! Nearly all of their graduation requirements were complete including the Science Fair, PARCC assessment, and the eighth-grade thesis paper. I felt an exhilarating sense of accomplishment. For our final unit of the year, my class would study one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

More Meaningful English

At the start of the 2015–2016 year, our school became an early adopter of Wit & Wisdom, a new, knowledge-building English curriculum from Great Minds. The curriculum came with a great library of excellent texts and lesson plans to support instruction and student learning. One of the eighth grade modules focused on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the central question, “What is love?” With this new Wit & Wisdom module at hand, I felt confident that I had all of the tools I needed. I also had the perfect hook — What is love? What budding adolescent, in mid-spring wouldn’t be interested in answering that question?

An Artistic Collaboration

The stars aligned as we embarked on our exploration of love. Coincidently, my students were also taking art that quarter, which presented the perfect opportunity to pair their artistic expression with their study A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After meeting with Ms. Silver, our school’s art teacher, we decided to work together to put on a production of Act III, Scene II of the play. We thought the comedy, imagery, and dialogue were at their best in this scene and would enable students to get into character. As our collaborative planning and students excitement increased, so did the number of visitors to our classroom. Our school’s CEO, the Friendship curriculum team, and Great Minds partners visited to experience, first hand, the highest level of student engagement imaginable.

Enthusiasm Builds

Ms. Silver and I were as excited as our students to transfer our knowledge of the text into a theatrical production. The more the set grew in art class, the more time students spent with their texts — reading closely and deeply to understand the characters and plot. As students continued to study the text, they were challenged not only to examine the idea of love outside of an emotional and personal experience, but they were also asked to explore that concept alongside notions of choice, agency, and fate. Eventually, their deep understanding of the story and characters helped them create their performance and set design. With so much excitement and buzz surrounding the production, we reached a point where students auditioned for roles in the play. The students collaborated on all aspects of developing the play, allowing all learners to participate.

A Day to Remember

Needless to say, the production was a hit — standing room only! I was so proud of my kids. As I packed up to leave for the day, one of my students rushed back into the classroom. She explained that she had left her playbill and wanted to take it home. As she dashed back out of the room, still full of excitement, she stopped and said, “Ms. Davis I am going to remember this day forever!” I couldn’t think of a better way to end the year.

This introduction to rich texts and theatrical experiences enabled my students to develop deep appreciation of the value of reading. My students love the texts in Wit & Wisdom. They gain empathy and broaden their horizons by encountering the different perspectives and experiences of the people and places featured in the texts. Wit & Wisdom is my anchor in a sea of hopes that my students can learn to appreciate the complexities of the the world and the written word, helping them succeed in their careers, college, and beyond.